The bodies of more than 80 Native American children are buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in central Nebraska.
But for decades, the location of the student cemetery has been a mystery, lost to time after the school closed in 1931 and faded memories of the once-occupied campus sprawling over 640 acres in the small community of Genoa.
That mystery may soon be solved thanks to the efforts of researchers who pored over century-old documents and maps, surveyed the ground with specially trained dogs, and used ground-penetrating radar in search of the missing graves.
“These kids, in my opinion, were disrespected and disposable kids that nobody talked about,” said Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, whose mother attended the school in the late 1990s. from 1920. “They were hidden, buried underground, and it is time to remove the darkness. Until we do that, we haven’t honored those kids.”
The search for the graves comes as the federal government finds itself in the midst of a first full exam of the national system of more than 400 Native American boarding schools. Privately funded schools and other institutions were part of an attempt to integrate Indians into white culture by forcibly or coercively separating children from their families and isolating them from their heritage.
The United States Department of the Interior, led by Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and the first Native American cabinet secretary, released a report last spring detailing the boarding school program and noting more than 500 deaths. That number is expected to rise significantly in a second report from the Department of the Interior, which will explore deaths in boarding schools and how the forced transfer of children to schools harmed indigenous communities.
The federal investigation did not prompt the work in Genoa, but it has added a new urgency to the effort.
If the Genoa graves are found, decisions about whether to commemorate them or consider digging up the remains will be left to representatives of the Native American tribes, but simply finding the burial ground will be an achievement for people who for years have sought greater understanding of the Nebraska school.
The Indian Industrial School of Genoa opened in 1884 and at its height was home to almost 600 students. In the decades it was open, more than 4,300 children lived there, making it one of the largest Native American schools in the country. The students received a basic academic education and spent much of their time learning practical skills, such as horse bridle making for boys and sewing for girls, which were of limited value for a country in the midst of industrial transformation. .
children typically spent long and exhausting days, rising as early as 4 a.m. for chores, followed by several hours of school before working the rest of the day in kitchens, workshops or in the fields, Gaiashkibos said. Discipline can be tough, even with youngsters children facing beatings for breaking the rules.
“Absolutely, we know that the children were living in fear,” said gaiashkibos. “There were no hugs from mom or grandma. No songs were sung. Everything was strange to them.”
Children from more than 40 tribes were brought to the school from as far away as Idaho and Maine. They were prohibited from speaking their native languages, had their hair cut—a traumatic experience given the cultural importance of long hair to many Native Americans—and were required to wear uniforms.
This “forced incarceration” of children in a school hundreds and even thousands of miles away from their homes had the dual goal of crushing Native American cultures and aiding in the theft of Native lands, said Farina King, an associate professor at the University . from Oklahoma that focuses on Native American studies.
“More than anything, there was a clear agenda to cut ties between their people, their homeland, their culture,” said King, a member of the Navajo Nation whose father attended one of the boarding schools. “They wanted to get them as far away as they could.”
In Genoa, that usually meant taking a train that stopped on school grounds, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Omaha.
After the school closed, most of the larger buildings were demolished and the land sold for other uses. A two-story brick shop that has been turned into a museum remains, as does a chimney towering over the community, but the gymnasium, multi-story classroom buildings, and dormitories are long gone and it’s hard to imagine. that once a great school existed in the small community.
The cemetery would also have been forgotten, were it not for the residents who for 30 years had been searching for documents and land around their community for the burial site. His effort was given a boost about six years ago by the Genoa Indian School’s Digital Reconciliation Project, which included advisers from some of the tribes whose ancestors attended the school and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Based on newspaper clippings, records from the superintendent, a student’s letter describing a cemetery, and other documents, they determined that at least 86 students died at the school. It is not clear if nearby living conditions contributed to the deaths, but records indicate that students died more commonly from diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid fever and measles. There was also at least one death from an accidental gunshot and another from a neck injury.
Investigators identified 49 of the children who died, but have been unable to find the names of 37 students. The bodies of some children are believed to have been returned to their families.
But while investigators reported the deaths, they couldn’t find where the children were buried.
Interest in bringing more professionals to help in Genoa grew after Canada announced in 2021 the discovery of mass graves of indigenous children at residential schools, said Dave Williams, a Nebraska state archaeologist.
“We heard from residents who knew there were burials nearby, they knew this was the Genoa school cemetery, but that precise location has been lost to time,” Williams said. “We’ve heard it’s in a few different places, but so far that hasn’t worked.”
There were many theories from residents and even former students, but it took studying maps and aerial photos to narrow down some options. An initial effort to find remains using ground penetrating radar was unsuccessful, but last summer an Iowa man volunteered to come to the site with dogs trained to detect the faint scent of decomposing remains.
Two dogs separately said they smelled debris on a narrow piece of land sandwiched between railroad tracks, a cornfield and a canal that was dug shortly after the boarding school closed. In late October and early November, a team affiliated with the National Park Service made two trips to the site and used different types of ground-penetrating radar in hopes of detecting what was below ground.
Your exam results should be available by the end of November.
For Gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca tribe in Nebraska, thinking about boarding school and searching for the cemetery brings an overwhelming sense of sadness. But he said finding the cemetery is an essential step in honoring the children and acknowledging what they had to endure.
“In order to heal, we have to have answers and get closure,” he said. “We need to know, where are those children?”