GENOA, Neb. (AP) — The bodies of more than 80 Native American children have been buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in central Nebraska.
But for decades, the location of the student cemetery was a mystery, lost after the school closed in 1931 and memories of the once-bustling campus stretching over 640 acres in the small community of Genoa faded.
That mystery may soon be solved thanks to the efforts of researchers who sifted through ancient documents and maps, surveyed land with specially trained dogs and used ground penetrating radar to search for the lost graves.
“These kids were disrespected in my opinion and they were disposable kids that no one was talking about,” said Judi Gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs whose mother attended the school in the late 1920s. “They were hidden, buried underground, and it’s time to take away the darkness. Until we do, we have not honored those children.”
The search for the graves comes as the federal government is conducting a first-ever comprehensive survey of the national system of more than 400 Native American boarding schools. The schools and additional privately funded institutions were part of an effort to integrate Indigenous peoples into white culture by forcibly or forcibly separating children from their families and cutting them off from their heritage.
The U.S. Department of the Interior, led by Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and the First Secretary of the Native American Cabinet, released a report last spring detailing the boarding school program and citing more than 500 deaths. That number is expected to increase significantly in a second Home Office report, which examines boarding school deaths and how the forced removal of children to the schools has damaged indigenous communities.
The federal investigation has not led to the work in Genoa, but it has given the effort a new urgency.
If Genoa’s graves are found, decisions about commemorating or exhuming the remains will be left to representatives of Native American tribes, but finding the burial site alone will be an achievement for individuals who have spent years trying to better understand the tombs of Genoa. the Nebraska school.
The Genoa Indian Industrial School opened in 1884 and at its peak had nearly 600 students. More than 4,300 children attended in the decades it was open, making it one of the largest Native American schools in the country. The students received basic academic training and spent much of their time learning practical skills, such as making horse bridles for boys and sewing for girls, which were of limited value to a country in the midst of industrial transformation.
The children typically spent long, tiring days, getting up as early as 4 a.m. for chores, followed by several hours of school before spending the rest of the day working in kitchens, workshops or fields, Gaiashkibos said. Discipline can be harsh, with even young children being spanked for breaking rules.
“Absolutely, we know the kids lived in fear,” gaiashkibos said. “There were no hugs from mom or grandma. No songs were sung. Everything was foreign to them.”
Children from more than 40 tribes were brought to the school as far away as Idaho and Maine. They were forbidden to speak their native language, had their hair cut—a traumatic experience given the cultural significance of long hair for many Native Americans—and had to wear uniforms.
This one “forced confinement” of the kids in a school hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homes had a dual purpose: to destroy Native American cultures and help steal Native lands, said Farina King, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who focuses on Native American Studies.
“Above all, 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 possible.”
In Genoa, that usually meant catching a train that would stop at the school grounds, about 90 miles 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 workshop turned into a museum remains, as does a chimney towering over the community, but the gymnasium, multi-story classrooms, and dormitories are long gone, and it’s hard to imagine a major building ever built there. school has existed the small community.
The cemetery would also have been forgotten were it not for the 30 years of residents searching documents and the land around their community for the cemetery. Their efforts were boosted about six years ago by the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, which involved consultants from some of the tribes whose ancestors attended the school and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Based on newspaper clippings, superintendent’s records, a student’s letter describing a cemetery, and other documents, they determined that at least 86 students died at the school. It’s unclear whether cramped living conditions contributed to the deaths, but data shows that college students most often died from diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid and measles. There was also at least one death from accidental shooting and another from a neck injury.
Researchers identified 49 of the children who died, but were unable to find names for 37 students. It is believed that the bodies of a few children were returned to their families.
But while investigators were responsible for the deaths, they couldn’t find where the children were buried.
Interest in bringing more professionals to Genoa grew after Canada announced the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children in residential schools in 2021, said Nebraska state archaeologist Dave Williams.
“We heard from residents that they knew there were burials in the area, knowing that this was Genoa’s school cemetery, but the precise location has been lost to time.” Williams said. “We’ve heard it’s in a few different locations, but so far it hasn’t worked out.”
There were plenty of theories from residents and even former students, but it took study of maps and aerial photos to narrow down a few options. An initial attempt 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 smell of decaying remains.
Two dogs separately signaled to smell remains on a narrow piece of land sandwiched between railroad tracks, a cornfield, and a canal dug shortly after the boarding school closed. In late October and early November, a team from the National Park Service made two trips to the site, using various types of ground radar in hopes of detecting what was below ground.
The results of their study should be available later in November.
For gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, the thought of the boarding school and the search for the cemetery bring an overwhelming sense of sadness. But she said finding the burial site is an essential step in honoring the children and acknowledging what they had to endure.
“To heal, we must have answers and bring closure,” she said. “We need to know, where are those kids?”