Researchers search for lost Native American boarding school graves

GENOA, Neb. — The bodies of more than 80 Native American children are buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in central Nebraska.

But the location of the student cemetery remained a mystery for decades, lost over time after the school closed in 1931 and memories of the once-busy campus that stretched over 640 acres in the tiny municipality of Genoa faded.

This mystery may soon be solved, thanks to the efforts of researchers poring over centuries-old documents and maps, surveying land with specially trained dogs, and using ground-penetrating radar in search of the lost tombs.

“In my opinion, those kids weren’t respected and they were throwaway kids that nobody talked 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 under the ground, and it’s time to banish the darkness. Until we do that, we have not honored these children.”

The search for the graves comes as the federal government is in the midst of a first comprehensive investigation into the national system of more than 400 Native American boarding schools. The schools and other privately funded institutions were part of an attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white culture by forcibly or forcibly separating children from their families and cutting off their inheritance.

The US Department of the Interior, led by Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and first secretary of the Native American cabinet, released a report last spring that detailed the boarding school program and found more than 500 deaths. That number is expected to rise significantly in a second Home Office report examining deaths in boarding schools and how the forced removal of children from schools has harmed Indigenous communities.

The federal investigation hasn’t advanced the work in Genoa, but it has lent new urgency to the effort.

When the tombs of Genoa are found, the decision of whether to commemorate them or dig up the remains will be left to representatives of the Native American tribes, but simply finding the cemetery will be an achievement for those who have spent years trying to gain a better understanding of it to attain the Nebraska school.

The Genoa Indian Industrial School opened in 1884 and at its peak housed almost 600 students. In the decades since it opened, more than 4,300 children have lived there, making it one of the largest Native American schools in the country. Students received a basic academic education 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 in a country in the midst of industrial change.

The children typically spent long, tiring days, getting up as early as 4 a.m. to do housework, followed by several hours of school before working the rest of the day in kitchens, workshops or out in the fields, Gaiashkibos said. Discipline can be harsh, and even small children get spanked when they break the rules.

“Absolutely, we know the children lived in fear,” Gaiashkibos said. “There were no hugs from mom or grandma. No songs were sung. Everything was foreign to them.”

Children from over 40 tribes were brought to the school from 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 were forced to wear uniforms.

This “forced incarceration” of children in a school hundreds or even thousands of miles from their homes had a dual purpose of destroying Native American culture and aiding in the robbing of Native American lands, said Farina King, Extraordinary University of Oklahoma professor specializing in Native American Studies.

“Above all, there was a clear agenda to break the ties between their people, their homeland and their culture,” said King, a member of the Navajo Nation whose father attended one of the boarding schools. “They wanted to take her away as far as they could.”

In Genoa, that usually meant catching a train that stopped at the school campus 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-museum survives, 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 there was once a major school there the small community existed.

The cemetery would also have been forgotten if residents hadn’t searched documents and the land around their community for the grave site for 30 years. Their efforts were boosted about six years ago by the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, which included counselors from some of the tribes whose ancestors attended the school and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Based on newspaper clippings, superintendent records, a letter from a student describing a cemetery, and other documents, they determined that at least 86 students died at the school. It is unclear whether cramped living conditions contributed to the deaths, but records show that college students most commonly died from diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid and measles. There was also at least one fatality from accidental shooting and another from a neck injury.

Researchers identified 49 of the children who died, but could not find names for 37 students. The bodies of some children are believed to have been returned to their families.

But while researchers explained the deaths, they couldn’t find where the children were buried.

Interest in bringing in more professionals to help in Genoa grew after Canada announced the discovery in 2021 of mass graves of Indigenous children in residential homes, said Nebraska state archaeologist Dave Williams.

“We heard from local residents that they knew there were burials nearby, that this was the Genoa school cemetery, but that exact location has been lost over time,” Williams said. “We’ve heard it’s in a few different places, but so far that hasn’t paid off.”

There were many theories from local residents and even alumni, but it took study of maps and aerial photographs to narrow down some 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 scent of decaying remains.

Two dogs independently signaled they were smelling debris on a narrow patch of land between railroad tracks, a cornfield and a canal 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 various types of ground-penetrating radar to figure out what was underground.

The results of their examination are expected to be available later in November.

For Gaiashkibos, a member of the Nebraska Ponca tribe, the thought of boarding school and the search for the cemetery fills an overwhelming sense of sadness. But she said finding the cemetery was an essential step in honoring the children and recognizing what they had endured.

“To heal, we need to have answers and closure,” she said. “We need to know, where are these children?”