Researchers Identify Dozens of Native Students Who Died at Nebraska School
On the edge of town in Genoa, Neb., a stone monument serves as a gravestone on the grounds of a government-run boarding school for Native Americans that has been shuttered for almost a century.
No one knows how many students died there, at the Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School, though thousands are believed to have passed through its doors. Government documents have proved elusive or obfuscate an accurate death toll. Graves have not been found on the grounds.
But, using digitized government records and newspaper clippings, researchers recently pieced together part of the history of the Genoa School, which operated from 1884 to 1934 and once sprawled over 30 buildings and 640 acres.
The researchers confirmed that at least 87 children died at the school, and identifying 50 of the students, whose names have not been made public. The true death toll is probably much higher, they said.
The research effort, titled the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project and reported on last week by The Omaha World-Herald, adds momentum to an international reckoning with the mass forced relocation of Native American children to boarding schools, where they were made to assimilate to governments’ preferred way of life.
Experts estimate that after Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act in 1819, which authorized the government to educate Native Americans, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were sent to boarding schools operated by the government or by churches. Some never returned home.
Dr. Margaret Jacobs, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one of the Genoa project’s directors, said that it was time to confront “these really harsh histories.”
“l think when Americans hear the word ‘school,’ they think of something really positive,” she said. “It’s taken a while for Americans to realize that the boarding schools are not a benevolent institution, that they were set up to separate Indian children from their families and communities, to sever their ties.”
There were at least 367 boarding schools in 29 states, with the highest concentration in the central United States, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit established to address the legacy of the schools.
An 1885 Genoa School report said the institution, where students would also work by cooking, cleaning, farming, or learning a trade, was “the only remedy” to protect young Native Americans from “contamination of such gross immoralities” in the “wild” environments in which they were born.
There is no formal estimate of the number of students enrolled in these schools and how many perished at them, said the coalition’s chief executive, Christine Diindiisi McCleave.
“Nobody knows the true number because no one has yet fully examined the records,” she added.
In the 19th century, Canada also established mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous children. In a 2015 report, a dedicated commission estimated that 150,000 students attended the schools until they closed in the late 20th century. The report also determined that at least 6,000 students died at these schools, most from malnourishment or disease.
The schools were one example of “cultural genocide” perpetuated by the Canadian government, the commission’s report states, describing them as an institution that fractured families and identities, banning languages, social practices, and valued items.
Local groups and government agencies have continued to search for names and graves related to the schools. This year, an Indigenous community in British Columbia found an unmarked mass grave in British Columbia containing the bodies of as many as 751 people at the site of a former school. Remains were found of children as young as 3.
A month later, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced an initiative to search government boarding school sites for Native American burials. The department is analyzing government records and consulting with Indigenous communities and plans to issue a report in April, said its press secretary, Tyler Cherry.
Judi gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca tribe and the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said that it was long overdue for the U.S. to “own this legacy.” Ms. gaiashkibos, who says she uses a lowercase letter for her last name as a sign of humility, said her mother and aunts attended the school. Her office is assisting the Genoa project with a search for graves at the Genoa School site, where only one building and two barns remain.
“For so long we’ve been afraid to tell stories of genocide,” she said, adding that many in Nebraska were unaware of the Genoa School’s past. “Let’s do the whole thing and tell the whole story. I think it’s really time.”