Archival Review Brings Known Genoa Indian School Death Toll to 59
By Jackie Ourada , Morning Edition Host & Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Nov. 4, 2021, 4 p.m. ·
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The Genoa Indian School in Nebraska closed in the 1930s, but the known death toll of children at the school is still growing.
It used to be a massive complex: 30 buildings on 640 acres of land. The Genoa Indian School, which sat on the east side of town, was the fourth largest boarding school for Indigenous children in the country. At one point, the industrial school employed around 500 people who lived in Genoa.
One of the people looking into the school's past is Professor Margaret Jacobs. She's the co-director of the Genoa Indian School Reconciliation Project, along with Susana D. Grajales Geliga (Lakota and Taino) and Elizabeth Lorang.
"A lot of people still don't really know about the schools, and they don't know that Nebraska had one of the largest schools in the nation," Jacobs said.
Thousands of Native children passed through the halls. They came from at least ten different states and 40 different tribal nations. Typically, not by choice.
"Native children from all over the United States were brought to Genoa, not just from our local tribes. From North Carolina. Flathead, Montana, and some of those kids died there," Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs Executive Director Judi gaiashkibos said. "And this boarding school is not like the ritzy, fancy boarding schools out east where their being was enhanced. Ours was diminished. They were destroying all these children."
As part of the project, Jacobs and her colleagues are sifting through archived documents, such as the school's student newspaper, to find records of deaths on the grounds. The history professor said they've learned of some of the deaths from people who had family members attend the school.
"Most of the schooling was not academic at all. Half of the day, they were trained to do labor. And they either labored in the schools or they labored for farm families nearby," Jacobs said.
After months of research, there's closer confirmation of how many people, mostly children, died at Genoa.
20 was the known death toll just a few months ago. Now, the number stands at 59.
"We're probably going to find more. I wouldn't be surprised," gaiashkibos said. "Will we ever know the truth? How many? But I think until we bring closure to this, we can't move forward and heal."
"I don't think the 59 children is the complete list of the children who died at the school, and we're hoping someday we'll find some sort of register of deaths at the school in the official government records, perhaps in Washington, D.C.," Jacobs said.
The lack of documentation is a problem Jacobs and others on her team keep running into when trying to find out how many children died at the institution, and how they died.
Pneumonia, tuberculosis and the flu were all commonly listed killers of those who lived in the boarding schools, but Jacobs says her team is uncovering other causes of death that are more obscure — like heart failure, which isn't common in children.
"And then some other surprising things were some accidents. We have drownings. We have a child who seems to have been either trying to hop a freight train or cross the train tracks and was hit by a freight train. We have a child, or several children who were killed by accidental guns — guns going off. And we have no idea how that would have happened. You wouldn't think there would be any guns at the Genoa Indian School," Jacobs said.
The history professor and her partners on the project have made these discoveries through documentation only. No remains have been found on the school's grounds so far.
"I think some children were probably murdered at the school — hung. There were suicides. If you look at the causes of death here, I do think some of the students did commit suicide," gaiashkibos said.
The researchers found some death notices written in old newspapers, tucked in between ads for flour and announcements for dances. Oftentimes, the names were misspelled. Causes of death were either vague or missing.
"It kind of surprises me that we're not finding them in the government records. It kind of suggests to me -- and this has been confirmed by some colleagues of mine who work on this issue -- that the government really tried to cover up these deaths. It made the schools look really bad," Jacobs said.
The team with the Genoa Indian School Reconciliation Project hopes to recover the physical remains of some of the lost children in the school's cemetery. No one knows exactly where it could be or how many burials they could find, if they can even locate it.
Maps show a cemetery near the school, but it could've been dug through when a nearby canal was put in after the school closed.
"We're expecting to find the remains of the graveyard — we hope. I mean, I think it would be better to find it than to never find it. Or alternatively, we would like to know what happened to the cemetery. We haven't been able to find it, and it's so disturbing to think that these children's graves were disturbed or that they vanished," Jacob said.
"It just seems like further insult and further assault upon them, because the boarding schools themselves were a form of assault on Indian communities. They were very harsh environments for children to grow up in."
Jacobs, her team and gaiashkibos will present the latest findings on the search for the missing graves at a panel talk on November 11.
The panel will also speak about the school's legacy and its lasting effects still felt today in tribal communities.