Digital Archive Catalogues Abuses of Genoa Indian School

Nov. 13, 2020, 1:16 p.m. ·

Genoa Indian School students in Genoa, Nebraska. (Photo by Kaylene Nieland)

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From its opening in 1884 until its decommissioning in 1934, the Genoa Indian School in Genoa, Nebraska harbored Native American children with the goal of destroying native culture through assimilation.

Now, there's a digital project that seeks to document the experiences of those who attended for future generations.

Margaret Jacobs is a professor of History and Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is co-founder of the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation project, a website that hosts an ever-expanding catalog of government records documenting the lives of students who attended the school.

The idea for building an online catalog documenting the struggles of attendees didn’t hit her until after a trip to Ottawa, Canada in 2015, when she attended the final ceremonies of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“That was the about their Indian residential schools which is their name for boarding schools,” Jacobs said. “They had gathered thousands of testimonies from first nations indigenous people in Canada who had been to the schools and had very horrendous experiences.”

At the event, the Canadian government officially recognized that their attempts to force Native American children to assimilate with western-European culture through the boarding schools decimated communities and undermined families.

Jacobs said she found the event moving. “I felt like we weren’t anywhere near there in the United States,” she said.

That thought nagged at her mind for a year until she met with a colleague from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who told her people there were creating an online archive of government documents concerning the Carlisle Industrial Indian School; the most infamous of the U.S Indian boarding schools.

Then, an idea.

“I had kind of an ‘Aha!’ moment,” Jabos said. “I was like, oh, I could be doing this as a scholar in my home state of Nebraska.”

In 2016 the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation project was born.

Over the years, Jacobs has employed several people to help with the project, including Judi Gaiashkibos, Executive Director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.

“My mother went (to the Genoa Indian School) during the 20s,” said Gaiashkibos, who expressed sadness at the situation. “Shortly after the Standing Bear trial of 1879 when we were finally recognized as humans, and here we are being taken away to this boarding school to ‘kill the Indian, save the man’.”

Gaiashkibos says the Project brings to light the many cases of abuse suffered by students, abuses many now refer to as “cultural genocide.”

“You were punished if you spoke in your language,” Gaiashkibos said. “Anything to do with your culture was punished.”

The native culture was demonized, assimilation was praised, and so it went until the Bureau of Indian Affairs discontinued the initiative.

Gaiashkibos agreed to help with the project because she believes it will stand as a sort of guide linking the abuses of the past with the disparities of the present.

Jacobs says the American government is nowhere near the type of reconciliation she witnessed in Canada but is confident it’s a step in the right direction. There’s even evidence her work and the work of others may soon bear fruit.

In September of this year, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American woman elected to Congress, introduced legislation that would seek healing for stolen Native children and their communities.