Grave Sites of Native American Children Still Unknown at Nebraska Boarding School

Nov. 12, 2021, 4 p.m. ·

Genoa Indian School building
Former Genoa Indian School building, now a museum. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Researchers with the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project said they haven't recovered remains in their recent searches for Native American children burials on the Genoa grounds in Nebraska.

The gave that solemn update at a panel discussion on the institution's legacy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Great Plains Studies on Thursday. Judi gaiashkibos, who co-chairs the reconciliation project and serves at the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said state archeologist Rob Bozell and his team searched several sites near the school grounds and didn't find significant indication of remains.

Earlier this week, researcher Nicole Drozd uncovered documents that show at least 43 Native American children died at the school between 1884 and 1894 — the first decade the institution was in operation. Project leaders say that brings the known death estimate at Genoa to around 100.

In our report published last week, researchers said the known death toll was at 59.

The new details and the lack of a proper burial site, project leaders say, underscore the importance of educating Nebraskans about what happened in the United States' fourth-largest Native American boarding school.

"In Nebraska, there needs to be some money allocated to retell the story and not have it be a white-washed, candy-coated version," gaiashkibos said. "Tell the truth. I also think there needs to be funding for language revitalization, because they were pretty successful in destroying our language. That could be a life-changing outcome, because language is who you are."

The November 11 panel discussion on the Genoa Indian School's legacy. Panelists included Dr. Rudi Mitchell of the Omaha Tribe, Judi gaiashkibos of the Ponca Tribe, Susana Geliga of the Lakota and Taino tribes, Associate Professor Liz Loreng and Professor Margaret Jacobs.

Two panelists opened their remarks in their respective Native American languages.

Dr. Rudi Mitchell from the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and Dr. Susana Grajales Geliga of the Lakota and Taino tribes spoke about the Genoa Indian School, where some of their people may have died.

"I'm a historian and being a Native American historian is really a painful thing to do because you have to learn all of that history," Geliga said. "Working for the digital project, I'm going through these documents and I'm coming across my own family names and families of people that I know. It's a really hard thing to do."

Through the research, Geliga said she found disturbing stories, tales of treatment and details of Native American deaths.

She said she also found stories of resilience.

"My purpose is to help bring those stories to life, because all those little people need to have their stories heard. I think that's one of the reasons I've really hung in with this project."

Mitchell, whose mother attended Genoa and the infamous Carlisle Indian School, said he mostly heard the positive stories from her time at the schools.

Director gaiashkibos noted later that her family members were similar. She said she believes that Elders refrained from sharing the upsetting memories of the schools, so they wouldn't be passing along the trauma.

"[My mother] did share a couple of stories from there," Mitchell said. "When the Omaha Indian children arrived at Genoa, they were all young. When they would gather together, they would speak their Omaha language together, and when they were caught, the staff would wash their mouths out with soap."

Mitchell also recalled stories of his mother being hungry and stuffing extra food into her clothes to eat later.

"Another thing that I thought was really sad, my mother said the Omaha children would gather at the railroad tracks, all of them, and talk among themselves," Mitchell said. "They would look east, back toward the reservation, and stand there and cry. She said they wanted to go home, but they were too far away to go home."

The industrial school was open from 1884 and 1894. It's goal was simple: deconstruct and destroy the culture of Native children and mold them into the white mainstream.

"Today, I'm appalled at some of the religious institutions and the US government with how they treated us," Wright said. "No apologies. No reconciliation as far as, 'We're sorry. We did this to you.' You know, we live with this — with this historical trauma."

The project leaders said they're hoping to continue these discussions to bring more light to what happened at Genoa. So far, they say, it's working.

Tonya Gossard, from the Omaha tribe, said she found out about the event from a friend. She said it wasn't easy being in the crowd, hearing the stories from the researchers and the Elders, but, as a Native woman, she said she's glad there's more attention on the school's dark legacy.

"It's about time. I feel like we hear everything bad that happens everywhere else, but this happened right here," Gossard said. "We need to learn about that – the truth. Not just about what white people want it to look like or what it looks like on TV. It's not that. We need to know the real truth."

It was a common message throughout the night: Nebraskans don't know about Genoa.

Researchers hope their mission changes that. As they learn more about the children left behind, they want Nebraskans to listen too.