NCIA gathering input for honoring children who died at the Genoa school, dig possible by spring

Dec. 5, 2023, 6 a.m. ·

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

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No consensus has been reached on how to honor children’s remains if they are found at the Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School in Central Nebraska.

By sifting through old documents in 2021, the Genoa Reconciliation Project estimated that 100 children died at the school. Diseases were the main causes of death.

According to Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs executive director, Judi gaiashkibos, the NCIA hosted a call with 40 Native American tribes across the country last Thursday. All of those nations had youth enrolled in the Genoa federal boarding school.

“It's always challenging when you have multiple stakeholders in any negotiation I've learned in my life, but it's no different in Indian country, when you have 40 tribal nations that have different ceremonies,” gaiashkibos said. “Even within one tribe, they could have different ways of viewing spirituality and ceremonies so that makes it more complex.”

The goal of the meeting was to hear input on how to honor children’s remains that could be found on the central Nebraska campus.

It’s not clear where the children were buried, gaiashkibos said.

“We know the age, the name, the cause of death, and when they died, but we don't know where they are,” gaiashkibos said. “In the case of Carlisle, and some of the other federal boarding schools, they do know where the person is buried. But some of them don't know the names of the children. So it's very, very — it's messy. It’s — there's no rhyme or reason to this chaos.”

Genoa Excavation
History Nebraska's Mak Coufal and forensic anthropologist Brittany Walter working at the Genoa excavation site. (Aaron Bonderson/Nebraska Public Media News)

In July 2023, History Nebraska and NCIA excavated ground on the east end of Genoa, near the school. Ground-penetrating radar revealed an anomaly in the soil at that location but no human remains were found.

However, there’s hope a new location could be the answer.

“Located not too far northeast of where we were last summer, it's on the other side of the railroad that brought the children there to the stiles all those years ago in 1884,” gaiashkibos said. “So, we may have to remove topsoil and then bring back the cadaver dogs to see if that's where they might be.”

NCIA will search records and interview local citizens to learn more about other potential burial spots, gaiashkibos said.

No graves are marked on the campus and historical maps and records don’t indicate exact burial spots.

From 1884 to 1934, the Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School enrolled more than 4,300 children representing more than 40 Indian Nations, according to the Genoa Reconciliation Project.

The federal government’s goal with the Genoa school, and with the 400 additional Indian boarding schools across the U.S., was to assimilate Indigenous children into American life, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Many schools outlawed native languages and required Christian conversion. Although the school’s provided educational opportunities, students were subjected to harsh punishments and abuse.

Genoa Indian School classroom
Genoa Indian School classroom (Photo courtesy Genoa Historical Museum and Genoa U.S. Indian School Foundation)

The federal government mandated boarding schools for Indigenous children as young as five-years-old.

Two more meetings between the 40 tribes will likely occur in late January and late March 2024, gaiashkibos said

She said digging could resume once the ground thaws in the spring, which usually happens around late April to early May in central Nebraska, according to the National Weather Service.