Native American leaders visit site of archeological dig to find remains of boarding school students

Jul 10, 2023, 9:27 PM | Updated: Jul 11, 2023, 6:52 pm

Volunteer Nancy Carlson sifts through dirt as workers dig for the suspected remains of children who...

Volunteer Nancy Carlson sifts through dirt as workers dig for the suspected remains of children who once attended the Genoa Indian Industrial School, Monday, July 10, 2023, in Genoa, Neb. The mystery of where the bodies of more than 80 children are buried could be solved this week as archeologists dig in a Nebraska field that a century ago was part of a sprawling Native American boarding school. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

GENOA, Neb. (AP) — A grandmother wearing beaded necklaces of bright red, yellow and blue watched Tuesday as archeologists searched a remote site in central Nebraska for the remains of children — including her aunt — who died decades ago at a former Native American boarding school.

The search for a hidden cemetery near the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in Nebraska gained renewed interest after hundreds of children’s remains were discovered at other Native American boarding school sites across the U.S. and Canada in recent years, said Dave Williams, the state’s archeologist whose team is digging at the site.

The dig in Genoa began Monday and is expected to last through the week. Williams said they have yet to uncover any human remains.

“I came today to witness the dig because I had an aunt who died here, Mildred Lowe, in 1930, and she never came home. So I’m here to find out if they find any bones and how we’re going to go about identifying and all of that,” said Carolyn Fiscus, the woman in beads who is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

“As a tribal member and elder and grandma, I’m interested,” Fiscus continued. “I’ve got a lot of spiritual and emotional investment in this. And my mom too, who’s now passed away. That’s why I’m here.”

The school was part of a national system of more than 400 Native American boarding schools that attempted to assimilate Indigenous people into white culture by separating children from their families, cutting them off from their heritage and inflicting physical and emotional abuse.

Newspaper clippings, records and a student’s letter indicate at least 86 students died at the school in Genoa, most due to diseases such as tuberculosis and typhoid. At least one death was blamed on an accidental shooting.

Researchers have identified 49 of the children killed but have not been able to find names for the other 37. The bodies of some of those children were returned to their homes but others are believed to have been buried on the school grounds at a location long forgotten.

Judi gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca Tribe and the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, also visited the site. Her mother attended the school in the late 1920s, and gaiashkibos has been involved in efforts to find the cemetery for years.

She said it’s difficult to spend time in the community where many Native Americans suffered, but that the search can help to heal and bring the children’s voices to the surface.

“The remains are from a lot of different tribal nations. So they will be the ones that determine if they stay in the ground and if they have like a mass memorial, or if they want to try to exhume all of them and do DNA testing or anything else,” gaiashkibos said.

The school, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Omaha, opened in 1884 and at its height was home to nearly 600 students from more than 40 tribes across the country. It closed in the 1930s and most buildings were demolished long ago.

In an effort to find the cemetery, dogs trained to detect the odor of decaying remains searched the area last summer and indicated there could be a burial site in a strip of land bordered by a farm field, railroad tracks and a canal. In November, ground-penetrating radar showed it was an area consistent with graves, but there will be no guarantees until researchers finish digging, Williams said.

If the dig reveals human remains, the State Archeology Office will continue to work with the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs to decide on next steps.

Last year, the U.S. Interior Department — led by Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and the first Native American Cabinet secretary — released a first-of-its-kind report that named hundreds of schools the federal government supported to strip Native Americans of their cultures and identities.

At least 500 children died at some of the schools, but that number is expected to reach into the thousands or tens of thousands as research continues.

Sunshine Thomas-Bear, a member of the Winnebago Tribe and the cultural preservation director for the tribe, also visited the archeological site on Tuesday. She said her father was a Native American boarding school survivor, and that trauma from the institutions has rippled across generations.

“I want to help heal my people, let them know I’m watching. If anything’s found, then I will report back,” Thomas-Bear said. “It’s all a work in progress. This is one single step.”


Ahmed reported from Minneapolis. Scott McFetridge in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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Native American leaders visit site of archeological dig to find remains of boarding school students