On the frozen plains of Nebraska, a community is digging up its past.
Archaeologists are trying to locate a cemetery of Native American children who died while attending the Genoa US Indian Industrial School.
The Genoa school was one of a network of institutions for Native American children set up in the 19th and 20th centuries across the USA.
The Indian Industrial School at Genoa, Nebraska, United States was the fourth non-reservation boarding institution established by the Office of Indian Affairs; its facility was completed in 1884 and operated until 1934.
Their purpose was to assimilate indigenous children into the white man’s world while soldiers forcibly removed occupants from lands secured by peace treaties that were no longer convenient or, in the alternative, annihilated those people.
“These were not schools. It was a prison camp, a work camp,” said Judi Gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and member of the Ponca Tribe.
By 1926, it’s estimated more than 80 percent of Native American children were enrolled in these institutions.
The discovery of more than a thousand graves of children at the sites of former boarding schools in Canada pushed the USA to examine its own history.
Between 1819 through the 1970s, the United States implemented policies establishing and supporting Indian boarding schools across the nation.
The stated purpose of federal Indian boarding schools was to culturally assimilate Native American and Native Hawaiian children by forcibly removing them from their families. Child removal coincided with territorial dispossession, the theft of land previously promised by treaty.
In June 2021, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland ordered a comprehensive effort to recognize and expose the traumas of the troubled legacy of federal boarding schools with the goal of addressing their intergenerational impact.
Despite being a historic first assessment of the atrocities committed at the boarding schools, the report is incomplete, as it does not “include an exhaustive list of all burial sites,” identify the children in the schools, or how they died.
The report details the conditions experienced by attendees including manual labor and brutal suppression of native languages, religions, and cultural beliefs. While children were incarcerated at the federal boarding schools, many of them endured physical and emotional abuse and, in some cases, died.
The investigation found that from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states or then territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii.
The investigation identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 different schools across the system. As the investigation continues, the department expects the number of identified burial sites to increase.
“I don’t like calling these things gravesites or cemeteries. I call them crime scenes,” said Redwing Thomas, an instructor who teaches the Dakota language and culture at the Nebraska Indian Community College and for grades K-12 at the Isanti Community Schools.
Thomas described a 2020 procession that passed through the Santee Sioux Reservation along the south bank of the Missouri River, carrying the remains of nine children who died from 1880-1910 at the government-run boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
The dead children were being escorted to their traditional burial ground on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in western South Dakota.
During the procession, the vehicles and escorts stopped briefly at the Ohiya Casino outside Santee and the Fort Randall Casino near Pickstown for prayer, honoring and remembrance.
The Isanti school recently held a Day of Remembrance for the children who died in the boarding schools.
“It’s very painful, but it’s a very important part of the process to have our ancestors back. They are our grandmas and grandpas, our great-grandmas and great-grandpas,” Thomas said. “Yes, they were children at the time, but having them back now is so very important. It’s closure, it’s healing and it’s strength all wrapped up in grief. It’s a mix of emotions, and there is beauty in all of that.”
“I can’t rest until I’ve exhausted every possible avenue to find the children,” said Gaiashkibos.
“I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel,” said Haaland. “But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”