Home » Researchers Uncover The Names Of 102 Native American Students Who Died At Nebraska Boarding School

Researchers Uncover The Names Of 102 Native American Students Who Died At Nebraska Boarding School

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Researchers have uncovered the names – but not the graves – of 102 students who died attending the Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School, a facility built to assimilate tribal children and convert them to Christianity between 1884 and 1934.

The discovery comes amid a national push to learn the true death toll at more than 300 federally-operated Indian boarding schools established across the U.S., and a search in recent weeks for a graveyard that may have been used to inter dead students at school in Genoa, Nebraska.

Margaret Jacobs, co-director of the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, told the Omaha World-Herald that some of the 102 names could be duplicates, but that the actual death toll at the school may be much higher.

‘These children died at the school; they didn’t get a chance to go home,’ Jacobs said.

‘I think that the descendants deserve to know what happened to their ancestors.’

A monument at the site of the long-closed Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School, a Nebraska boarding school that pulled students from their families and tribes and converted them to Christianity, commemorates the innumerable students who died at the facility and were buried in an unknown location, never to be returned to their families

A photograph from 1910 shows students of the Genoa U.S. Indian School in Nebraska. Researchers with the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project have used newspapers and scattered correspondences to amass the names of 102 students who died between the school’s opening in 1884 and its closure in 1934 and think that the actual death toll could be much higher

The school (pictured) enrolled thousands of children from over 40 Indian nations during its 50 years of operation in Genoa, Nebraska

At the height of its operation in 1932, the conversion facility housed 599 students between 4 and 22 years old on its 640-acre campus. This photo from the Genoa U.S. Indian School Foundation is undated

The school enrolled thousands of children from over 40 Indian nations during its 50 years of operation. In 1932, the conversion facility housed 599 students between 4 and 22 years old on its 640-acre campus in Genoa, about 100 miles northeast of Lincoln.

When it closed two years later, documents were destroyed or scattered across the country, exacerbating the task of identifying and tallying fatalities. Researchers have yet to find an official document recording student deaths.

The project has gathered information piecemeal, primarily from newspaper archives including the school’s student newspaper, Jacobs told the World-Herald. Many of the children fell victim to diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Typically, researchers wrote on the project’s website, overcrowding in these boarding school gave rise to the spread of these communicable diseases, and cemeteries were a ‘standard feature’ at the facilities.

One document among thousands uncovered, an annual report from the Genoa school’s superintendent to the U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs in 1892, gave researchers some figures to work with.

‘In February our school increased by about 140 Southern Indian children,’ the superintendent wrote.

‘Soon after their arrival, an epidemic of measles broke out; it spread rapidly through the school. At one time there were 105 in bed at once. As a sequel, we had numerous cases of lung fever, 10 of which died. With two exceptions, the deaths were all confined to two tribes. Apaches and Arapahoes.’

The names and final resting places of the children who died were not mentioned in the correspondence.

Youths at the schools were separated from their tribes, often forbidden to speak their native languages, drilled in military-style companies and converted to Christianity. Pictured are students of the Genoa, Nebraska school in 1910

The two floors of exhibits at the Genoa School Museum (pictured) include a classroom set up to look much as it did when students studied there

Using a map of Nance County from 1920, the Nebraska Commission of Indian Affairs used ground-penetrating radar in recent weeks to check three potential burial sites for the bodies of the deceased children, but did not detect any sign of graves.

Judi Gaiashkibos, the executive director of the commission and a citizen of the Ponca tribe, told the World-Herald that the lack of results was discouraging.

‘I think America needs to take these little children back home, and if we’re not able to find them, I think we need to do something to recognize that they lost their lives there,’ she said.

‘I have a lot of feelings, a lot of mixed feelings… As a country, I think there was a collective decision that this isn’t the history that we want to tell. That the truth is too painful to reveal. I think it’s time to take responsibility for that.’

Former students of the Nebraska school, researchers said, recall attending burial proceedings for classmates who died on school grounds. Multiple references to the elusive cemetery have been found in newspapers.

This photo at the Genoa school was distributed by the U.S. Department of the Interor as an effort to promote the boarding facility and its mission

Records of deadly accidents in area newspapers also contributed to the working list of dead students. One boy, the World-Herald reported, was named in a 1909 issue of the Genoa Times after he drowned.

Another student was named in an area outlet when he was hit by a freight train near school grounds, and the Columbus Journal reported that a student was accidentally shot dead on school grounds while he and another boy were playing with pistols in 1898.

In 1900, almost 21,000 Native American children – about 78 percent of all Native American children attending school in the country at the time – were living apart from their families to attend one of the boarding schools, according to the project’s researchers. Many were forced to do so by officials against the wishes of their tribes and families.

More than 60,000 students in total were placed in more than 350 such boarding schools – 83 percent of all school-aged Indigenous children – during their period of prevalence, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

The schools were designed, as the founder of Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian School put it, to ‘kill the Indian and save the man.’

Youths were separated from their tribes, often forbidden to speak their native languages, drilled in military-style companies and converted to Christianity.

Generally, academic instruction only took place for half of the school day – then, students labored at the institutions’ laundries, kitchens, farms and foundries. It was commonplace for students to be loaned out to local non-Indian families for their labor.

Tom Torlino-Navajo is pictured at the left when he was admitted to the Carlisle Indian School in 1902 and at the right as he appeared three years later

Pictured is Thomas Moore, a student of the Regina Indian Industrial School in Saskatchewan, Canada, before and after his admission

Memoirs and oral histories of the Indian boarding schools’ attendees detail exploitation and outright abuse. Rick Williams, a Cheyenne descendant and member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, told the World-Herald of his great-grandmother’s permanent disability sustained at the Genoa Indian School.

Ida White Eyes, who died when Williams was 10 years old, was one of the Nebraska boarding school’s first students in the mid-1880’s.

She was perfectly healthy at 14 years old when she was sent to live at the school. Several months later, White Eyes was returned to her family completely blind. Williams and his grandmother, Louisa Star, suspect that lye soap was rubbed into their ancestor’s eyes as punishment.

‘[A doctor] had that little light and he opened her eyes and said “Oh my God, somebody has done something to this woman’s eyes,’ Williams recalled.

Williams’ grandmother Star, who also attended the school, had a vastly different experience – she graduated in 1914 unscathed, moved on to the Rapid City Indian School and then the Colorado School of Mines and ultimately received the equivalent of a business degree.

‘You have the tale of two very different experiences,’ Williams mused.

Williams was the first documented Native American to graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a bachelor’s degree. He told the Nebraska newspaper that he was ‘shocked’ when he visited the Genoa school’s grounds in the mid 1990s.

‘There was no cemetery, and there were hints about where the cemetery was, or some suggestion that it had been covered up, but no answers,’ he said. ‘I was angry.’

Canada and Australia, like the U.S., removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them in boarding schools. However, the Project writes on its website, these nations have ‘issued apologies and made reparations… for these practices.’

Earlier this year, more than 1,300 unmarked graves were found at the sites for four former residential schools for Indigenous children in Western Canada, which led United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to start the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative.

On September 30, Canada celebrated its first ‘National Day for Truth and Reconciliation,’ a holiday meant to commemorate victims of the school system.

The Canadian government has paid out a collective $2 billion to around 90,000 of the schools’ former survivors. In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology on behalf of ‘the Government of Canada and all Canadians for the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their homes and communities to attend Indian residential schools.’

Gaiashkibos told the World-Herald that she was ‘dedicated to spending the rest of [her] life’ to finding the graves of the children who died at the Genoa school, and hopes that the slow trickle of new information about them will lead to a similar ending for the ancestors of Native Americans.

‘I’m looking to see something good come out of this,’ Gaiashkibos said.

‘Perhaps we will find some way to restore language, to restore some of the culture that was stripped from us. Also, hold people accountable. Everyone needs to learn the stories and say, America did this and we can do better.’