On Monday, July 10, 2023, archaeologists began their quest in Genoa, Nebraska to solve the decades-old mystery of the lost bodies of Native American children. The dig location is suspected to be the cemetery of Genoa Indian Industrial School, a former boarding school aiming at assimilating Indigenous people into white culture.
The sprawling campus that once educated nearly 600 students from over 40 tribes from across America was operational between 1884 and 1931. Following its closure, most buildings were demolished and over time the location of a forgotten cemetery where up to 80 students are believed to be buried was lost.
Residents of Genoa have long sought this site with support from Native Americans, researchers, and state officials. Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and a daughter of one former student has been central to these efforts.
Records reveal that at least 86 students died at the school due to diseases like tuberculosis or accidents. While some bodies were returned home, others likely remained in an unknown gravesite within school grounds.
Last summer dogs trained in detecting decomposing remains signaled finding a burial site in an area bordered by farmland, railroad tracks and a canal. Ground-penetrating radar last November showed evidence consistent with graves in that area.
Dave Williams is Nebraska’s state archaeologist. He said that there are no guarantees until they can dig into the ground. If human remains are found, they will collaborate with The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. They will discuss subsequent steps including potential reburial or returning bodies to tribes.
DNA tests can potentially indicate each child’s home region. However, identifying individual tribes can be challenging.
Currently, an investigation is underway alongside the Federal government’s re-examination of the old boarding school system. This examination is led by Secretary Deb Haaland, who is both the first Native American Cabinet secretary and a member of Laguna Pueblo.