TEHRAN (Iran News) – The Nebraska Commission in Indian Affairs says researchers have identified more than 100 Indigenous children who died at a notorious government-run boarding school in the Midwestern U.S. state of Nebraska. The search for the remains of the children is ongoing.
Ever since the arrival and colonization of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, white colonists made multiple attempts to eradicate the natives and their culture in the United States and elsewhere. In the U.S., this included a number of wars waged and more recently it has been revealed that for decades, U.S. administrations operated Christian boarding schools with the goal of eradicating indigenous children of their languages and culture, an operation that is strikingly (but perhaps not surprisingly) similar to Canada’s residential school system. Ten million natives lived in the U.S. when Columbus arrived and that number today stands in the hundreds of thousands today, instead of what should have been hundreds of millions.
In Canada, abuse, neglect and even rape were rampant at these so-called schools, and the Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School in Genoa, Nebraska was implementing similar strategies. By using government records, school documents and old newspaper archives the researchers have learned that at least 102 children died there between 1884, the year it first opened, and 1934, when it was shut down. Many of the kids died from diseases such tuberculosis, pneumonia, the flu and heart failure was another common cause of death – all down to medical negligence.
Judi Gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission in Indian Affairs and also a natural citizen of the Ponca Tribe, told a Canadian news host “some other strange, unusual incidents were reported as accidental shootings, drowning, spinal paralysis and a freight car accident — [not] typical happenings at most schools in the world. So, I suspect that wasn’t an accident in some cases, and some kids may have committed suicide and some were killed when they were running away from the school.”
The investigation was conducted by the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project; this collaboration involved the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Genoa U.S. Indian School Foundation, descendants of survivors, and representatives from five Indigenous tribes in Nebraska.
So far, the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project researchers have found the names of 54 children who died at the Genoa school. As for the others, they have confirmed gender, tribal affiliation and, in many cases, cause of death.
Gaiashkibos said, “we’re kind of the reverse of you [in Canada]. We have the names, the records, but we don’t have the cemetery where the children are buried.” Nobody knows how many students died at this government Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School, but fears are growing because thousands of students are believed to have passed through its gates. Government documents have proved elusive or have been obscured to reveal an accurate death toll. Graves have not been found on the grounds yet.
The researchers have begun scanning the former school lands with ground-penetrating radar. “We’re probably going to have to do more surveying, which could take a long time on a big, huge campus like this. [It’s] hundreds of acres,” Gaiashkibos added.
For that to be conducted successfully, they will need more money and calls are growing louder that the federal government provides that funding. In July the Federal Government announced plans to launch an investigation into the history of Native American church-run boarding schools; which it funded from 1819 through the 1960s. The probe announcement was only made after news emerged of the grisly discoveries of children’s remains at residential schools in Canada.
Gaiashkibos says the purpose of the government-run schools “was to assimilate us, to turn us into farmers and laborers and domestic servants, essentially. I think that’s maybe from the settler standpoint, but from our standpoint, it was, you know, to eradicate our way of life, to destroy our language and our culture and break apart our families.”
The U.S. schools were self-sufficient, so the children are said to have been expected to carry out unpaid labor to keep things running. The children were denied from going home for any holiday to visit their own family, while during the summer, Gaiashkibos says they were “farmed out to work in white families.” They were forbidden from speaking their own language and if they were caught doing so they “were beaten, deprived of food, punished, made to kneel down on the ground for hours until your legs were numb. So, it was a real, sad, lonely place.” The executive director of the Nebraska Commission in Indian Affairs views those students as casualties of a war waged by the U.S. government against Native Americans to destroy their cultures and steal their lands. She added “They didn’t want the children to have their culture. And … most of them, in many cases, wouldn’t be returning to their homelands… I see them as soldiers of the last Indian war in America, a war to steal our lands, and they used our little children. And in war, some children die. So sadly, these are those children, our soldiers that died. And we’re going to do like the American government and find those children and honor those children and bring our soldiers the honor they deserve.”
There is no official data on how many boarding schools were operating in the U.S., how many children were taken away from their family, and how many never returned home. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has conducted its own investigation and estimates there were 367 boarding schools in the U.S., that is more than double the 139 residential schools in Canada. Because of that, experts suspect twice as many children were taken away from their homes in the U.S., and that twice as many may have died.
Between 1831 and 1996, Canada’s federal government took more than 150,000 indigenous First Nation children from their families and forced them to attend church-run, government funded residential schools. Conservative figures by experts say thousands of children died at the schools, and over the last year, First Nations across Canada have been using ground-penetrating radar to locate their remains. But the records that are needed to identify those remains are largely lost, scattered among different government agencies, or closely guarded by the Catholic Church.
A national inquiry revealed the extent of abuse and neglect the children faced in those schools. The Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Commission of Canada has found evidence that 4,100 children died of disease, malnourishment, suicide and more, but says the true total is likely much higher. Many of the children remain unaccounted for.
The truth is now slowly unraveling that the story of indigenous children being deprived of their identity in such a brutal manner south of the border is pretty much the same. If the right time, energy and resources are exhausted, the U.S. administration’s investigation should reveal more details about the history of boarding schools. Washington should also, like Canada, conduct its own truth and reconciliation commission, something that will force Americans to reevaluate the country’s history. And finally current day students across the United States must be taught about those dark moments in their nation’s history, while public awareness on the matter should also be prioritized during the tenure of the Biden White House.