Mystery continues as dig fails to turn up bodies of lost Native American children in Nebraska
Mystery continues to surround the location of a lost cemetery believed to contain the bodies of Native American children who died while attending a Nebraska boarding school, after digging failed to uncover any remains.
The search for the missing children began two weeks ago, after geophysical surveys detected four anomalies — disturbances in the soil that could indicate a grave shaft — on the former grounds of the US Indian Industrial School in the rural town of Genoa, Nebraska.
Cadaver dogs had also detected the scent of human remains in the area.
The recent excavation focused around one of the four anomalies, but despite digging down to a depth of eight feet (2.44 metres), no trace of the children was found.
"You know, looking at the evidence, it just really strongly points to that location," Nebraska state archaeologist Dave Williams said.
"We felt really confident, and to just see nothing, it's confusing."
The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs has been spearheading the search for the missing children.
Executive director Judi gaiashkibos, whose mother and aunts attended the school, described the results as "disappointing", but said she was confident work would continue around the sites of the other three anomalies.
"I am committed to staying the course … Right now I have to be strong for those children who weren't protected," she said.
The US Indian Industrial School in Genoa operated from 1884 to 1934, and was one of more than 300 federal and church-run institutions designed to assimilate Native American children by stripping them of their culture.
The grim discovery in 2021 of more than 1,000 unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools in Canada forced America to begin examining its own boarding-school era.
Researchers and volunteers from the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project and the Genoa US Indian School Foundation began scouring records and confirmed at least 86 children perished at the Genoa school.
Mr Williams believes the real number could be higher.
"Based on numbers at other residential schools in the US and Canada — and given that the school was open for 50 years — I think 86 to me seems like a low number, given everything we know about all these other schools," he said.
Documents show some of the children's bodies were sent home for burial, but others were buried somewhere on the school's sprawling 260-hectare campus.
Last year, the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program filmed exclusively with the community as it began searching for the lost cemetery.
There are no living survivors of the Genoa school, but Foreign Correspondent obtained footage, which had never been broadcast, from a reunion for former students in 1990.
Students recalled being beaten for speaking their native language and being whipped after trying to run away. Others described the school as being run like "a military school".
For decades, a small United States town knew of a lost cemetery where Native American schoolchildren were buried. Then shocking news from abroad reignited the effort to find it.
James Nash, who attended the school in the late 1920s, spoke about the cemetery and said he remembered two classmates dying and being buried on the school grounds.
"Kids started dying at an early age. They had to do something with them," he explained.
"I don't think it was possible those days to send them home, the bodies. So they buried them here."
Mr Nash said he believed the deaths had been covered up.
"I think probably whoever was operating the Genoa Indian School had those records destroyed because they were derogatory to their image," he told the film crew.
Historical maps and newspaper reports from the period also confirm that a cemetery existed.
In December 2021, the first official search for the children's graves began.
Several searches proved inconclusive. Then earlier this year four anomalies consistent with the presence of graves were detected.
The recent excavation took place near a hydro-electric canal built in the 1930s, shortly after the school closed.
Mr Williams said there were some concerns that the canal could have ploughed "straight through" the children's burial site, but he has found no direct evidence of that.
"There's quite a large bend in the canal, and talking with the folks at the Loup Power District, they've said from an engineering standpoint, building a curve in the canal like that takes the momentum out of it," he said.
"And so there would've had to be a very good reason for them to adjust the path of the canal there instead of just running it straight."
However, he said there was a possibility the grave site could have been moved.
"I also can't help but wonder if they had maybe already planned to reroute the canal to avoid the cemetery, but then at some point there was also a decision made to move the children just to be safe."
Thousands of children from more than 40 tribes across the United States were sent to the school in Genoa.
Tribal leaders will now come together to discuss and decide what to do next in the search for their children who never came home.
"They're there somewhere, we know they're under the ground somewhere," Ms gaiashkibos said. "And they need to be honoured.
"I can't rest until I feel I've exhausted every possible avenue to find the children."
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