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Remembering Genoa: Museum, digital archives preserve history of Nebraska Indian Boarding School

Posted at 7:03 AM, Jul 23, 2021

GENOA, Neb. (KMTV) — In 1860, the federal government began forcing indigenous families to send their children away to boarding schools. Over 300 were created throughout the United States, and one of the earliest and largest was in Nebraska.

Over the course of 50 years, from 1884 to 1934, thousands of students from over 40 native tribes and 10 states arrived by train in Genoa. Upon arrival their hair was cut,their native language was forbidden and many of their belongings were taken away.

Nancy Carlson, secretary of the Genoa Indian Industrial School Museum said the goal of the school was to have the children assimilate into the white, Eurocentric culture.

"'Kill the Indian, save the man' was kind of like that theme there," Carlson said.

At the school, which consisted of 30 buildings on a 640-acre campus, the children were taught skills like sewing, tailoring, cooking, nursing and much more.

For some, especially nearing the schools end in the Great Depression, the experience was pleasant.

“I will say, some of the former students who came back, they said this was some of the best times of their lives," Carlson said.

But for others, they returned to a home that no longer felt familiar. Carlson recalled the story of Sid Byrd, whose grandparent sent him to the school at just six years old.

Carlson said the federal government would only fund trips home every three years for students, so Byrd did not see his family for quite some time. He shared with the museum his memories of returning home.

“The train stops, he runs off the train," Carlson said, recalling the story. "And then it hit him, he had forgotten his native language and only spoke English and his grandparents only spoke Lakota.”

Susana Grajales Geligas who teaches Native American Studies at UNO and is co-director of the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project out of UNL, said the effects of these boarding schools still resonate in native communities.

“The U.S. Policy on boarding schools was perhaps most devastating on native cultures because it took the language away," Grajales Geligas said.

The digital reconciliation project is gathering documents and written accounts of students that were scattered across the country. They want to share them with those who don't know the history and help Native people learn more about their ancestors.

Geligas herself is a member of the Lakota tribe and has found documents related to her own family.

“The beauty of this project and what’s helped me to just kind of hang in there and really want to connect with the community is to give this piece of history back to the people that it belongs to," Geligas said.

Both the project and the museum want to make sure the history of Genoa is not forgotten.

“These are stories," Geligas said. "These are individual people’s stories of children who didn’t have a voice.”

They say the recent news of mass graves at other boarding schools has motivated them to keep Genoa from fading and to uncover more of its history, specifically locating the school’s cemetery.

They're hoping efforts by U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland will help the museum run by volunteers to get answers quickly.

“We want the federal government to come out and search the records so we can find out where it is and who is buried there," Carlson said.

The Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project released this statement regarding the recent discoveries:

"The Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project conveys our wishes for healing and justice to the Indigenous peoples of Canada in the wake of ongoing discoveries of mass graves of Indigenous children on the former sites of Canada's Indian residential schools. We are grateful to U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland for launching the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative, the first major federal investigation into the U.S. government's Indian boarding school policy."

On August 14, the museum will be hosting a Recognition and Remembrance Celebration to honor the students who were there and their descendants. The public is invited to attend the event to learn more about the history.

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