Search Dogs Point to Possible Site of Lost Genoa Indian School Cemetery | Omaha State and Regional News
Jim Peters leaned over the dog that was spinning around his feet.
“Go get the spirits, Jetti,” he said.
The 3-year-old blue heeler from Queensland took off, letting her nose guide her across the wet, grassy field of Genoa, Nebraska – a town of 1,000 that was once home to one of the largest Native American federal boarding schools in the states -United.
Jetti was looking for an odor that would indicate the presence of a body underground. His research partner, a German Shepherd named Rocky, had subtly pointed out to Peters the possibility of a scent in the area a few minutes earlier.
Jetti was less subtle. She focused on a patch of grass, sniffing aggressively. Then the energetic dog suddenly sat up and looked at Peters, indicating that something under the floor had caught his eye.
With help from Peters and his canine team, Samaritan Detection Dogs, researchers last week first identified a possible site for the Genoa Indian Industrial School cemetery – a potentially seismic development in the effort. continuous to uncover and heal traumas inflicted in the name of assimilation.
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Leaders of the search effort, which includes the Nebraska State Bureau of Archeology and Judi Gaiashkibos of the Nebraska Indian Affairs Commission, are far from declaring the site the official location of the lost cemetery.
But the spot closely matches that marked on a 1920 flat map, and the search team now has a solid lead in the painstaking effort to locate the graves.
The use of ground penetrating radar in nearby areas last fall yielded inconclusive results. School records and old maps indicated several possible locations, but the search team was left with a wide perimeter and few ways to narrow the search.
Now the team has a better idea of where to look, said recently appointed state archaeologist David Williams.
“Based on Jetti’s reaction, it looks like we have a result here,” Williams said.
What comes next is a combination of search methods, including more ground penetrating radar and metal detection. If graves are discovered, the decision whether or not to excavate will ultimately be made by the tribal leaders.
The existence of the cemetery has never been in doubt, but the number of children buried there and its exact location were lost to history decades ago.
The fourth federal boarding school to be built in the United States, Genoa Indian Industrial School operated from 1884 to 1934. At its peak in 1932, the school’s 640-acre campus housed 599 students, ages 4 to 22.
American institutions served as a model for Canada’s Indian residential schools, where the discovery of hundreds of Aboriginal children buried in unmarked graves drew attention to practices that historians have called cultural genocide.
Shortly after the discovery in Canada, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative. The effort led to a massive report, released earlier this month, on America’s schools.
The federal investigation has so far identified more than 500 deaths at 19 schools, although the Department of the Interior has said the number could be in the thousands, or even tens of thousands. The department has so far found at least 53 burial sites in or near US boarding schools.
At least 86 students are said to have died at the Genoa school.
As gaiashkibos watched Peters and his dogs begin their search last week, his mind was on his mother, who attended school in Genoa, and his grandchildren.
“I feel a little anxious,” gaiashkibos said, glancing at the expanse of farmland ahead of her and the rushing waters of the Canal du Loup behind her. “We are ready to try everything. It’s so important. We must exhaust all measures.
Peters and his team of dogs were among those measures.
The 66-year-old Iowa resident has been involved in search and rescue efforts with and without dogs for nearly 30 years.
He started working exclusively on cold case investigations six years ago. His team of dogs worked to locate burials dating back over 1,000 years.
Dogs are conditioned to connect their toy, a reward, with the smell of gases that remain underground long after a body has begun to decompose.
“They might be interested in, say, deer bones, but their trained response is only related to the smell of human decay,” Peters said. “It’s pretty foolproof.”
When the school closed, its buildings were demolished or sold. The city of Genoa grew over the years, the Canal du Loup was carved into the outer edge, and farmland soon filled what was once the sprawling campus.
Through it all, those who died and were buried on school grounds remained.
A bundle of sage in hand, gaiashkibos walked grimly towards the potential site. She put the package on the damp floor and stood for a moment among the small group that had gathered that morning to assist or participate in the search.
The bundle of sage held together with a bright red ribbon is perhaps the first headstone to honor the school’s dead in over a century. It is also possible that the graves were never marked.
As the gaiashkibos and others continue their search, they now have a better idea of where to look.
“It gives me hope,” said gaiashkibos.
Photos: Indian Industrial School of Genoa in the United States
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