Panelist Susana Geliga speaks about why Indian boarding school’s came to be during the Genoa Indian Boarding School talk at the Center for Great Plains Studies on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

As research continues on the Genoa Indian boarding school, descendants of those who attended are sharing their ancestor’s stories about what the school was really like..

On Nov. 11, a panel was held at the Center For Great Plains Studies to discuss the story of the Genoa Indian boarding school as well as the lasting impact of the school, where Native American children were often sent to assimilate into American society.

The panel consisted of members of native tribes as well as co-directors of the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, which aims to raise awareness of these types of Indian boarding schools  and digitize records pertaining to the school. The panelists were as follows:

  • Judi Gaiashkibos of the Ponca tribe, as well as the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs

  • Margaret Jacobs, a project co-director and professor of history at UNL

  • Susana Grajales Geliga of the Lakota and Taino tribes, as well as project co-director

  • Elizabeth Lorang, a project co-director and associate professor libraries and humanities librarian at UNL

  • Rudi Mitchell of the Omaha Nation of Nebraska and Iowa, and professor emeritus of Native American studies at Creighton University

Susan Weller, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum, began the event by acknowledging UNL as a land-grant school, meaning there are campus programs sitting on “past, present and future” homelands of many native tribes.

“Please take a moment to consider the legacies of more than 150 years of displacement, violence, settlement, and survival that brings us together today,” Weller said.

Two of the panelists, Mitchell and Geliga, started their introductions in their native languages.

After introductions, Geliga opened by explaining the history behind these boarding schools and how they came to be. The boarding school in Genoa, Nebraska, was one of more than 300 schools established in the late 1800s to early 1900s. 

At one time, 78% of all Native American children were separated from their families and tribes. To break ties with their culture, many Native American students were forbidden from speaking in their native language. Many natives resisted their children being taken away from their culture, but resistance was met with punishment.

“Unfortunately, you know, that resistance was met by government force of the military, and police and sometimes outright starving people,” Geliga said. “by denying them rations that were supposed to be guaranteed to them by treaties.”

Jacobs then went on to explain how Genoa Boarding School operated in the 50 years it was open, from 1884 through 1934. She stated that upon arrival, the children were forced to cut their hair, put on military-style uniforms and forbidden to speak their native language. 

In the morning, the children were taught arithmetic and English, but in the afternoon the children were trained in different vocations. Jacobs explained that the students did the majority of the labor for the school, including preparing the food, doing the laundry, and even making their own uniforms.

“They saw this as an effective way to sever the children’s ties to their families, communities and cultures, and thus to assimilate them,” Jacobs said.

Mitchell and Gaiashkibos used the majority of the time to share stories from their mothers, who had attended boarding schools and survived beatings, isolation and intense labor. Mitchell himself went to a boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas for several years.

“She said they would gather at the railroad tracks, all of them,” Mitchell said,  and they would talk amongst themselves and look east, back towards the reservation, and stand there and cry,” Mitchell said.

Gaiashkibos spoke of her grandmother’s continual ability to fluently speak her native language, even though many natives had that ability beaten out of them at Genoa.

This panel was a part of the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project. The project finds documents about Genoa and digitizes them in the hopes of providing native families information about what happened to the children, as well as raising awareness of the existence of these boarding schools. Loranj stated there have been almost 3,000 documents published on the project’s website, with another 2-3,000 more yet to be published. 

After recounting stories and providing insight to the Genoa project, the panel ended with a poem written by Suzanne Shown Harjo, called “Children in the Meadows and Wetlands.”

“We are still here,” Gaiashkibos said.