By Emma Pratt
For well over a century, hundreds of government-funded residential schools for Indigenous children dotted the land in the United States and Canada. These children were routinely separated from their family, language, community and culture. Many were subjected to unspeakable torture, abuses and trauma. Untold numbers of children died, their bodies never having been discovered to this very day. While Indigenous groups have been calling on the governments in the US and Canada to search schools for remains for years, only recently has this dark side of North American history begun to be acknowledged, with the discovery of the remains of 215 children found in unmarked graves on the site of Kamloops Indian Residential School (Canada’s largest residential school) leading to national outrage and calls for further investigation into the sites of these residential schools. The reckoning over these children has since since filtered into the US, with a greater push than ever before to properly address the impact and dark legacy of forcible assimilation and the eradication of Indigenous culture. In April 2021, the US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the formation of a new Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS), which put pressure on the federal government to take missing and murdered Indigenous peoples seriously.
It is the hope of many Indigenous community leaders and activists that the grounds of these schools are more thoroughly examined and the children’s remains that are discovered are brought back to their surviving families to be given a proper burial. The US Department of the Interior has now begun to investigate the abuse of children at boarding school sites all throughout the US, after Deb Haaland, an Indigenous woman and US Secretary of the Interior, announced in June that they will be identifying the locations where the remains of students are buried. This investigation will be conducted through the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative (FIBSI), which will explore the loss of human life and lasting consequences of Indigenous boarding schools while identifying known and suspected student burial sites. Described as a good first step to reconciling this history by Indigenous advocates, FIBSI seeks to determine children’s identities and Tribal affiliations while consulting with various organizations such as Tribal Nations to protect the burial sites that are identified.
US states that had these institutions such as Utah are in the process of making inroads in investigating these schools and locating remains. Researchers from Utah State University, assisting the Paiute Tribe of Utah near Panguitch, Utah, have planned to use ground-penetrating radar to more efficiently locate these unmarked graves. After radar scans discovered remains potentially buried at a nearby school in Grand Junction, CO, former home of the Teller Indian School, efforts were made to look into the site more closely. According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, tribal leaders and historians claim there’s a possibility of at least a dozen Paiute children buried on school grounds near Panguitch, Utah, currently leased by Utah State University (USU) from the state. The school operated from 1904 to 1909 and was called Panguitch Boarding School, the site of which now belongs to USU. Paiute leaders additionally claim children were forced to work on the farm at the property from as young as 6 and many died from tuberculosis and other ailments in the early 20th century. Mormons in the mid 19th century settled in areas that the Paiute tribe had traditionally foraged and set up their camps at, displacing the tribe while additionally causing starvation and disease leading to a drastic reduction in their population. Mormons further paved the way for the Paiutes to be forcibly assimilated by conducting an intensive missionary effort between 1854 and 1858 and persuading the Paiute to take part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre with them, in which over 120 emigrants were murdered by Mormons and Paiute. The first reservation was established in 1891 at Shivwits, Utah which was formally recognized by the government in 1903.
Currently, USU plans to survey and map the grounds before conducting radar scanning with the potential of excavating the 150-acre site if requested by the tribe, according to AP News. Ground-penetrating radar(GPR) has been utilized in the past to discover unmarked graves at the sites of residential schools. GPR devices sends high frequency electromagnetic waves into the soil through an antenna that travels back to the receiver if it hits an object allowing the location to be pinpointed. However, the technology can’t detect organic matter, which makes locating and identifying skeletal remains more difficult. This difficulty is compounded when the remains are decades old, as skeletal remains do begin to decay after just a few years, depending on the conditions of the soil.
From 1950 to 1984 Utah was the home of Intermountain Indian School(IIS) located in Brigham City, Utah. The school was notable for being the largest boarding school for Indigenous children and for its mixed history. Some former students noted that this location was not as harsh as others and they were given opportunities there that otherwise may have not been available to them, with many alumni holding reunions together having stayed in contact with one another through social media.
“What happened in Canada is very sad, but I would never put that for Intermountain,” Lorina Antonio, one former student, told KUER. “We were away from home. We were away from our family, but we were brought here to learn an education and learn about ourself. That’s the way I look at it.” Antonio was highly involved in activities during her time at IIS beginning in 1967 and is planning a reunion to be held in September 2021.
Described by historian and citizen of the Navajo Nation Farina King as a kind of “bargain” between Navajos and the Federal government, IIS was created in 1950 out of a former hospital used to treat wounded soldiers in World War II. Despite fierce historical skepticism of government schools, due to economic depression following the war and poor federal policies leading to lack of opportunity, Navajos began viewing these schools as the least negatively impactful option - balancing their need for sovereignty with the need for more schools for children. A group of students in the National Indian Youth Council IIS Chapter attempted filing a lawsuit to shut the school down in the early 1970s. The students alleged a slew of abuses, including that staff illegally segregated students, gave intoxicated students the antipsychotic drug Thorazine, censored letters from home, and gave them an inferior education, among others. These charges were denied by former staff and the suit was dismissed. After a riot in the mid-1970's which called for the stability of IIS to be questioned, enrollment declined and they closed its doors in 1984. King is planning to write a book about the school in hopes of telling the full story of the IIS’s history. In 2021, little of the school remains as the majority of the property has since been sold to make room for a golf course, various businesses, and part of the campus of USU.
Native activists and advocates hope that the truth and history of these residential schools, including that of IIS’s, will continue to be uncovered. The question of locating the remains of Indigenous children who died at residential schools continues to plague many historians, activists, and tribal leaders. Although there has been progress made in educating the public and bringing this issue to the attention of public officials, locating the physical remains of children at these Indigenous residential schools remains a priority, and there is work to be done. Through advances in technology and heightened public interest, there is a greater chance of finding these children, returning them to their tribes, and revealing the traumatic history of these schools and the impact they continue to have on Indigenous families.
Native Activists Hope for Probe of Utah Boarding School
USU Digital History Collections Intermountain Indian School
'Some Lost Their Lives, Some Found Their Lives’: Remembering The Intermountain Indian School
Uncovering the Mysteries of the Intermountain Indian School
Remains of Paiute children Believed to Be in Unmarked Cemetery
On the Ground at the Panguitch Indian Boarding School Where 12 Paiute Children Likely Died
Researchers to Search for Remains at Native Boarding School
"Where Else are Our Children?": Paiute Children Believed Buried Under Utah School
Bodies at Indigenous School in Canada Not Isolated Incident: Salt Lake City
Interior Department to Investigate Abuse of Indigenous Children at American Boarding Schools
How Radar Technology is Used to Discover Unmarked Graves at Former Residential Schools
How The Ground Penetrating Technology Used to Locate Unmarked Graves is Both Amazing and Complex
Paiute Indians Of Utah
History, the Paiutes
1971: The Lawsuit