Genoa, Nebraska, offers look at history of Indian residential schools

The Genoa Indian School, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was home to a boarding school for 50 years.

Imagine being five years old, playing outside with your brothers, sisters and friends. While you laugh and giggle and run about, strange-looking men in odd clothes walk up and grab you and a few other children. They toss you on to a wagon as they keep your parents and neighbors at bay while pointing rifles toward them. Among the tears and shouts for your mom, dad, anyone, to come to save you, you’re transported to the local train depot where they put you inside a rail car resembling a cattle car. With slits between the wood panels, letting in just enough sunlight or moonlight, you travel a distance. You’re not sure for how long or how far.

Then, the train slows to a stop. The strange voices outside yell at each other, then the rail car doors open and the men in uniforms yell for you to disembark from the train. Perhaps someone in your native language tells you to remain calm and get out of the train. Terrified, you do as they say. Having no idea where you’re at, unable to understand why the men yell at you, or why you’ve been removed from your home, you are told to stand in line and then march to your new home.

The original entrance to the Genoa Indian boarding school remains in place.

This was life for some Native American children during the late 1800s when the federal government removed children from their homes and sent them to government- or church-run schools. Forcing Native Americans to live on reservations in the mid-1800s wasn’t enough, as the federal government started making children attend “Indian” residential schools, whose mission was to make them surrender speaking their native languages and foregoing customs and traditions and learn to speak English while accepting European-American ways. While most residential schools were located on reservations, the Genoa Indian School in Genoa, Nebraska, was one of a few non-reservation schools.

Located on Pawnee land

Located on land once set aside as a reservation for the Pawnee tribe, the federal government decided it would be a good location for the Genoa school. The Pawnee had been forcibly relocated. Opened in 1884 with about 100 students, the school would go on to serve students from more than 20 tribes in 10 states. The first-year students ranged in age from seven to 27. They had been forced to leave their homes to attend school at Genoa.

Replica of a classroom at Genoa.

Once at the school, the Native Americans’ hair was cut short and they had to wear military-style uniforms. While Genoa was a school, they were treated in a paramilitary manner, attending daily formations as well as marching around the school. A typical school day consisted of academics and learning a trade. Boys learned how to become tailors, farmworkers and blacksmiths. Girls studied how to become domestic servants and seamstresses, as well as nurses. While the idea of learning a trade seems smart, once students graduated, few found work in their fields because of white views of the time and many returned to reservations, where they struggled for acceptance having essentially been raised away from the community, as well as a lack of tribal knowledge, having that stripped from them in school.

Students learned how to make wagon wheels among the trades taught at school.

Today, the Genoa school serves as a reminder of those days. It offers an accurate look at life at the school, including a video that looks at the negative effects the schools had on Native Americans. If students spoke in their native language, they would be beaten, going beyond standard discipline. The philosophy of residential schools was to “kill the Indian. Save the man,” as outlined by former General Richard Pratt, the founder of Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. The best-known student from that school was Jim Thorpe, considered one of the greatest American athletes of all time. The Oklahoman, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, won gold medals at the Olympics, played professional football and baseball.

Relatives among the students

At the Genoa school, students originally were Lakota and Dakota, but later tribes, such as the Kickapoo, Shoshone and Cherokee, had children sent to the school. While most of the children made the best of their situation, some couldn’t assimilate and ran away. Records at the school don’t indicate if they found their way home. During a review of the digital student records, I found names of distant relatives, cousins to my Grandpa Trudell, among the enrollees. I actually paused to wonder what life was like for them at the Genoa school. My grandparents were more fortunate – if you want to call it that – because they attended the Santee Normal School on the northeast Nebraska reservation. Still, their way of life was being taken away from them.

Initials and a date from 1927 carved into the brick at the school.

Genoa school foundation volunteers said that students had a unique sense of humor (known as Indian humor) and made the best of their situation. They pranked other children and even teachers. As you tour the grounds, you can see names and initials carved in the brick foundation. Since most of the land was sold to private residents after the school closed in 1934, old barns and outbuildings can’t be accessed. I was fortunate when a farmer invited me on to his land to tour the barn. He takes special care to ensure the carvings remain in place, he said.

Student carvings in the wall inside an old barn.

School activities

Students played sports and participated in other activities. Genoa Indian School was known for its outstanding music program, with its band traveling around the Midwest performing in communities and on reservations. The band took second place at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

The school’s band was among the best in the area.

During the Depression, parents voluntarily sent their children to the school. Not so much for the academics, but to ensure they had food to eat, according to a History Nebraska article. The school’s 50-year run ended in 1934 when the federal government stopped funding it because of the Great Depression. Children were either sent home released at the entrance.

You’d think with the mistreatment many received during their time at the school, the alumni wouldn’t want anything to do with Genoa. But that wasn’t the case. Years later, graduates asked why they didn’t have reunions, so the foundation started hosting them. Today, descendants visit to help celebrate their grandparents and great-grandparents’ time at the school.

While it’s been generally acknowledged that forcing Native Americans to attend these schools was wrong and caused more harm to tribes’ customs and traditions, the Genoa Indian School provides an opportunity to learn about the era and steps taken to improve tribes, including the rebirth of traditional languages among some tribes. Historically, the relationship between Native Americans and federal and state governments has been strenuous, organizations like the Genoa Indian School help improve it by sharing the history and stories of those who walked the path before us.

The Genoa Indian School is open Friday-Sunday afternoons Memorial Day through Labor Day or by appointment. Each August, the school hosts a reunion/celebration, which is open to the public.