A review of the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, a digital collection of materials related to the Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School, directed by Susana D. Grajales Geliga, Margaret Jacobs, and Elizabeth Lorang
Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project
A full list of team members is available on the project’s site.
Cristina Stanciu, Virginia Commonwealth University
Susana D. Grajales Gelid, Margaret Jacobs, and Elizabeth Lorang
The Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project is a collaborative effort to digitize, describe, and make accessible materials related to the Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School. Located in Genoa, Nebraska, the school began in a one-room schoolhouse that the U.S. had originally built on the Pawnee reservation as part of its treaty obligations. After the Pawnees were pushed to Indian Territory (today's Oklahoma) in the mid-1870s, the U.S. converted their school into the Genoa School. Eventually Genoa became a sprawling 640-acre campus, enrolling thousands of children from over forty Indian nations during its fifty years of operation from 1884 to 1934. Genoa was one of over 300 Indian boarding schools that were established by the government and churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1900, nearly 21,000 Indian children, or about 78% of all Indian children who attended school, were living apart from their families at one of the boarding schools. In many cases, officials forced children to attend the schools against the wishes of their families and tribes. There are few American Indian families that did not have a relative who attended one of these schools, and today American Indian families are still living with the legacies of the schools.
Funded by support from the Council on Library and Information Resources, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the University of Nebraska, the Genoa Project is a space for telling the stories of the American Indian children who attended Genoa, their communities, and their descendants. To help with telling those stories, the project is first digitizing government records of Genoa from various federal and state archives, materials which are often difficult to locate and access. The enhanced availability of documents related to Genoa will provide an expanded field of access to primary sources, while also modeling a methodology that centers community members as both experts and audience.
Co-directors Susana D. Grajales Geliga, Margaret Jacobs, and Elizabeth Lorang have developed the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project in collaboration with a group of community advisors representing several of the tribes whose children attended Genoa. This collaboration has shaped every aspect of the project, from the conceptualization of metadata categories to the hiring of artist Henry Payer (Winnebago) to co-design the website. The project has coordinated with the University of Nebraska's Inter-Tribal Exchange student organization to hire undergraduate assistants from Native communities to work and receive mentoring on the project. It also draws on the expertise of contributors and graduate assistants with backgrounds in history, Native American studies, library and information science, and digital humanities.
Our use of the content management system Mukurtu enables the creation of protocols to grant access to materials consistent with privacy considerations and Indigenous knowledge systems. When public access has been approved by community advisors, document images on the site are made available for download. Over the longer term, the project aims to host a range of multimedia resources to support descendant communities in telling more complete stories of Genoa and to promote awareness and truth-seeking about the boarding schools among all people in the U.S.
The Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project is necessary and timely, as both the U.S. and Canada are wrestling with the legacies of the boarding and residential schools and with the meanings of “reconciliation.” In Canada, the court-mandated Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the result of a class-action lawsuit involving thousands of survivors of the residential schools, “provided those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system with an opportunity to share their stories and experiences.” The government of Canada is working actively to advance a process of reconciliation with Indigenous nations and to teach Canadians about a section of its settler history only recently recovered. One thing the TRC has made clear is how powerful the stories of survivors and their descendants are. Absent a TRC in the U.S. and a public apology to Native nations for the genocide the boarding schools were complicit in advancing for more than 100 years, projects like the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project provide a powerful example of what “digital reconciliation” could look like and why it is important to recover these stories.
The Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, funded with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the University of Nebraska, attempts to recover and tell important stories about the Native children who attended the Genoa Indian School (1884-1934), their communities, and their families. Because the stories the government records tell about the Native children in the boarding schools are often incomplete, inaccurate, or highly sanitized, reading them alongside other documents and their significance for contemporary tribal members widens our understanding of what happened at the Genoa Indian School. As the project directors explain, “There are few American Indian families that did not have a relative who attended one of these schools, and today American Indian families are still living with the legacies of the schools.” The legacies of boarding schools like Genoa are complicated and still invisible in the U.S. Uncovering the stories of Native children from at least 40 tribal nations who attended Genoa shows not only the survival of Native nations despite attempts to annihilate them, often through government “education,” but also their resilience.
The Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project first turns to federal and state archives through digitized documents organized thematically on the website: “Coming to Genoa,” “Discipline and Punishment,” “Education and Curriculum,” “Families,” “Health, Disease and Mortality,” “Labor, Training, and Outing,” “Leaving Genoa,” “School Operations,” “Student Finances,” and “Student Life.” These documents include student publications such as The Indian News, letters from school officials to Native agencies or families, enrollment lists, student permanent records, applications for enrollment at the school, and telegrams notifying parents of the death of their child, among others. Each record entry carefully details the tribal nation, place, and cross-references for persons described in documents. The website, co-designed by Winnebago artist Henry Payer, uses the content management system Mukurtu to facilitate access to materials in a way that is respectful of privacy considerations and Indigenous knowledge systems. Community advisors who review these documents approve the final public access to these documents.
With the participation of Native families, communities, and descendants of the Native children in the boarding schools, this project brings to light a little-known history, and offers a wealth of digital resources from the U.S. and Canada. Although the current records are from federal and state archives, I look forward to learning more through interviews with descendants about the ways in which contemporary Native communities are using these documents, and how reconciliation is possible. With team members from both the University of Nebraska and an extensive community council, chaired by Indigenous leaders, the project brings together partners and collaborators such as the Genoa U.S. Indian School Foundation, community advisors from several tribes in Nebraska, including the Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Santee Sioux, and Winnebago, as well as descendants of Native students who attended Genoa during its years of operation. Besides relevant documents, the project also offers great “Resources” about other boarding schools in the U.S., including bibliographies and digital archives from the U.S. and Canada. This is a wonderful resource that I plan to use in my course on Boarding/Residential Literatures in the U.S. and Canada. The project appeals not only to academic audiences but also to Indigenous communities across the U.S. and Canada, archivists, and the larger public.