The bodies of Paiute children are likely buried below summer grasses at the site of an Indigenous boarding school they were forced to attend in Panguitch, Utah tribal leaders and history experts say.
Exactly how many children lie under the school grounds, just north of the small southern Utah city, no one yet knows. Initial research indicates there could be at least 12 bodies in unmarked graves.
Utah State University plans to apply ground-penetrating radar to the 150-acre site.
“What I know about this [boarding] school is that they would come, and they would take the kids for labor,” said Corrina Bow, chairwoman for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. Paiute leaders say children ages 6 years old and older were forced to work at a farm on the property.
“We were informed that there were bodies buried over there,” said Bow, who has made several visits to the former school grounds. “But we are not sure until someone comes in and verifies it.”
Oral accounts across the several bands that make up the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, which mostly populated the school and today number about 800 members in Utah, put the figure around a dozen.
Steven Lee, historic preservation officer for the city of Panguitch, says people living there with relatives who worked at the school also provide the same estimate for bodies on the former campus. Lee began researching the boarding school and the historical traumas associated with it about a year ago under a memorandum of understanding with the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and the Kaibab Band of Paiutes in nearby Arizona.
Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, band chairperson for the Indian Peaks Band of Paiute Indians, asked Lee to look into it after learning about how Paiute children are also believed to be buried at a boarding school in nearby Grand Junction, Colo.
“That made me wonder,” Borchardt-Slayton said, “‘Where else are our children?”
The university, which leases the land from the state, is organizing the work through its anthropology department and with the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. It plans to survey and map the grounds. Judson Finley, head of the anthropology department at USU, said the college will also excavate the site — but only if the tribe wants it done.
Paiute leaders have indicated they do, intending to give the children buried there a proper, culturally appropriate interment.
“America has a great way of covering up the ugly,” Borchardt-Slayton said, “when they don’t want people to know about the genocide that happened and just all of the real history that took place.”
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