Steven Lee, the researcher who determined that 12 bodies of children are likely buried at the site of a former Indigenous boarding school in Panguitch, has resigned from his position of event and marketing coordinator with the city.
Although it was an unofficial title, Lee also worked as the town’s historian, a function that led him to the grisly findings at the school that operated in Panguitch from 1904 to 1909.
[Related: Bodies of Paiute children believed to be buried at site of former Utah Indigenous boarding school]
The mayor and city manager prohibited him from working on further research about the school after it became public in August, which, according to Lee, was a major reason for stepping down from his formal position.
Panguitch Mayor Kim Soper and City Manager Lori Talbot declined to comment for this story.
“I’m not at the city anymore,” said Lee, who is now unemployed and looking for full-time work. “But I am still working on the project and with the [Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah] there’s still a lot more to be done with the project.”
Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah Chairwoman Corrina Bow also declined to comment on Lee’s resignation and future work with the tribe.
In the farming and ranching town, the public news of the former boarding school was not well received by many, according to Lee. Local ranchers shared their concerns with the mayor about having members of the Shivwits Band of Paiutes and Kaibab Paiute Tribe on the land where they grow hay and graze cattle.
After learning about the story, tribal leaders from both the Shivwits Band of Paiutes and Kaibab Paiute Tribe held a private gathering to acknowledge the children who attended the school. During the same visit, a local restaurant complained that Lee and the tribal elders had filled their dining room for a meeting during the establishment’s peak lunch hours, according to Lee.
Other complaints were made in calls to the mayor’s office, he says.
The Salt Lake Tribune requested all correspondence to the mayor’s office in a record request pertaining to complaints or concerns about the boarding school and Lee. The office said there were none.
Lee was hired in December 2019 by the city right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to help with community events in the small town. He started to research the town’s historical record of the Spanish Flu of 1918 to search for clues for stopping COVID-19′s spread.
“I really thought, by researching the history of the flu, where so many people had died, which is such a perfect parallel to the situation now, I thought, maybe we can learn lessons from it and be wiser, you know,” Lee said. “That was the hope. We ended up having [outbreaks] anyway.”
Going through old documents, Lee eventually came across the news clipping of the death of Mary Lila Jenks, a former schoolteacher at the Indigenous boarding school who died of an opium overdose in 1905.
Indigenous boarding schools like the one in Panguitch were established in the late 1800s and early 1900s to assimilate Indigenous students to be American. Children as young as six years old were shipped off to school, had their hair cut against their will, and were subject to abuse. Some died on the grounds of the schools they attended.
Lee dug deeper into the historical records of the Panguitch boarding school and found reference to an “Indian School Cemetery” in Panguitch on Jenks’ death certificate. Lee now believes there are 12 bodies on the grounds.
Living and growing up in Panguitch, Lee said he had never learned of the school. Lee recently found his pioneer ancestors among the names of those who worked for the school. He says it has been a struggle to reconcile his pioneer history because of how his family contributed to the painful boarding school legacy in Panguitch.
If he was not the city’s event planner, Lee said he would have probably never made these findings. And, now that he has stepped down, he hopes to continue that work, assisting the Paiute Indian Tribe or any other tribe with reclaiming their histories.
Correction Dec. 3 2021 • This story was updated with the correct name of the Shivwits Band of Paiutes.