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.”
Investigations in Canada and United States
The verification of the bodies will be a grim find in Utah, which operated an estimated six Native American boarding schools, including one of the largest in the country in Brigham City. The lesser-known Panguitch school, which operated from 1904 to 1909, will be the first in the state to confirm that children died and were buried on-site.
The United States has since promised to conduct its own “comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies,” which forcibly removed tens of thousands of Native American children from their communities for more than 150 years and put them in classrooms meant to assimilate them and erase their culture.
In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, the U.S. Department of Interior confirmed that it has started its investigation into “the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.”
A spokesman there said: “In late fall, we expect to begin tribal consultation, where we will discuss ways to protect and share sensitive information, and how to protect gravesites and sacred burial traditions.”
That will likely include the site at Panguitch.
A policy of forced assimilation
The school in Panguitch no longer stands — save a few remaining bits of foundation by an old brick house below the towering mountains that surround the area.
Indigenous boarding schools operated across the nation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Former students at some schools have told their stories about having their heads shaved after being caught speaking their native language. There was also physical and sexual abuse.
In Panguitch, students were mostly Paiutes, whom federal administrators frequently described as inferior and in need of “civilizing.”
At the time the school opened, the Paiutes had been decimated to just 2,000 people, down from tens of thousands, according to historical census documents. In Panguitch, specifically, records on the history of Garfield County show that white settlers often imprisoned Indigenous people. The treatment at the school wasn’t much different.
Both Lee and Borchardt-Slayton say students were forced to attend, with families threatened if they didn’t send their kids. Lee said that sometimes came at gunpoint.
About 25 to 40 students did come each year, according to school rosters. In one haunting photo, the children are lined up outside, clearly crying.
In the one firsthand account from a former student there, Mabel Drye, she says that kids who acted out or “kept doing things wrong,” were forced to stay for the full year, instead of getting two months off in the summer to see their family, according to the record kept by the National Park Service.
Early deaths and disease
Beyond discipline, documents also point to sordid living conditions and kids regularly getting sick. When the school closed in 1909, bad health was the reason for shuttering.
In the school’s first annual report to Congress in 1904, in its first year of operation, the Superintendent Laura B. Work acknowledged a student had died.
She writes: “We pulled through the winter fairly well, with the loss of one child, saving three others only by dint of long, weary nursing and a big doctor’s bill.”
In another document, the field matron, Sadie McFoster, blames the children and the tribes for a propensity toward getting sick, saying it’s because they lived in “dirty ‘wickiups,’” a traditional home to the Paiutes and Utes made of earth and sticks.
She then describes burying the child at the school.
McFoster writes: “At the death of one of our Indians while we were away on our vacation, one of the Indians made a coffin, a grave was dug, and a Christian service held at the grave by the elders of our church. Little more than one year ago he would have been thrown into a hole with all his belongings, and an ‘Indian levy’ held over the place. We feel that any efforts toward helping the ‘red man’ to help himself are not lost, but will in a very short time reap great results.”
Through historical documents, it’s possible to confirm four more deaths after that at the school, including two students: Alex Pagumpageta, who died at 14 years old, and Theodore Pinkie, who was 16 years old. They both died of some illness, likely tuberculosis, in 1905 and 1906.
Documents also list the death of a teacher, Mary Lila Jenks, who died of an opium overdose in 1905 and a son of the superintendent, a 3-year-old who died after drinking a bottle of carbolic acid. They were both buried in the school cemetery.
Those are the recorded deaths.
Borchardt-Slayton worries there could be more bodies than initially estimated. She believes there are at least 30 children buried at the site.
A murder charge
The school struggled to get students to attend. The law at the time said superintendents weren’t allowed to force kids to attend, but anecdotes from those enrolled there said it happened anyway — partly because schools got more money for having more students.
In a 1908 letter, the school’s second superintendent, Walter Runke, asks the Interior Department to allow him to use force to get more kids to Panguitch, suggesting “the obstinate and shortsighted Indians … are depriving their children of a school training.”
“From what I understand,” Borchardt-Slayton said, “he was not a very good man.”
In 1909, with attendance dwindling and kids continuing to get sick, the Panguitch school was shut down.
Runke moved on to oversee a Navajo boarding school system. He was arrested and indicted in 1916 for the murder of a Navajo man, Taddy Tin, who reportedly resisted the superintendent’s forced recruitment tactics, Lee said.
The superintendent allegedly ordered three white men to arrest Tin for not sending his kids to school. They killed him in a fight outside Tin’s home. Runke and the white men, though, were acquitted by an all-white jury, which said they were acting in self-defense, according to an article in The Coconino Sun.
Runke later served two terms as a state senator in Arizona. His obituary notes that he died in November 1964.
When it closed, the land of the Panguitch school was transferred from the federal government to the state. Utah used it as an experiment for high-altitude farming for a few years. Today, it sits mostly vacant.
‘We want to take them home’
Earlier this month, Lee provided a report on the school and the bodies believed to be buried there to the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah Tribal Council.
As her people’s newly elected chairwoman, Bow says that Lee has been critical to piecing together the missing history.
From the list of 143 students of the school that Lee uncovered, Bow says she saw relatives. One of those was her great-grandfather, Seth Bushead, who attended the school and was arrested for punching one of the school’s employees. Bow believes he was fighting back against mistreatment.
“I’m related to several other people that are mentioned in the list that I received,” Bow said. “This is really big because there are a lot of links to the boarding school.”
When she reviewed the names, Bow felt heartbroken. And it prompted her to visit the school grounds to see the land where her ancestors suffered.
Finley at USU said the school is working to connect with the tribe — which he believes should have authority over the project. He’s also making sure that the area gets designated by the state as a protected archaeological site, which it currently is not.
He hopes the work to survey the grounds will start this fall.
Molly Cannon, also in the archaeology department at USU and the director of the Mountain West Center, specializes in geophysical mapping. She wants the university to work with more tribes to investigate Indigenous school sites in the state.
“I don’t think there’s been any field work where they’ve tried to map these schools,” she said.
While they wait for USU’s help, Bow says this is the beginning of a healing process for her people. Most importantly, she says, it’s her Paiute people who need to know about any possible bodies.
She said, “We want to take them home where they belong.”
If you know more about the Panguitch boarding school or have stories about any Indigenous boarding school in Utah, please reach out to The Salt Lake Tribune. You can contact our reporters directly: Alastair Lee Bitsóí at firstname.lastname@example.org and Courtney Tanner at email@example.com.