Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah asks for space to grieve over bodies of children likely buried at site of former Indigenous boarding school

In a new statement, the tribe’s chairwoman says, “We may only be scratching the surface at what could be revealed.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 150-acre Panguitch Research Farm is the former location of the Panguitch Boarding School for mostly the Kaibab and Shivwitz bands of the Paiute Indian Tribe that operated from 1904 to 1909.

Panguitch • The Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and its five sovereign bands are asking for space to grieve as its members come to terms with the likely deaths of several of their children at the southern Utah boarding school they were forced to attend in the early 1900s.

On behalf of her people, the tribe’s Chairwoman Corrina Bow issued a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, saying it has been difficult to process the recent discussions about what went on at the Panguitch Boarding School, which operated from 1904 to 1909.

In the first statement from the tribe since the story became public, she added Paiute citizens will not be making any further comments at this time “because of the sensitive nature of our cultural beliefs and practices.”

Bow said: “It is premature to speculate on what will be discovered at the site, and we may only be scratching the surface at what could be revealed. We want to be respectful and honor our ancestors, their families, and properly address this heartbreaking and tragic injustice of our history.”

The Tribune first reported last month, after confirming with the tribe, that there could be at least 12 bodies in unmarked graves at the former school site. Utah State University is planning to apply ground-penetrating radar to the 150-acre site to determine the exact number.

Steven Lee, historic preservation officer for Panguitch, says people living in the town 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.

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 location in Panguitch was smaller, with about 30 kids attending each year, and much less is known about it.

Paiute leaders have indicated they intend to give the children buried there a proper, culturally appropriate interment.

Last week, members of the Shivwits Band of Paiutes and Kaibab Band of Paiutes went on a private visit to the boarding school grounds with Lee, and it was the first time some members of these two bands had ever visited the school. At the time, both bands referred The Tribune to Bow for further comments on the findings of the unmarked graves.

The findings in Utah come after more than 800 bodies were found earlier this year at two former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada.

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.

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 Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, band chairperson for the Indian Peaks Band of Paiute Indians, say students were forced to attend, with families threatened if they didn’t send their kids. Lee said that sometimes came at gunpoint.

Documents also point to sordid living conditions and kids regularly getting sick at the school.

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.”

Through historical documents, it is 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. They both died of some illness, likely tuberculosis, in 1905 and 1906.

In 1909, with attendance dwindling and kids continuing to get sick, the Panguitch school was shut down.

Oral histories of the tribe have always indicated that deaths had occurred there. Now, Bow said they are awaiting USU’s help in confirming that and helping them bring their kids back home.

On Friday, she noted: “We ask for your understanding, respect, and cooperation as we work to coordinate the findings and move forward in following our cultural and traditional practices and beliefs.”

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 abitsoi@sltrib.com and Courtney Tanner at ctanner@sltrib.com.