Paiute Tribe confirms bodies of 12 children buried at former boarding school site in southern Utah

Tribal leaders say they are now considering “how best to honor and memorialize” the kids who died at the Panguitch Boarding School.

Editor’s note • This story includes descriptions of abuse and the death of Indigenous children. Native leaders have called for additional mental health support as Indigenous communities learn more about this history. Currently, the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake provides outpatient mental health services. Learn more at uicsl.org. A Tribal Resource Tool is available at tribalresourcetool.org.

The bodies of 12 children are now confirmed to have been buried at the site of a former Indigenous boarding school in southern Utah, according to Paiute tribal leaders.

The Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and its five sovereign bands released a statement Tuesday saying members are “devastated” to learn about the tragic results of the ground-penetrating radar work done at the location in Panguitch.

“Our hearts go out to the families of these children as we are left to consider how best to honor and memorialize their suffering,” said Ona Segundo, chairwoman of the Kaibab Band, in the statement provided to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Segunda said the discovery is the first step “toward healing and reconciliation.” The tribe will make plans on what it will do next, she added, in coordination with the families of the children believed to be buried there.

That will likely include giving the children a proper, culturally appropriate interment, tribal leaders have previously told The Tribune. The tribe has asked for space as members grieve.

There were at least eight Native American boarding schools in Utah, according to research from The Salt Lake Tribune. Panguitch is the only one — as of now — where students are verified to have died and been buried on-site.

[Read more: Ute Indian boarding schools saw nearly 60 student deaths]

The radar work conducted there was much anticipated after the tribe’s leadership first spoke publicly in September 2021 about their oral histories, which they say have always indicated that children died at the Panguitch school. They partnered with Utah State University researchers to perform the work that proved it.

The findings also come as the U.S. Department of Interior, led by Secretary Deb Haaland, has recently focused on investigating and atoning for the abuse of Native students at boarding schools across the country that operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Hope Silvas, chairwoman of the Shivwits Band, said the tribe is both heartbroken and angry at the confirmation of bodies, knowing that the students were mistreated and abused at the boarding school in Panguitch, which operated from 1904 to 1909.

“Our tears will fall as we sing for you,” she said. “May your spirits journey home in a good way to reunite with your family who also wondered where you went.”

Harsh treatment and deaths at the Panguitch school

The students at the Panguitch Boarding School were mostly Paiute and transferred north from a school that had been operating about 100 miles away in St. George.

The idea was to separate them further from their families, who were largely centered around what is now Cedar City, and their cultural practices.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The kids were banned from speaking their language and beaten if they did. Racist federal administrators frequently described them as inferior and in need of “civilizing,” in line with the goal of assimilating Native children at boarding schools, reports from the time state.

They mostly did farm work in place of academic learning. And a census of the school shows that students at young at 2 and 3 years old were attending.

In its statement, the tribe wrote: “These children were taken from their families at very young ages, were not permitted to communicate in the only language they had ever known and were forced into manual labor to maintain the facility.”

Steven Lee, who has been dedicated to researching the history there in collaboration with the tribe, previously said students were forced to attend the school, with families threatened if they didn’t send their kids. Lee has said that sometimes happened at gunpoint.

About 30 kids attended each year. In one haunting photo of the school, the children are lined up outside and clearly crying.

(Panguitch Utah History) Pictured are the students at the boarding school for Native Americans just north of Panguitch, Utah, that ran from 1904 to about 1909.

Documents also point to sordid living conditions and kids regularly getting sick at the school. There was one outdated brick building and no restrooms. One newspaper called the project “doomed.” One book said the kids were “poorly fed and clothed.”

In the school’s first annual report to Congress in 1904, in its first year of operation, Superintendent Laura B. Work acknowledged a student had died. She wrote: “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 the same report, the school’s field matron, Sadie McFoster, blamed the children and the tribes for a propensity toward getting sick. She then described burying the child at the school.

McFoster wrote: “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.”

Through death certificates uncovered by Lee, it is possible to confirm two more students deaths after that at the school: 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, respectively.

(Steven Lee) Death certificates from students the Panguitch school.

Walter Runke, who later became superintendent, again said it was the students’ own fault for getting sick, writing in a 1907 report to Congress: “There can be little doubt that many of the children enter school with inherited tendencies to disease, particularly tuberculosis.” Tuberculosis is not a hereditary condition.

It’s not clear if Alex or Theodore were buried at the boarding school, Lee has said, or if their bodies were returned to family. The last report from 1909, when the school closed, listed bad health as the reason for shuttering.

‘We will remember you always’

The radar work has confirmed that there are 12 bodies there, with the tribe noting in its statement that it believes two were from the Kaibab Band and four were from the Shivwits Band.

The other children buried were likely from other tribes, according the Paiutes.

The ground-penetrating radar work — which is a way of seeing what lies below the surface without disturbing the soil in places like burial grounds — was conducted by researchers from Utah State University.

The school now manages the land at the boarding school site for farm-related research.

In a statement Tuesday, USU said it “recognizes that the confirmation of graves on the site is a very significant and very difficult discovery.”

“Knowing the historical, cultural, and spiritual import of this issue, the university supports the tribes and will eagerly continue to work with the them to find ways to protect the cemetery site and honor the memories of those interned there,” the statement continued.

The tribe specifically thanked faculty members Molly Cannon and Judson Finley for their work “on this most important and sensitive matter,” along with Lee.

The university produced a report on the radar findings as part of its work on the site. The school did not immediately provide a copy when asked Tuesday. The Tribune has filed a public records request seeking access to it.

Silvas, the Shivwits Band chairwoman, said tribal members started trying to grapple with the deaths in fall 2021, when several leaders visited the site for the first time.

They could sense the presence of the children there, she said. “We felt your spirits welcome us with mischief and happiness only we could recognize and respect.”

She added that as the tribe moves forward with memorializing the deaths: “We will remember you always and how you walked here in life.”