Inching forward on her knees, Marsha Small scraped away at the earthen floor in search of a bone, a tooth, any human fragment at all.
This grim task consumed Small and her team of archeologists for five days in mid-October. They were hunting for the remains of Indigenous children beneath a former Native American boarding school that represents a dark chapter in American history.
“My ancestors put me here,” Small, 63, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and a Montana State University doctoral student, said outside of Red Cloud Indian School. “And that’s why I do this.”
Beginning in the early 1800s, the U.S. government set up and supported more than 400 boarding schools designed to extinguish Indigenous culture and assimilate young Native Americans into white society. The goal, in the words of one of the first school’s founders, was to “kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
The schools often required the children to take on English names and give up their style of clothing and hair, as well as their traditional languages, religions, and cultural practices.
Children were forcibly removed from their homes. By 1893, the Bureau of Indian Affairs received congressional authorization to withhold food rations and supplies from American Indian families who refused to enroll or keep their children in boarding schools.
The boarding school system was used as a “weapon” not only to break the children’s bonds with their families and culture but to take Indigenous peoples’ land, according to a Senate report released in 1969.