PANGUITCH, Utah — The remains of Paiute children forced into a southern Utah boarding school in the early 1900s are believed to be buried in an unmarked cemetery.
Now, a local historian and members of the tribe hope to uncover a secret kept hushed for more than a century.
Panguitch Historic Preservation director Steven Lee suspects the bodies of at least 12 young Paiute children have been buried after dying at the school that once was run north of the city.
“There are these kids that shouldn’t have been here in the first place with things happening to them, here without their families knowing about it,” Lee said at the remote site.
Students as young as six were taken from their tribe, forced to live at a Panguitch boarding school, overseen by the federal government. Some children were taken at gunpoint from St. George and Moccasin, Arizona.
“I was shocked that one of those existed in a town I grew up in. It was shocking,” said Lee.
Lee came across a small reference to the Panguitch Indian School last year and has worked closely with Dorena Martineau, cultural preservation director for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah. They believe the facility was not unlike those in other parts of the US and Canada used to assimilate indigenous people in the 1800s and 1900s.
“It wasn’t uncommon for students to die at boarding schools — most often from disease and tuberculosis, especially. It wasn’t uncommon and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be the same here,” Lee said.
The boarding school operated from 1904 to 1909 and was shut down because of rampant illness, according to Lee.
He suspects nearly 150 children were sent to get an American education, but in fact, forced into farm labor on 150 acres. Some children ran away, others never left.
“They lost their culture, their language, their identity. The whole point was to assimilate us to a workforce,” said Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, Indian Peaks band chairperson of the Paiute Tribe.
The story was first reported on by The Salt Lake Tribune and southern Utah reporter Alastair Lee Bitsóí.
“I did get nauseous from it because I am aware of those narratives that exist in native communities, and for me to write about it, it actually took me out,” said Bitsóí.
With more awareness of the boarding school and possible cemetery, Borchard-Slayton hopes the children can be identified and honored properly.
"Stuff has been pushed under the rug, and I think that is appalling, you know,” Lee added.
The tribe is hoping for archeologists from Utah State University to use ground-penetrating radar to confirm how many people are buried at the suspected site.
In Canada, the bodies of more than 800 people were discovered buried at two former residential schools for indigenous children. Former students say they were physically and sexually abused.