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Unhealed Wounds

Assistant Professor of Archaeology John Seebach, PhD, research focuses on Indigenous boarding schools

John Seebach, PhD, has spent years working to uncover the complicated and emotional history of Indigenous boarding schools across North America by studying a former institution close to home.

In the early 1900s, tens of thousands of Native American children were relocated to boarding schools with the intent to assimilate them, and therefore future generations, into western culture. The Teller Institute in Grand Junction was one of these boarding schools.  

“As a North American archeologist, I’m intensely interested in Native American ways of life. I follow what’s happening across Indian country as well as some of the issues important to Native communities, and one of those is healing generational traumas from these boarding schools,” said Seebach.

In 1926, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, 83% of all Native school-age children in the U.S. were forced into residential schools.

“On the one hand they were educational institutions and they were teaching Native children basic elementary educations,” said Seebach. Yet, the main purpose of the schools, “was to quite literally remove Native culture and Native ways of thinking from these children and replace them with Euro-American ways of seeing the world.”

Through his research and time spent in Washington D.C. looking through national archives, Seebach discovered death notices and archival newspaper clippings reporting 21 children who died while attending the Teller Institute — although there may be many more undocumented deaths.

In 2019, data and aerial photographs led Seebach and a team of cadaver dogs to the specific location of the Teller Institute site, which is currently a facility for the intellectually disabled, where he believed the unmarked graves were located. According to Seebach, the dogs picked up a scent, but better conditions, more research and more time is needed to put the pieces together.

“I’m so grateful to be in a position where I can help people understand this history and understand the importance of finding these cemeteries and cataloging them, and making sure that all Native nations involved are aware of the cemeteries and who is in them,” he said. 

Seebach has been an international spokesperson on the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools and was recently the first to be recognized as a Human Scale University Champion by CMU President John Marshall.

As part of a group created by the state named the Teller Institute Task Force, Seebach consults those most impacted by the tragic history and works with tribal leaders to determine the most culturally sensitive way to go about such investigations. He is planning another trip to D.C. to view more archives, as he said he has only barely scratched the surface and there is more work to be done.




Written by Kelsey Coleman