Warning: This story contains distressing details about Indian boarding schools. Here is a resource list for trauma responses provided by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S.
Kili is on a mission at Mool-Mool, or Fort Simcoe Historical State Park, outside of White Swan near Yakima in Central Washington.
A palomino-colored yellow Labrador, Kili nearly disappears amid the bleached rye and bunchgrass. He’s looking for human remains, some possibly thousands of years old.
When he finds something interesting he lays down and barks.
This is Kili’s job. He has been trained for years by his owner and handler, Suzanne Elshult.
“He is a historical human remains detection dog and he’s also certified as a crime scene human remains detection dog,” Elshult said. “This is the work he does. This is what he lives for.”
Elshult and Kili specialize in buried-cold cases and finding historical remains. She said when humans decompose they leave behind hundreds of different compounds that her specially-trained Kili can sniff.
“Essentially what they are alerting on is the volatile organic compounds that they have been trained to, the odor of human remains,” she said.
Kili is searching for Yakama Nation’s dead. The remains that could be found here might include some from when this site was a long-inhabited village thousands of years ago, from those killed during the Yakama War in the 1850s, and even the remains of children from when this area was turned into a Native American boarding school from 1860 to 1920.
United States Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, has been heading an initiative to uncover unmarked graves and hidden history at boarding schools across the nation since June 2021. Members of the Yakama Nation also started their research work about the same time and their work continues now. This volunteer project at Fort Simcoe, to date, hasn’t received any federal funding.
Among the volunteers is Emily Washines, a historian and a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
“There are definitely a lot of layers that come with these types of projects and work,” Washines said.
Washines helps find missing and murdered Indigenous people through a podcast, historical work and volunteering on the recent search at Fort Simcoe to find the dead.
“There are definitely emotions that come about with trying to find answers to this kind of historical trauma and things that have taken place or possibly taken place here,” Washines said.
On this warm fall day, Washines stood in the shade of an oak tree laced at the very fringe with golden leaves. This place was known as Mool-Mool when it was a natural spring, a village site and a meeting place for well-established trails, like the eel trail that runs down to the Columbia River, near what’s now Dallesport, Washington. The trail is named for the lamprey that are caught in the Columbia River and tributaries. Then came the fort, which served as a military post, and in 1860, the federal government established Fort Simcoe Indian Boarding School at the site.
“So, basically, some of the places that they were bringing our people to be hung, now they were bringing our kids right next to that area and telling our kids how to be educated. How to not speak their language to survive,” Washines said.
The school was built before the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
To calm herself and to protect herself from this heavy work of searching for her ancestors, Washines uses wild rosewater.
“If you look at our cradle boards of infants — the hoop that goes over their heads is traditionally made of wild rose,” Washines said. “So, we believe it has a protection that is from infancy to death.”
At Fort Simcoe Historical State Park, the volunteer team is also using laptops, mapping tools and ground-penetrating radar to find potential burials.
Under a park shed, with a remote Wi-Fi setup, a laptop and cables strung across the grass is Guy Mansfield, a co-founder of the Washington State Search and Rescue Planning Unit. It is a group of about 20 volunteers who are based in Puget Sound. He is working with a team of handlers and specially-trained dogs.
“‘Cause the search dogs have a relatively little amount of nose time, it’s really important for us to carefully prioritize where we assign them,” Mansfield said.
His computer can track the dogs using their radio collars and draw probability maps of where bodies might be buried in this 200-acre area.
“So, an example of the factors could be proximity to the old boarding school dormitories,” Mansfield said. “Another factor might be where there’s already been a previous unmarked burial found.”
Research is ongoing into how many children may have died at Fort Simcoe’s boarding school. Washines said there are some inaccuracies in the written record about where and how people were buried. The research is complex, and historical records are often sketchy, she said. For example, some people were recorded as being buried in Fort Simcoe’s cemetery but were actually buried at another site in White Swan, she said.
Jon Shellenberger, an archaeologist and member of the Yakama Nation and also Washines’ husband, measures out a grid before working a ground-penetrating radar machine, or GPR, at Fort Simcoe. Shellenberger is leading this effort at the site.
Shellenberger has been a part of hundreds of archaeological surveys and has taught at Central Washington University.
Once the grid is laid, Shellenberger’s research assistant, Shane Turntoes-Kuhnhenn, pushes the GPR machine back and forth across the grass in narrow swaths like a lawn mower. The machine sort of looks like a baby jogger with a small digital screen.
In this vast grassland, there is a prominent stone monument surrounded by a fence. It’s a large white obelisk.
Shellenberger said his own family’s history with this village, fort and boarding school site makes this work especially meaningful for him. His own great, great, great grandfather, Nathan Olney, who died in the late 1860s, was a sub-Indian agent for the Oregon Territory. The monument is Olney’s — and much of the visible markers and buildings are all of white settlers or the federal government’s footprint on the site. Much of the Native American history here has been stamped over.
Shellenberger’s great, great, great grandmother, Ehatinsh James, was a member of the Skinpah tribe near the north side of Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, Shellenberger said.
He said some questions about this place, and the dead it hides, might outlive him.
“If there’s a moment our people are waiting for, in this big moment where everything will change, and everything will go back to normal or everything will be better — that’s never going to come when it comes to boarding schools,” Shellenberger said.
Surveys of Fort Simcoe will be done through next spring. Eventually, after more than another year of further research, any data or knowledge of found remains will be brought to Yakama Nation’s tribal council for review. The remains may be left to rest where they are and the council may choose no action as the best course forward. The council may also not choose to inform anyone of their ultimate decision. Washines echoes her husband’s sentiments.
“This work will continue probably beyond my lifetime, is a point I had to get to,” Washines said. “And upon a lot of reflection and prayer and what really helped me in that moment is, I thought, we and others that work on this are exactly who our ancestors prayed for — to one day help solve and bring to light some of the atrocities and horrible things that happened.”
Washines and Shellenberger said the Yakama Nation wants to honor their dead and give them peace and closure, whatever is decided.
Editor’s note: This report is a collaboration between the Northwest News Network, Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Yakima Herald-Republic. A cultural edit was provided by Jiselle Halfmoon of Nixyáawii in Oregon.