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FAIRWAY, Kan. — Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes believes a nearly 200-year-old historic site deserves a new level of scrutiny.

“We know that children died here,” Barnes told FOX4. “We don’t know how many, and we don’t know where.”

Barnes made the comments on the grounds of the Shawnee Indian Mission Historic Site in Johnson County. The historic mission, adjacent to Bishop Miege High School, once occupied thousands of acres. From 1839 until 1862, the mission also served as a boarding school for Native American children from multiple tribes.

“Really it was child labor under the guise of something else,” said Gaylene Crouser at the Kansas City Indian Center.

The residential schools existed all across America in the 1800s as part of the federal government’s attempts to assimilate indigenous peoples. The children were taught manual labor and a skilled trade.

Others say the mission schools were guilty of “cultural genocide.”

“Because when they got there, they had to change their names. They had to cut their hair,” Crouser said.

Historians are certain that many of the children died at the boarding schools, though very little is known about their remains.

Barnes aims to change that.

“We have to find these kids,” Barnes said. “We will find them. We will name them. We will honor them and will return them.”

Barnes said he has the full cooperation from Kansas state officials and city leaders in Fairway. He expects the initial steps to involve ground-penetrating radar and other sophisticated technology.

“It’s not going to be people showing up with shovels,” Barnes said.

Last spring, the Department of the Interior launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. The goal is to bring some sense of closure to the troubled legacy of Indian boarding schools.

“It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to think about those kids,” Crouser added.