ROSEBUD, S.D. — The remains of at least 10 Native American children who died nearly 2,000 miles away from their homes while being forced to attend a government-run boarding school in Pennsylvania more than a century ago could soon be repatriated under an effort taken up by a South Dakota tribe.
The exhumation and return of the bodies of the children who as students of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School were stripped of their culture and left vulnerable to abuse won’t be an easy undertaking. But leaders of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe hope that a meeting with representatives from the U.S. Army and other tribes scheduled for Tuesday will begin the negotiation process to repatriate the remains of the 10 children, and eventually, of the dozens more who died while attending the school as part of an assimilation policy intended to rid the children from Native American traditions and replace them with European culture.
The students lived under harsh conditions that included physical abuse and farm labor during the summer. Children also were left susceptible to diseases, such as tuberculosis, which led to their early death. Nearly 200 students died and were buried at the school, which is now part of the U.S. Army War College.
“We are hoping that the United States government will say ‘Yes, let’s bring your relatives home,’“ said Russell Eagle Bear, the historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “Back then, the military had total control over us, and they took these kids, and especially during those first five years of starting that school, our youth died. Back then in that timeline, our people were basically under almost a hostage situation so our people couldn’t go all the way out to Pennsylvania to retrieve loved ones.”
The boarding school, founded by Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, operated between 1879 and 1918 and saw more than 10,000 Native American children, who upon arrival were required to have their braids cut off and dress in military-style uniforms in an effort to grind out their heritage. Students were punished for speaking their native language and had to go by a European name.
The Army in a statement on Monday said the meeting Tuesday will begin a formal government-to-government consultation that will help all parties better understand the legal requirements to disinter a person buried in any Army cemetery.
“It is the Army’s desire to work with these leaders, work (a) successful resolution, and bring the young men and women home,” according to the statement.
Leaders from the Standing Rock Sioux and Northern Arapaho Tribes are among those expected to attend the gathering.
This is the first major effort to repatriate the remains, and it began after a youth group on its way back home from a summit at the White House last summer stopped by the former school. Sydney Horse Looking, a high school senior who was part of the group, said the youth didn’t like what they saw.
“They didn’t get a proper burial, in my opinion, and the cemetery itself is pretty close to one of the main roads there, and people just drive by,” said the 17-year-old Horse Looking, who along with the rest of the youth group pressed the tribe’s council to begin the repatriation effort. “I think those kids should be brought home and reunited with their families. It wasn’t their choice to go to that school.”
Eagle Bear said his office has identified 10 children who are buried at the former school. He said the identification process has been challenging because some records have the children’s European names, not their native names. Furthermore, he said, the graves were relocated between the late 1920s and early 1930s and some headstones lack names.
Eagle Bear said that if the Army authorizes the exhumation, he will take a medicine man with him to have a spiritual ceremony to help identify the remains, and DNA testing will be a backup. He hopes the exhumation can begin as early as this summer.
“A lot of these moms and dads went to their graves without knowing what happened to their child and how that child was treated,” Eagle Bear said. “So, let’s roll up our sleeves, let’s lay out a plan and let’s bring them back.”