In March of 1881, three young boys belonging to Wyoming’s Northern Arapaho were transported to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in central Pennsylvania. Their tenure at the school was meant to strip them of their Indigenous identity and forcibly assimilate them into European culture. Within two years of their arrival, all three boys were dead. They were interred beneath sterile, white headstones in a cemetery that would come to hold the bodies of 200 native children who perished at the school.
As Jeff Gammage reports for Philly.com, military personnel began the process of exhuming the boys’ remains on Tuesday. The bodies will be returned to the Northern Arapaho so they can be reburied on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Around 15 tribe members—among them relatives of the three children—are on hand to reclaim the remains of the boys who died so young, so far from home.
The children were 14, 11, and 9 when they were brought to Carlisle. Their names were Little Chief, Horse and Little Plume, respectively. But at Carlisle, they were called Dickens Nor, Horace Washington and Hayes Vanderbilt Friday. Like the thousands of other children who attended the school, the boys were subjected to a strict and traumatizing program of cultural eradication. Their hair was cut, they were outfitted in military uniforms and they were forbidden from speaking their ancestral language, Kyle Swenson reports for the Washington Post.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which ran from 1879 to 1918, was the first U.S.-government off-reservation institution in America to experiment with forced assimilation. It was founded by Richard Henry Pratt, a former cavalry soldier who believed that Native Americans could—and should—be absorbed into white American society through education.
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres,” Pratt said in 1892. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
The first children recruited to Carlisle hailed from the Dakota Rosebud reservation. Chief Spotted Tail of the Sicangu Lakota, was “reluctant to send his and others' children to be trained in the ways of the men who had violated their treaties,” writes Barbara Landis, who along with Genevieve Bell created the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. “But Pratt was persistent and urged Spotted Tail to reconsider, using the argument that had his people been able to read the white man's words, the treaties would have been better understood and such violations might not have occurred.”
In reality, the school’s objectives went much further than teaching Native children a new language. In addition to academics, pupils were required to learn trades, like tinsmithing and blacksmithing. According to Landis, there was regular military drill practice and discipline was brutally enforced.
Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indian writes that Spotted Tail sent four of his sons and two grandchildren to Carlisle. "When he realized the students were being trained as laborers, however, he tried to take all the children [out of the school]," the museum reports.
Compounding the challenges of life at Carlisle were contagious illnesses, which were rampant at the school. Steve Marroni of Pennlive.com reports that most of the children who are buried at the Carlisle Barracks died of disease. But an estimated 12,000 students were nevertheless sent to the school—some by choice others by force—and Carlisle became a model for dozens of other assimilation institutions that spread across the United States and Canada.
In 2016, members of the Northern Arapaho tribe petitioned the U.S. Army to exhume the remains of Little Chief, Horse and Little Plume. The government granted their request, and also agreed to pay the $500,000 cost of disinterring and transporting the bodies.
“It’s a long time coming,” Crawford White Sr., an elder of the tribe, tells Liz Navratil of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s something that had to be done for our tribe, and the healing begins.”
The exhumation is expected to take five days. And once the process is complete, after more than a century, Little Chief, Horse and Little Plume will finally return home.