March 03, 2016

Repatriating Remains of Boarding School Victims

Ardy Raghian

A group of young Rosebud Sioux tribal members visited the remains of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School last year. They left that site with a mission—to repatriate the remains of at least 10 Lakota students who died while at the school.

“I really want to bring their remains back to be reunited with their family and tribe,” said Sydney Horse Looking to the Lakota Country Times. “Perhaps it will help them feel like they belong again,” said the young activist who is working on a resolution to repatriate and rebury the remains.

Founded in 1879, the Carlisle school is notorious for being the first federally funded off-reservation Indian boarding school. It was the flagship school for the Boarding School Era, which took place between the late 19th and early 20th century.

During this time period, the United States government forcefully separated Native American children from their families, committing genocide under the United Nation’s definition of the term, by forbidding and degrading Native practices and languages.

Children were brutalized emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually in boarding schools like Carlisle, in some cases to the point of death, according to testimonies.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has been gathering information on how to bring the remains of tribal members home. Working alongside other First Nations whose students died at Carlisle, their biggest roadblock is getting the approval of the commanding officer of the U.S. Army War College, which replaced the Carlisle school after it shut down in 1918.

“I really want to bring their remains back to be reunited with their family and tribe.” 

– -Sydney Horse, activist

Another roadblock is the fact that the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, which exists to protect Native remains and funerary objects, doesn’t apply to active military bases like at present day Carlisle. It is necessary for the remains of these children to be returned to their respective tribes, to deny this request would be a great disrespect.

The goal of the Carlisle boarding school was to “kill the Indian, save the man,” according to its founder, Henry Pratt, who was a U.S Army captain who partook in the Washita Massacre, where over two-hundred men, women, and children were killed. This racist ideology was at the core of the boarding schools, the underlying purpose was to assimilate the children into the dominant Caucasian culture.

Carlisle’s boarding school was the model for twenty-six Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools across fifteen states, and hundreds of private boarding schools sponsored by religious groups. Canada used the U.S model for its Native boarding school program, which they recently condemned as being a form of “cultural genocide” in their Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s December 2015 report.

The Lakota People’s Law Project is calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to record the testimonies of those who experienced the abusive boarding schools, release a comprehensive national study into the history of the policy and how it continues to affect Native communities, and provide recommendations to Congress on how to begin a process of healing and reconciliation.