May 27, 2016

Military Cooperates with Carlisle Repatriation Requests

Kelsey Hill

The U.S. Army pledged to return the remains of 10 Rosebud Sioux children buried over a century ago at the Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School, after meeting at the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota on May 10.

This repatriation is a victory and a small step toward reconciliation.

Now the campus of the U.S. Army War College, the Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School of Pennsylvania was established in 1879 and was in operation until 1918. This institution is considered the catalyst of the U.S. Boarding School Era and the legacy of forced assimilation and cultural destruction that followed.

More than 12,000 Native children from 150 tribes were coercibly sent to this military-style academy. Indian Studies scholar Preston McBride estimates that more than 500 of them never made it back to their families.

Through the efforts of the Sicangu Lakota Youth Council, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), and an alliance of tribal governments, 10 children’s remains will return to the Reservation for a proper and culturally-relevant burial.

During the Boarding School Era, the goal of Carlisle and other schools like it was to assimilate the children into White society, or as the founder of Carlisle said, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” — in other words, destroy Indian culture, language, and spiritual beliefs. Children were stolen from their families, forced to learn English and convert to Christianity, and endured physical and sexual violence all under the oversight and approval of the federal government.

“Our children were taken. Our language beaten out of them. Their hair cut off without ceremony. And our families torn apart”, said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, Executive Officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS).

It is therefore of the utmost importance to bring back children who were lost to this violently racist system, so their bodies and spirits will be properly buried with their familial line in their homelands.

Yufna Soldier Wolf, Director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office, requested the repatriation of his great niece’s remains from the former Carlisle school in 2007. The Army War College declined to do so, stating that the cemetery had become a part of their community and was “a beautiful tribute” to Native Americans.

The Army War College doesn’t have the right to decide what constitutes a “beautiful tribute” to Native Americans. Their Carlisle gravesites, located near a busy intersection and annually visited by tourists, paid no homage to these children’s culture or in any way acknowledged the dehumanizing treatment they were subjected to.

Last year, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe joined the Northern Arapaho in refiling repatriation requests under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). A petition created by NABS was created and raised over 1,800 signatures calling for the return of the children.

At the May 10 meeting, representatives from the Army and the Department of Defense agreed before any such document needed to be presented. Other tribes with relatives buried at Carlisle were also in attendance: the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Oglala Nation, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Cheyenne River, and the Northern Cheyenne.

The Sicangu Lakota Youth Council spoke first, giving testimony to the grief and injustice they experienced visiting Carlisle’s military cemetery last year. Their accounts of the deep sadness they had visiting the graves spoke volumes to the necessity of the children’s return.

Vi Waln, a Sicangu Lakota citizen and scribe, described in the Lakota Country Times the overwhelming pride she has for their efforts, writing “our contemporary children have shown great love for their ancestors.”

Along with their promise for repatriation, the Army also stated they were willing to finance disinterment and travel. While this token is minor in the expanse of the U.S. military budget, it remains a pivotal victory for Indian Country.

Of the 227 graves at Carlisle, 186 of them belong to Native American children. The Army will hold similar discussions with tribes in Washington and North Carolina in June and October “to ensure that other tribes are aware of the possibility and requirements to request disinterment.

There is a long and bureaucratic process before the children are in their final resting place, with extensive requirements needing to be met before official military grave exhumation. NABS and their attorneys at the Native American Rights Fund will be monitoring the progress as it unfolds.

For the remaining children’s graves at Carlisle, it is critical that the U.S. Army follows through in its efforts to repatriate remains to the correct tribal lineages. The other tribes with children buried there deserve the same right to bring their ancestors home.

The trauma inflicted by the U.S. government during the Boarding School Era has gone unrecognized and unaddressed for too long. Cooperation like this between the federal government and Native American communities is essential in healing the the trans-generational wounds left by the trauma of the boarding school experience.

Moving forward from this victory, the Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP) is calling upon the U.S. government to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that a formal process of healing can begin. LPLP is calling for this commission to focus on four tasks. First, to document the stories of boarding school survivors so that they are forever in our national records. Second, to investigate the impacts and ongoing effects of the boarding school policy. Third, to come up with recommendations on how to address the inter-generational trauma, and lastly to establish a way in which Tribal government can set-up their own foster care systems.

Only through truth and reconciliation can our society understand the full effect of this era, and ensure that the victims of government-approved cultural genocide are not lost to history.

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