For six years, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, also known as Sicangu Lakota, negotiated the return of the remains of 11 children and young adults who have been buried there for generations. Next week, the remains of nine of those children will arrive in South Dakota, just as officials in the US and Canada confront the countries’ grim history of Indigenous boarding schools.
“It was a government model… basically, eradicate the Indian in you and replace it with a White man way of thinking,” said Rodney Bordeaux, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “‘Take the Indian on and save the child’ was kind of the talk back then.”
“What they forgot is the real resiliency of who we are, how we came about, how we survived and how we’re continuing to survive,” he added.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first off-reservation boarding school for Native American children, and was built on the abandoned Carlisle Barracks, according to the National Museum of the American Indian and the US Army War College. The college now occupies the site.
The deceased are among more than 10,000 students, spanning about 50 tribes, who were brought from across the US to the school until it closed in 1918.
The nine children and young adults are part of the more than 180 students buried on the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery in named and unnamed burials, according to the Office of Army Cemeteries.
The students were between the ages of 12 and 18 when they arrived at the school, said Russell Eagle Bear, a historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Their names, according to the Office of Army Cemeteries, are: Dennis Strikes First (Blue Tomahawk); Rose Long Face (Little Hawk); Lucy Take The Tail (Pretty Eagle); Warren Painter (Bear Paints Dirt); Ernest Knocks Off (White Thunder); Maud Little Girl (Swift Bear); Alvan, aka Roaster, Kills Seven Horses, One That Kills Seven Horses; Friend Hollow Horn Bear; and Dora Her Pipe (Brave Bull).
While some remains have been returned to their families and tribes in recent years, the remains of more than 100 people are still buried on the former school grounds, the OAC said.
It’s unclear which tribes the rest of the children came from “due to poor record- keeping by the Indian Bureau during the operation of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” the OAC said in a statement.
A group of teens fought for the repatriation
Malorie Arrow was a teenager when she and a few other members of the tribe’s youth council made a stop on the grounds of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School after a 2015 trip to a conference in Washington, DC.
“It wasn’t until we got to the grave sites that… till we got to the parking lot of the grave sites that we all started crying…like we all started crying, we all felt the energy there,” said 22-year-old Arrow.
That visit sparked a movement within the tribe, led by youth members on that trip who began asking their elders why they couldn’t just bring the children home, said Akichita Cikala Hoksila Eagle Bear, 23, another member of the youth council.
“We got tired of waiting for someone to be our advocate so we had to become our own advocate. We saw a change that we needed so we became the change,” said Asia Ista Gi Win Black Bull, 21, a youth council member.
“One little spark of the youth group, visiting Carlisle sparked a whole (Lakota) nation down here,” she added.
Next week, a delegation of relatives, tribal leaders and members of the youth council will travel with the remains as they made their journey to the reservation.
Tribal members will then hold a ceremony near the Missouri River, which is the place where officials believe the children took a steamboat and began their trip to Pennsylvania, said Eagle Bear, the historic preservation officer said.
“That’s the last time they saw their parents and relatives, not knowing where they were going or what was happening to them,” he said.
After relatives and tribe members pay their respects and pray for the children during a wake, the remains of seven of them will be buried at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Veterans Cemetery and two in their family’s land, according to Eagle Bear.
US officials will investigate more boarding schools
The children’s homecoming is an opportunity for their descendants to heal but also a realization of how many more children are left to be found, Indigenous rights advocates and tribal members say.
The Department of Interior will review its past oversight of the school program, assess how it has impacted generations of families and identify boarding school facilities and burial sites across the country, Haaland said.
While the unmarked graves discovered in recent weeks were in Canada, Christine Diindiisi McCleave, chief executive of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, says similar discoveries could also take place in the US.
“If you look at the numbers here from the United States, we had twice as many schools. You can basically just estimate that our numbers will be double what they found in Canada,” McCleave said.
Because the coalition has been working for more than a decade in collecting records for the more than 300 boarding schools across the country, McCleave says federal authorities are taking on a challenging task.
For McCleave, the recent discoveries of unmarked graves have brought up pain and trauma for many Indigenous communities, reminding them of their families’ grief and how they lost their language and culture over the years.
As the Sicangu Lakota prepare for the children’s homecoming, they know there’s much more to be done.
“This is the very start of the fire,” Black Bull says. There are many children that remain unaccounted for and many former boarding schools that should be investigated, she said.