The three boys made the trip together, nearly 2,000 miles from the grassy plains of Wyoming to a small town in central Pennsylvania. It was March 11, 1881.
Like the 10,000 other children who would eventually walk into the reconverted Army barracks as newcomers, the three were given haircuts. They were stuffed into military uniforms. Pushed into marching regiments. Forbidden from speaking the language they had known all their lives.
Even their names were taken away.
Little Chief, 14, became Dickens Nor.
Horse, 11, was now Horace Washington.
Little Plume, 9, was re-christened Hayes Vanderbilt Friday.
And within two years of arriving at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the three members of the Northern Arapaho tribe were dead. They were placed in a small cemetery that would come to hold nearly 200 other children from the school during its tenure between 1879 and 1918.
Now the three boys are also making the return trip together.
On Monday, U.S. Army personnel began digging up the graves of the three Northern Arapaho children, according to Philly.com. Fifteen members of the tribe — including direct relatives of the deceased — were on hand to witness the process, which is expected to continue into the week.
The return of the remains is a fitting epilogue to one of the uglier chapters in the history of U.S. government’s interaction with native tribes, a period when schools like Carlisle were used as tools to detach Native American youths from their traditions and cultures.
“It’s a long time coming,” Crawford White Sr., an Northern Arapaho elder, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s something that had to be done for our tribe, and the healing begins.”
The school at Carlisle was the first of its kind, and was also the idea of a former U.S. cavalry officer, Capt. Richard Henry Pratt. From his interactions with tribes in the west, Pratt became convinced Native Americans needed to shed their customs and embrace the worldview and behaviors of whites.
“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 a 1892 speech. “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.”
That last line essentially became the Carlisle school’s motto. Accounts online describe the institution as a form of military school, with a strict set of rules enforced by corporal punishment. Students were also forced to attended mandatory academic classes — arithmetic, reading and writing — while also learning trade skills such as carpentry and blacksmithing.
Eventually, the federal government set up around 150 schools based on the Carlisle model. These campuses, however, were particularly vulnerable to diseases like tuberculosis and flu. Philly.com reported 100 students died at Carlisle in the school’s first decade of operation.
After the school closed in 1918, the Northern Arapaho did not forget about the three boys back east. In 2016, members of the tribe formally petitioned the U.S. Army (the Army War College now stands on the same campus) for the remains.
The government agreed, and also agreed to pay the estimated $500,000 cost to exhume and ship the bodies back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming’s Fremont County.
“The Army is grateful to have the opportunity to help the Northern Arapaho families find closure by reuniting them with their relatives who were buried at Carlisle Barracks Cemetery more than 100 years ago,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries, told PennLive.com
According to Philly.com, the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota have also formally requested the return of the remains of their ancestors buried at the school.
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