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Gone but not forgotten

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As Comanche children who died around 1900 in the smallpox epidemic, their resting spots were known for decades, but unmarked. Now, a neatly-lined row of 10 headstones reminds the rest of the world that they belonged to the tribe.

The recently erected headstones are part of a program the Comanche Nation has established to give markers to ancestors who are gone but not forgotten, officials said.

“This is a way to love and honor our relatives,” said Program Coordinator Sandra Toyekoyah. “People took care of these graves, but then they passed on, too.”

The 16,000-member tribe uses money from tax commission sales, including car tags, to fund the Comanche Nation Tombstone Program. Eligibility requirements say the deceased must be a tribal member who died before 2002 and need a marker.

Locating the graves can be a time consuming process. This program doesn’t put up markers without a consultation and research process. With more than 12 Indian cemeteries (church and family) in Comanche County, the work moves slowly.

In these rural plots, abundant markers are sometimes luxuries. Once inside the brambled fences, the graves may be marked with only a piece of rock, an unreadable funeral home plaque, or nothing.

The epidemic victims at Deyo got their markers at a tribal ceremony in April. The road was grazed into the cemetery and a new fence built around the mission by the tribe. The new stones, written in Comanche, say they are “Numunu Turetu” (Comanche children) whose remains were repatriated from one site to another in 1903. The markers also say they died of smallpox.

Common oral history says the disease hit after tribal members received blankets carrying smallpox germs that cause fever, aches and sores; death usually follows.

Local Deyo Mission members knew where the graves were located for decades. Those who could tended them faithfully, but the graves fell into disrepair as these caretakers died.

In this instance, the tribe used ground-penetrating radar to verify the presence of 10 sets of remains.

Surpisingly, those who died in yesteryear were meticulously recorded by old churches in the area, both Indian and non-Indian, officials said. In Deyo (mission), an elderly minister kept painstaking records, Toyekoyah said.

“He knew of some graves that we didn’t even know were there.”

In other cases, newspaper and church records are the compasses for locating the unmarked graves. In June, the program reviewed 16 applicants.

Every now and then, however, family members are still alive who can verify the graves’ presence or the owner. Program workers are finding that tribal veterans have many unmarked graves, a fact they hope to change.

Comanches are buried, quite literally, all over their jurisdiction, which covers several counties in southwest Oklahoma. But, so are tribal members who died in other states in the 1930s to 1960s, when Indians relocated for better economic prospects. The headstone project also puts headstones on out-of-state graves.

Time can be cruel to graves; if the unmarked site belongs to someone who died in the 1800s, it’s likely that no details exist on the grave’s owner. Families with no descendants can die out. Also, tribal identity was different in the old days.

“Sometimes we just know one name and we have to make sure we have the right person,” Toyekoyah said. “They deserve to be honored instead of nothing to show that they were here.”

How many unmarked Indian graves exist are only estimates, said Robert Brooks, state archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma. Cedar markers or stones were the usual markers of the time. With the elements and progress, those markers often become casualties; sometimes they were plowed under as farmers sought to gain control of the Oklahoma Plains, Brooks said.

“The agricultural push was from the 1900s to the Dust Bowl. The graves were unfortunately cleared away. The tribes themselves don’t know just how many unmarked graves there are.”

Getting the headstones is not like shopping for gardening supplies, tribal officials said. The ones used by the Comanches are ordered by a local mason at a discounted rate. One new marker can take upwards of nine weeks to finish.

Other Oklahoma tribes, including the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Caddo Nation have tribally funded programs to clean up traditional cemeteries, Brooks said. Meanwhile, the tombstone program has been embraced by those in the Comanche Nation.

Raymond Almanza, chairman of the tribe’s elder council, said older tribal members are keen at remembering where unmarked graves are. And families are grateful.

“There have been countless graves that have been unmarked. They are doing good work.”