Beneath fields in Flanders, Normandy, and Okinawa, young American men and women lie in somber honor beneath row on row of white crosses. There to rest until a certain trumpet sounds.
In a clearing closer and less honored, on the grounds of what is now the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, lie nearly 200 children; gone, but never forgotten; casualties of a federal policy to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” A leading architect of that policy, former cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt, founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School on these grounds in 1879 on a model of military training.
Bringing home the Carlisle children’s remains was the subject of a potentially explosive meeting on Tuesday between the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council, representatives from several northern plains tribes, representatives of the Department of Defense, and the South Dakota congressional delegation at the Rosebud Casino. At least a few tribal councilmen, veterans of dozens of meetings with the federal bureaucracy, came prepared for a fight. Their’ frustrations were strongly expressed throughout the meeting.
After many months researching the issue, Tribal Preservation Officer Russell Eagle Bear’s office believes at least 11 of the children buried in the Pennsylvania cemetery are Sicangu Lakota. Before the meeting, Eagle Bear said his chief concern was that all the tribes with children buried at Carlisle would be lumped together, leaving the tribes to compete over who has priority. He said his tribe had done its homework, and had a plan ready to go.
Honored at the council table were members of Tokala Inajinyo, Suicide Prevention Peer Mentors and the Defending Childhood Initiative, Sicangu Youth Council. After a trip to the White House last year that included a return stop at the Carlisle Cemetery, these middle and high school students, deeply troubled by the experience, worked tirelessly to bring their ancestors home by collecting more than 1,800 signatures in a petition to their tribal council.
Sharon White Hawk, Sicangu Lakota, spoke with deep appreciation of the youths’ efforts. “This movement that our Sicangu children have started is a prayer from our ancestors… boarding school has an intergenerational effect, and we are still healing from it. Our future was taken away from us.”
Justin Buller, Associate Deputy General Counsel, Dept. of the Army, General Counsel’s Office, and a spokesman for Patrick Hallinan, Executive Director, Army National Military Cemeteries, issued an apology for all the pain and suffering caused by the failed forced extermination experiment. He also said “The Army is intent on paying to make sure your children are returned to the people they came from.” Buller said, “We are not asking for anything from you. We are only wanting to make sure we are honoring your request to return your children to you.” Hallinan’s spokesman further assured that “we will move forward in a process that works for each individual tribe.”
When asked by a tribal councilman how committed the Department of Defense was to resolving this issue, Buller said, “I can tell you I won’t be taking very many vacation days because of this.” Representatives of the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, Sisseton-Wahpeton, Oglala Lakota, Cheyenne River Sioux, and Standing Rock Sioux, all with ancestors buried at Carlisle, were told that priority will be given to “the tribes that are interested.”
Among the issues raised at the meeting was the problem that many of the Carlisle children had been exhumed and reburied to make room for new construction on the grounds, raising the specter of misidentified remains. But Sicangu Medicine Man Leonard Crow Dog confidently predicted identification would not be a problem: “Just bring them home. We have ceremony, and we can know these names.”
After the meeting, a statement from the DoD read: "The U.S. Army participated in a positive government to government consultation with leaders of the Rosebud Sioux, Northern Arapaho, Cheyenne River Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Standing Rock Sioux and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribes? today. During the consultation, we discussed the proper procedures to fulfill the regulatory requirements to disinter remains from any U.S. Army cemetery.
“Moving forward, additional consultations may occur to ensure we reach all of the affected tribes. We sincerely appreciate the comments and concerns expressed by the tribes as we continue to work towards a successful resolution to bring the young men and women home.”
U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) office also issued a statement saying: “During the 19th and early 20th centuries, nearly 830,000 Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding schools—like Carlisle—to assimilate them into what was considered ‘modern society.’ It is past time that the remains of the children who are buried at Carlisle Indian School be returned to their rightful home.”