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Tribes Strike Historic Deal for Return of Children Buried at Residential School

The agreement is “finally righting a wrong that was done to us so many years ago,” said one Arapaho tribe member.

Chiracahua Apache children pose for a photo at the Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania, which sought to "kill the Indian, save the man."

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. In Canada, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

It took nearly 150 years, but Amos LaFromboise and Edward Upright will soon return home in the manner of chiefs, guided by their sovereign nations.

In an unprecedented move this week, the U.S. Army made concessions long sought by tribes over the disinterment and repatriation, in time for repatriations of five students who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial school in the late 19th century.

Previous repatriations from Carlisle’s cemetery were handled under Army protocol, which restricted Indigenous ceremonies and specified that remains be handed over only to next of kin.

The new agreement allows the remains of LaFromboise from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe of South Dakota and Upright from the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota to be turned over to the care of their tribes and families, and spells out numerous times during the disinterment and repatriation processes for the tribes to “perform any requisite ceremonies.”

In addition to other concessions, the Army agreed to provide two buffalo robes for the remains of the two boys as well as firewood for a sweat lodge that will be built on the cemetery grounds.

The agreement was signed in a special ceremony with tribal leaders on Wednesday, Sept. 13, and the disinterments for the two boys are set to begin Sunday, Sept. 17.

“The signing ceremony is a symbol of the six-year battle to bring our children home,” Tamara St. John, a Sisseton tribal citizen and archivist for the tribe’s Historic Preservation Office, told ICT.

“This has been a fight for sovereignty for us as a sovereign nation to be able to take control of this process, to do things the way we know they need to be done guided by our protocols, our spirituality, in order to bring our children home with honor.”

The two boys are among five Indigenous students who are being disinterred at Carlisle this month and will be returned to their tribes and families. In addition to LaFromboise and Upright, they include Beau Niel, Northern Arapaho; Launey Shorty, Blackfeet Nation; and Edward Spott, Puyallup.

The students died between 1879 and 1910 while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Another 136 Native children remain buried at the Carlisle cemetery, according to the Army. They are among thousands of students who died while attending Indian boarding schools across the United States, many of whom were forcibly taken from their families and shipped thousands of miles from home.

Army Regulations

Leaders from Sisseton and other tribes have objected for years to the restrictive Army policies, arguing instead that the rules of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, known as NAGPRA, should guide the proceedings.

NAGPRA provides a process for federal agencies and museums that receive federal funds to repatriate human remains and other cultural items to lineal descendants and to tribes. The Army insists that the NAGPRA statute doesn’t apply to them. Attorneys from the Native American Rights Fund, which is representing Sisseton, sent a letter in March to the Office of Army Cemeteries saying the statute does, indeed, apply.

The Army, however, requires requests for disinterment — Army representatives do not use the word repatriation — include affidavits from the closest living relative of the deceased as well as a sworn statement from a third party verifying the relative’s claims. Disinterment is considered a family matter alone.

But locating the closest relative of a child who died nearly 150 years ago can be challenging and sometimes impossible, according to NARF attorneys. And placing the responsibility on descendants alone can be impossible financial and logistical burdens.

The NAGPRA, conversely, allows for cultural affiliation as proof of tribal authority with the tribe taking the lead in repatriations. Attorneys from NARF also say the Army fails to consult tribes when setting disinterment schedules and offers limited financial support for descendants in the process.

The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake tribes have been working for six years to bring LaFromboise and Upright home.

The Sisseton Wahpeton and Spirit Lake tribes are one family, according to St. John, though the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is in South Dakota and the Spirit Lake Tribe is in North Dakota.

“We are under the same treaty of Feb. 19, 1867, and our battle has been to be able to do things together in the way that we know that we need to do with our spirituality,” she said.

There is no mechanism built into the NAGPRA to truly sanction federal agencies that refuse to abide by the statute’s requirement that tribes be consulted, according to Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive officer of the Association on American Indian Affairs.

The lack of enforcement has effectively muted tribal leaders from objecting publicly to the Army’s protocols, she said.

“Many tribes are worried if they bring controversy to the process, it will further delay the return of their ancestors,” said O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation.

The Army’s continued resistance to NAGPRA and tribal sovereignty is a continuation of the government’s ongoing violence towards Native people, according to O’Loughlin.

“It’s like, ‘the war goes on,’ right? They are continuing to commit violence against us,” she said.

The agreement between the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and the Spirit Lake Tribe with the Army in no way cedes the agency’s current claims of authority over disinterments conducted in the school cemeteries.

But the Army’s willingness to sign the agreement is an important step in the right direction, according to Jason Searle, an attorney for NARF who represents both tribes.

“Hopefully, this will help educate the Army on why it’s important to engage meaningfully with tribes,” Searle said.

Repatriations at Carlisle

LaFromboise was the first student to die at the notorious Carlisle school.

Part of the initial group of Indigenous youths taken to Carlisle, he arrived on Nov. 6, 1879, and died 20 days later on Nov. 26. Newspaper reports at the time suggest that he was already ill when he arrived at the school. He was 13.

Col. Richard Pratt, superintendent of Carlisle, traveled to the Plains states in 1879 to recruit students for the school’s first class. He gathered about 200 students who traveled in several groups to the school.

Children who were part of that first class in 1879 were considered the best and brightest among their communities; their recruitment was also viewed as a means to keep the Plains tribes from resisting government control, according to St. John.

“The fathers of these children are chiefs or leading men in their tribes,” Pratt wrote in an 1879 letter to E.H. Hoyt, the commissioner of Indian affairs, noting later that “as training and development of their children goes forward, family and friends will be restrained by that fact and also seek for themselves a better state of civilization.”

Upright, from Spirit Lake, was part of the same group as LaFromboise and died in May 1881 at age 12. According to school archives kept by Dickinson College, he died from pneumonia while recovering from measles.

The other boys being disinterred this month also died while attending the school.

Niel, Northern Arapaho tribe from what was then the Cheyenne Arapaho Agency in Montana, arrived at Carlisle on Oct. 27, 1879, and died about 10 months later, on Aug. 20, 1880, at age 13 or 14 from enteritis. Archives show that Pratt sought to send Niel and three other ill students home. Niel died before he could leave the school.

Spott, of the Puyallup tribe in Washington state, arrived at Carlisle on Aug. 9, 1894, and died on April 18, 1896, at age16 of “consumption,” a common term at the time for tuberculosis. According to the Indian Helper, a school newspaper collected in the Dickinson archives, Spott was “a young man full of hopes and possibilities, beloved by all who knew him.”

Shorty, of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, arrived at Carlisle on March 26, 1890, and died on Sept. 23, 1892, of consumption at age 18. According to the Indian Helper, he had just returned to the school from an “outing placement,” a program in which students were placed at locations away from the school to work, often on farms or with local families.

Jordan Dresser of the Northern Arapaho tribe in Wyoming, Niel’s descendant, traveled to Carlisle in September along with members of the tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office to collect the remains.

Dresser, who was part of a team that created a film about the tribe’s repatriation work, noted that it was efforts by the Northern Arapaho Tribe that started the push for repatriations from Carlisle beginning in 2007.

The Northern Arapaho were the first tribe to successfully repatriate ancestors from the Carlisle cemetery in 2017. Yufna Soldier Wolf, former director of the tribe’s historic preservation office, fought a long battle with the Army, which initially refused to allow repatriation. Her work has been covered extensively in the news media.

“They (the Army) showed a lot of respect and were very mindful of us during this disinterment,” Dresser said.

The respect, however, has been hard won by ongoing tribal efforts, according to Dresser.

Niel is the last of the Northern Arapaho children who died at the school to return home.

“His (Niel’s) return is finally righting a wrong that was done to us so many years ago,” Dresser told ICT. “It feels good; it feels like closure.”

Since 2017, the Army has disinterred 28 remains of Native children from the Carlisle cemetery, not including those performed this year, and returned them to their families, according to Olivia Van Den Heuvel, a public affairs specialist for the Office of Army Cemeteries.

When asked about the process and cost to the Army for procuring buffalo robes for the Sisseton/Spirit Lake children, an official said the information was not available.

“Bring Them Home With Honor”

The recent agreement between the two tribes and the Army is significant, according to Beth Wright, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna who is an attorney for NARF.

“This agreement was negotiated from the ground up; each piece is something on which the parties consented rather than the Army directing the process,” she said. “This agreement stands out as an example that tribes do have power to steer things in a direction that is respectful to them.”

Wright also noted that since the original purpose of boarding schools was to prevent Native children from engaging in traditional practices, it’s especially meaningful for tribes today to have ceremony at Carlisle.

The success of the agreement, however, will depend on what happens on the day of disinterments, according to Wright.

St. John recalled the words of Sisseton elder and language speaker John Eagle regarding the importance of conducting the repatriations according to tribal customs and protocols.

“He said, ‘When you bring them home, you bring them home like the chiefs that they are; you bring them home in buffalo robes; you bring them home in honor, because they would have been our chiefs if they had lived,’” St. John said.

The tribe plans to bury the boys on Sisseton and Spirit Lake lands soon after their return.

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