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The remains of five Native American children who died at an Indigenous boarding school are being returned to their tribes over a century later

At Carlisle Indian school, Pennsylvania, a group of Omaha Indian boys appear in cadet uniforms, circa 1880. (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

(CNN) — The remains of five children who died at a Pennsylvania boarding school for Native Americans are going to be exhumed and returned to their families who have waited for their return for more than a century, the Office of Army Cemeteries (OAC) has announced.

The children died between 1880 and 1910 while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a boarding school for Native American children known for physical and sexual abuse, the US Department of Interior detailed in a 2022 report.

They were forced to assimilate into White society, stripped of their Indigenous names and banned from speaking their languages. If they resisted, they were punished, often violently, according to the report.

The names of the children who are being repatriated to their tribes, the OAC announced May 24, are: Edward Upright from the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota; Amos LaFramboise from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota; Beau Neal from the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming; Edward Spott from the Puyallup Tribe in Washington; and Launy Shorty from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana.

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 children returning home are among more than 10,000 students, spanning about 50 tribes, who were brought from across the United States to the school until it closed in 1918. At least 180 students were buried at the school’s cemetery in named and unnamed burials, according to the OAC.

The exhumation is the US Army’s sixth disinterment project at Carlisle Barracks, after the Army moved human remains to the post’s cemetery in 1927. So far, 29 children have been returned to their tribes, not including the upcoming disinterment.

The Army will pay for the reinterment of the remains and the return of the deceased to the closest living relatives.

“As long as I am alive, it will be my mission to bring them home”

The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, whose ancestor Amos LaFramboise is being returned, have long fought for his homecoming, which they demanded in a letter co-written with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) in March. They urged the US Army’s cemetery office speed up the process.

“Carlisle Cemetery is not and was never intended to be Amos LaFramboise’s final resting place, and his return to Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is long overdue,” the letter said. “For generations, family members, Tribal leaders, and Tribal members have longed for Amos’ return home.”

Amos was the son of “one of the most prominent and celebrated chiefs,” Chief Joseph LaFromboise, who was among the leaders to sign and execute the Lake Traverse Treaty with the US in 1867, according to the letter. This treaty established the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate reservation’s modern day reservation boundaries.

Thirteen-year-old Amos was meant to return from Carlisle after three years to lead his tribe but never made it back, dying just 20 days after his arrival at the school, according to the letter.

“[The] delay in the return of Amos and indifference towards consultation regarding Amos’ return has caused Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate unique hardships as Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is not whole until Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate’s children are returned home,” the letter said.

“When you bring them home, you bring them home like the chiefs that they are. You bring them home in a buffalo robe,” said John Eagle, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate elder and language speaker, in an article published by the NARF. “You bring them home in honor, because they would have been our chiefs if they had lived.”

Tiauna Augkhopinee, a member of the Puyallup Tribe in Washington, led the initiation to return her ancestor Edward Spott, who was 16 when he was taken to Carlisle, Augkhopinee wrote in a Facebook post.

“I’m beyond thankful to make this discovery, but at the same time pained and grieving the loss of our young relative,” Augkhopinee said. “He must have been so scared, and I know his relatives missed him. We still miss him. We WILL bring him home.”

No matter how much time has passed, the descendents of children taken from their tribes and forced into these schools cannot feel complete until all of their families return to them.

“They are waiting to come home, because they told us,” said Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate elder Marie Renville, in the NARF article. “As long as I am alive, it will be my mission to bring them home.”

A history of abuse and violently enforced assimilation

The founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Capt. Richard Pratt, believed that Native children should be stripped of their Indigenous culture and assimilated into White American culture. Pratt’s most famous speech included his notorious urging to “kill the Indian” to “save the man.”

“Students were forced to cut their hair, change their names, stop speaking their Native languages, convert to Christianity, and endure harsh discipline including corporal punishment and solitary confinement. This approach was ultimately used by hundreds of other Native American boarding schools,” according to the Carlisle Indian School Project, a non-profit that aims to commemorate the site with a museum.

In 2000, Kevin Govor, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, apologized for the “ethnic cleansing and cultural annihilation” conducted by the agency. Gover specifically cited government boarding schools as part of a “cultural assault on American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

The 2010 Defense Act included a clause where Congress apologized “on behalf of the people of the United States to all native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect.”

In 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the launch of an initiative to investigate the Native American boarding schools that forced assimilation in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Department of Interior is reviewing its past oversight of the school program, to assess how it has impacted generations of families and identify boarding school facilities and burial sites across the country, Haaland said.

The initiative was announced weeks after the discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools in Canada, renewing attention to the systemic abuse of Indigenous communities on both sides of the border.

In June 2021, the remains of 215 children were found buried near a residential school for Indigenous children in British Columbia. A month later, another 182 human remains were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of another residential school in British Columbia.

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.

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