A week that was supposed to begin the healing process for Native American tribes across the country ended in sadness when a team of archaeologists found the remains of not one but two individuals in the grave site of a young boy, neither of which matched his description.
Teams sought last week to unearth the remains of Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse, three boys who attended a first-of-its-kind boarding school that sought to eradicate their Northern Arapaho traditions and assimilate them into European-American culture.
They were among nearly 200 children who died while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and the excavation of their remains was meant to be a litmus test for similar efforts in the future.
“It’s a long time coming,” Crawford White Sr., one of the tribe’s elders, said of the effort as he sat on a folding chair earlier in the week not far from where the team was working. “It’s something that had to be done for our tribe, and the healing begins.”
Three days later, after grave sites had been excavated and an anthropologist had examined the remains, the tribe learned that at least one of their boys was still missing.
“It’s extremely sad and disappointing for the family who’s already grieving a loss that never should have taken place,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. “It’s showing that there’s more that needs to be looked into about the boarding schools, the treatment and care and responsibility that they had to our children, in life and in death.”
It’s too early to tell what this will mean for future efforts to return bodies of Native American children to their tribes. DNA testing was not conducted on these children’s remains, though other tribes could elect to have it done in the future.
Different tribes view death and grieving in different ways. And other tribes have children buried in the Carlisle Post Barracks Cemetery.
“We respect the sovereignty of tribal nations to make these decisions,” Ms. McCleave said.
A long journey
Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse arrived together at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1881, about two years after it was founded by Lt. Richard Henry Pratt, a Civil War veteran known for his strict, regimented management style.
While he was serving, Lt. Pratt guarded a group of Native American prisoners of war in St. Augustine, Fla., and sought to prove that they could assimilate to European-American culture. Feeling he had been successful, he later convinced the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow him to open the Carlisle Indian School.
His theory was a simple one: Remove the children from their Native American cultures and provide them with vocational training, and they would assimilate into European-American life.
“Kill the Indian, save the man,” he once said.
At the time, it was a progressive idea. Today, it’s recognized as one of many sources of historical trauma.
The school educated more than 10,000 Native American children from about 50 tribes across the country before it closed in 1918.
Around the time Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse left home, their chiefs held a council, according to a letter written by an agent who helped coordinate their enrollment at the school. The letter quoted Little Chief’s father, Chief Sharp Nose, as saying, “We give our children to the Government to do as they think best in teaching them the right way.” Archivists at Dickinson College, which holds many records from the school, suggest the letter should be treated with a degree of caution since it wasn’t written directly by the chief himself, but rather by an agent.
Details of the boys’ trip are scarce. They arrived in a group of 15 children — 13 boys and two girls, most Northern Arapaho but some Shoshone. Their trip took 11 or 12 days. Frank Vitale IV, with the Dickinson College archives, suspects the children likely traveled by rail based on the transportation available at the time, but they also could have spent some time on a boat.
Little Chief was 14 and stood 4 feet, 10½ inches tall. Horse was 11 and slightly taller. Little Plume, the youngest of the three whose remains are being excavated, was 9.
They arrived on March 11, 1881. Archivists have found a single photo of them — probably taken after their arrival at the school. They wore traditional clothing, likely one of the last times they would do so before school officials would replace their attire with a military-style uniform. Their long hair, which in many Native American cultures is cut only during times of grief, likely was chopped into a strict, short, military style of the era.
The three likely were separated shortly after their arrival, part of a theory that it would be easier to keep them from speaking their traditional language or reverting to their culture if they were separated.
“It’s as isolating as it gets,” said Jim Gerencser, an archivist at Dickinson.
Generally speaking, students who attended the school during that era were required to convert to Christianity. They might have participated in a group baptism at a church in Carlisle. They were required to speak English and to choose an English name on arrival.
Little Chief became Dickens Nor. Little Plume became Hayes Vanderbilt Friday. Horse became Horace Washington.
They likely were separated into units, with other students serving as their leaders. Punishments for breaking the rules were strict and sometimes included beatings.
Mark Soldier Wolf, another elder in the Northern Arapaho tribe, said he heard a story of a teacher who beat a student who couldn’t pronounce the word “grapes” because his dialect didn’t have the letter “r” in it.
“We endured it,” he was told of the beatings.
Infectious disease spread frequently around the school because the children, who came from many different areas, suddenly encountered diseases that they had no immunity against. Historians suspect the children died of such illnesses.
Little Plume died in the spring of 1882, and Horse died roughly two months later. Little Chief died the following winter, the same day some students at the school went on a sledding trip. After Little Chief died, a physician examined the other children who arrived at the school with him. Some reported bronchial troubles. At least one had malarial fever at one point, according to a letter from the time.
It’s unclear exactly how Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse died. Officials are expected to hold a news conference Monday morning that could provide more detail about the boys.
Last week, archaeologists sifted through the boys’ grave sites by hand.
Elizabeth DiGangi, an anthropologist who assisted with the efforts last week, said Monday that in order to determine whether the remains are consistent with the description of the boys, she planned to look at bone fusion and other characteristics that can be used to help determine age and sex.
Officials said late Friday that they found remains that were “biologically consistent” with those of Little Chief and Horse. At Little Plume’s grave site, they found instead the remains of two people: a 16-to 19-year-old boy and another “adolescent or adult” whose sex could not be determined. Those remains will be reburied at the cemetery.
Teams had some hints that the grave markers might not be accurate indications of who was actually buried at the plots. School officials buried students at one location. Their remains were transferred to their current site in the 1920s, after the school closed, and Army officials decided to relocate the cemetery.
An archival report written to help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepare for the excavation said, “With the data at hand, it is impossible to definitively state whether the markers are correctly associated with the physical remains of the individuals’ names on these respective markers without physical investigation.”
Members of the Northern Arapaho tribe were not immediately available for comment after the announcement that the remains at the grave site did not seem consistent with those of Little Plume.
Mr. White, one of the tribal elders, had said earlier in the week, “We have faith in what they have. We’ve been trying to work together….I think we’re OK with that.”
He, like some others in the tribe, said he hoped that anything the teams unearthed this week might teach them more about their relatives and their history.
“We’re still asking around …‘What really happened here?’” he said.
Any items buried with Little Chief and Horse will also be returned to the tribe. The Army will pay to send the boys’ remains back to Wyoming for burial on the Wind River Reservation, where many of their relatives are buried.
“That’s their homeland, and that’s their relatives,” Mr. White said. “So, we’re all looking forward to bringing them home.”