Although it has been over 125 years since the end of hostilities between the U.S. Government and Native American tribes, and one wound still remains unhealed. On Monday, Aug. 7th the U.S. Army and elders of the Northern Arapaho Tribe met on a small field in Carlisle Pa to close one of the final chapters in a dark period by exhuming and returning the remains of three tribal children who died while attending the U.S. Indian Industrial School.
Most Americans consider the Indian Wars to be a long-forgotten aspect of western expansion. To members of many of the Native American tribes who found themselves on the losing end of the conflict the pain still lives in legend, lore, and memories passed from fathers and grandfathers. One focal point is the unlikely town of Carlisle Pennsylvania. While no armies ever met in Carlisle it could none the less be considered the last battlefield, the sight of a fight for the very future of Native American culture.
From 1879 to 1918 the U.S. Army’s Carlisle Barracks, now home to the U.S. Army War College, was the sight of the U.S. Indian Industrial School. Supporters of the school considered it a forward thinking means of providing Native American children a chance to assimilate into western culture. Tribal leaders and the parents of the children forced into the school believed it to be an attempt to kill the former enemy culture. Despite the good intentions of those who managed the school and 26 others like it history tends to side with tribal beliefs on this one, especially given the school’s philosophy “Kill the Indian: Save the Man.”
Records support the belief that life in Carlisle was cruel for many of the students. All aspects of Native American culture were forbidden. Students were forced to dress, talk and act like westerners and those who disobeyed were punished. Students were also exposed to a wide array of western diseases unknown prior to exposure to the white man. Over the course of the school’s existence close to 200 students would die and be buried in a small cemetery near what is now the Main Gate.
Among the dead were three Northern Arapaho children- Chief Sharp Nose’s son Little Chief, Horse and Little Plume. Descendants of each have engaged in a multi-year campaign to have their remains returned to tribal land and on Monday were on hand to witness the process begin, which Army officials are undertaking with all the respect and care afforded military remains unearthed in foreign lands.
Officials have erected fences and tents to shield workers from the public and provide relatives privacy while they observe the activities. Each gravesite will be unearthed by hand, the dirt carefully shifted and all remains & artifacts collected for examination. The remains will be examined by a forensic anthropologist to ensure they match the age & gender of each young man.
Finally, the children will be transferred to the tribal representatives. Art Smith, chief of the Army National Military Cemeteries, called it “a special mission.”
Hopefully, this modern-day gesture will help close the door on a long over war for America, erasing a scar from the face of what is today a noble institution of military learning.
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