There was a moment in early August when Hubert Friday sat on a folding chair outside a large wall tent on the grounds of the Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, and he lapsed into speaking Arapaho. It’s an unhurried language, guttural consonants and rounded vowels. Friday lowered his head so that his chin tucked into his chest and his cowboy hat shaded his face. When he paused, I asked what he was saying.
He sat up in his chair and took a deep breath, rolling his head to the right, in the direction of a small cemetery with faded white grave stones, surrounded now by fencing and tarps. In a voice that had to fight its way out his chest, he said, “I was telling them, ‘Come home!’”
He was speaking to three Northern Arapaho children buried in the cemetery more than 130 years ago: Little Chief, Horse, and Little Plume. They came to Carlisle to serve the vision of Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, whose experience in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars of the 1870s subduing and “civilizing” Native Americans led him to propose a boarding school where Native American youngsters would be reprogrammed in the image of their conquerors. The three Northern Arapaho children — addressed by Anglicized names Dickens Nor, Horace Washington, and Hayes Vanderbilt Friday — would go to class in child-sized military uniforms, speak only English, and spend their summers working as farmhands, domestic servants and tradesmen for white families near Carlisle.
It’s one of those chapters that gets short shrift in United States history books, when it’s not omitted altogether. Boarding schools for Indians proliferated in the late 19th century. Most followed Pratt’s example and hued to his philosophy: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” That meant putting vast distances between Indian children and their families and culture. When a U.S. Army historian guides tours around the Carlisle Barracks, he talks about its long history as a military training and teaching facility. The only mention of the Indian boarding school is about Jim Thorpe, the illustrious athlete from Carlisle who starred in pro football and the Olympics.
The little cemetery on the west side of the U.S. Army War College is not part of the usual tour. There, 194 gravestones memorialize Indian youth who died hundreds of miles from home and family, often of European diseases for which they had no immunities. As Hubert Friday would learn a few days later, even some of the gravestones got the story sorrowfully wrong.
Carlisle: An institution of conquest
To understand what occurred at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, one has to imagine the migratory Cuisinart of North America in the 1880s, particularly from the Native American perspective. The displacement of indigenous people — geographic, economic, and cultural — was relentless. Many of the tribes identified with the Great Plains, like the Sioux and the Arapaho, were pushed there from the Great Lakes region by white immigrants following their “Manifest Destiny” west. Adjusting to a very different environment, tribes shifted from a settled, agrarian life to a nomadic culture. The mythic images of the Plains Indian hunting and fighting on horseback belies the fact that this was a new and short-lived lifestyle; Europeans brought the horse to North America, and their descendants would soon corral nomadic bands onto reservations where nimble horsemanship was of little use.
In 1879, when Carlisle was founded, the so-called “Indian Wars” were winding down after decades of fighting, in some cases dating back to early tribal alliances during the Revolutionary War. Native peoples were again trying to adjust to radical change, as the American military tried to confine rebellious tribes to reservations — usually leftover real estate unwanted by white settlers — and the great buffalo herds disappeared. Only a few years before Northern Arapaho children were shipped to Carlisle, Arapaho warriors fought in the Battle of the Greasy Grass — popularly known as the Battle of Little Big Horn, or Custer’s Last Stand. Young boys who assisted the warriors behind the front lines would not long after find themselves wearing American military outfits at boarding schools.
Sharp Nose, Little Chief’s father, an Arapaho warrior who would later become chief, was acutely aware of the challenges his people faced. The Northern Arapaho were sharing the Wind River Indian Reservation with the Eastern Shoshone, uneasy confederates who had once fought each other. The transition to farming was proving difficult. In the years to come, reservation leaders would trade away chunks of land for cattle and money to feed their people.
The year Sharp Nose allowed Little Chief to be taken to Carlisle, he dictated a letter to his new school: “We are anxious to go on learning till we know how to do as white men do…There are not enough good men to show us how to plant and cultivate our crops.” Other tribal leaders ceding their children to Carlisle were quoted in the letter declaring an end to warfare, and asking, in one plaintive sentence, that a son’s hair not be cut. Sharp Nose concluded: “We give our children to the Government to do as they think best in teaching them the right way, hoping that the officers will, after a while, permit us to go and see them.”
Two years later, Little Chief would be dead, and buried on the grounds at Carlisle.
When news of Little Chief’s death reached his father, Sharp Nose was guiding President Chester Arthur on a vacation to Yellowstone National Park. Sharp Nose immediately cut his long hair, a traditional expression of mourning. He had not seen his son since the 9-year-old had boarded the train to go east, three years earlier.
“How many high schools do you know that have their own cemeteries?” asked Barbara Landis, a historian from the Cumberland County Historical Society, darkly underlining the isolation and peril of Indian boarding schools as she toured Northern Arapaho visitors around the grounds.
The school closed in 1918. Of the roughly 8,500 children from 140 tribes who came through its doors, less than 10 percent graduated, though “graduation” as the term is understood today wasn’t the institution’s primary goal.
Carlisle was in some ways viewed as a failed experiment. Congressional hearings revealed financial mismanagement, including questionable use of funds generated by the forced labor of the enrolled children.
A decade later, the cemetery became yet another casualty. The remains were dug up and moved to the edge of the barracks by “Poorhouse Road” to make room for expansion of army facilities.
Yufna Soldierwolf is a relative of Little Chief’s, and a great-granddaughter of Sharp Nose. Her grandfather, Scott Dewey, also attended Carlisle. He lived to come home, and kept alive the memory of his older brother, Little Chief. When she was a child there was occasionally talk in the family and in the Northern Arapaho tribe about bringing the remains of children who had been taken away generations ago back to the Wind River Indian Reservation; but the notion of disturbing graves was controversial within the tribe.
Still, Soldierwolf saw a need. She was one of many younger tribal members who looked both to the past and future for answers to the struggles she saw around her — broken families, alcohol and drugs, lack of educational success, directionless youth: “Why aren’t things happening in a better way for us?” When she looked at photographs of her ancestors a century ago, she noticed “there were no kids in the pictures from back then. Because they didn’t have their kids.”
While attending Montana State University in 2007, Soldierwolf wrote to the Army, asking about disinterring Little Chief and reburying him at Wind River.
In response, a legal officer at Carlisle Barracks — which now functions as the U.S. Army War College — informed her that “We would hate to disrupt such a tranquil site.” The cemetery “has become part of our community” and “represents one of the most beautiful tributes to the Native American people.” And then this circumlocution: “These remains were not buried here without the consent of the families.” Records examined by researchers led by Jim Gerencser at Dickinson College show no evidence that families were contacted about burials in the early years of the school, but early in the 20th century the school began notifying families, and in some cases bodies of deceased students were returned rather than buried at the school. It is a near certainty that no family was consulted when the graves were moved to make way for the barracks.
A decade later, Yufna Soldierwolf is the director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office. She knows firsthand all the ins and outs of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — a 1990 law that empowers tribes to retrieve artifacts and human remains from federal agencies, or institutions like museums that receive federal funding.
Repatriation of remains from Carlisle, however, is not governed by NAGPRA, and the Army replied to her inquiry with a laundry list of conditions that would have to be met “prior to even addressing the issue of whether we will support such an action.” Undeterred, Soldierwolf diligently and relentlessly jumped through every hoop, and over every hurdle the Army brandished.
Then, rather suddenly in 2016, the Army capitulated: it agreed to disinter the remains of the three Northern Arapaho boys and return them to the tribe.
The Army hired a private firm to determine as accurately as possible what was beneath each headstone. Using ground-penetrating radar to survey remains, and archival research to understand the stories of the buried children, the firm prepared a 150-page compendium describing what was known of each child and how he or she arrived in a particular gravesite.
Little Chief was said to be in grave E-4, under a headstone labeled “Dickens.” He was 15 when he died, on Jan. 22, 1883. Little Plume they believed was in E-1, under a headstone labeled “Hayes”, either 12 or 10 years old (the records differ, according to the Army’s report) when he died on April 15, 1882. Horse, the records suggested, was in plot E-16, under a stone reading “Horace”, 14 years old when he died June 12, 1882. Absent from the cold data is the heartbreak of three boys who had arrived at Carlisle together in 1881 and died two years later, far from the embraces of their families.
A diverse team
With the disinterment imminent, Soldierwolf scrambled to assemble a delegation of elders and youth to go to Pennsylvania. The elders – including her father, Mark Soldierwolf, brothers Nelson and Crawford White, and Hubert Friday – would conduct traditional ceremonies, and advise Yufna Soldierwolf in her dealings with Army officials, archeologists and forensic anthropologists.
The young people would be there to help the elders, learn about the boarding school experience of their ancestors and relatives (few living boarding school alumni speak about the experience, even with family), and perhaps deal with some inherited sorrows of their own.
Millie Friday, who leads the White Buffalo Recovery Center at St. Michael’s Mission (once the site of a missionary boarding school), chose six young tribal members for the delegation based on their letters of interest. She also accompanied the expedition to help the young people process the experience of, “our kids bringing our kids back.” But her own emotions were churning throughout the visit. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she said, midway through the process of opening the graves. “This is an evil place. I can’t help it. All the truths we have to accept and face.”
She struggled for a moment to control herself, then added, “But we make it better by being here, with the elders.”
Making it better was very much on the elders’ minds. “Maybe it will turn a light on,” said Nelson White of bringing back the three children’s remains. “And we’ll start to help one another.”
The young Northern Arapaho who helped Nelson White and the other elders by taking hold of an arm when they walked around Carlisle clearly had a lot of lights going on. Loveeda White, who rarely spoke in several meetings leading up to the journey, volunteered at Carlisle to share what was going through her head and heart. The three Northern Arapaho children would be coming home, but “I keep coming back to the ‘Unknowns,’” she said, “and how lonely they must be. Who are they? Who cares about them?”
The team assembled by the Army quickly won over the Wind River delegation. Michael “Sonny” Trimble, chief archaeologist of the Army Corps of Engineers, assured them that most of the work would be done by hand, that no remains would be moved off-site unless accompanied by tribal members, and no DNA testing would be done, in deference to the elders’ wishes. Trimble is something of a legend for his work under fire in Iraq investigating remains of victims of the Saddam Hussein regime, and for his handling of the controversial 9,000-year-old Kennewick man’s remains, which the Corps endeavored to return to Northwest tribes despite the objections of other archeologists.
Trimble said the team wanted to be “crystal clear” that these were the right remains. Such certainty would require “a close forensic examination.” That raised concerns among the elders about humans touching the remains. But forensic anthropologist Elizabeth DiGangi, who would determine the age and gender, movingly said that she knew these were “the bones of someone who was loved and is still loved,” and said she would “treat them like the bones of my grandmother.”
Only tribal members were allowed within the cemetery while the team worked, and the work went fast. On the third day, all the remains were disinterred. That afternoon, I went with an exhausted Yufna Soldierwolf to Carlisle’s dilapidated farmhouse, the last unaltered structure from the original school. She talked about the healing effect of retrieving the children, but I pressed her about what came next: Wrongs of the past may be righted, but how do you move forward?
She said: “When this is done, the young people can put it to rest, but also realize what’s possible, how we did this, and what we’re capable of. They can get PhDs, they can become astronomers and physicists. It’s all possible.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the farmhouse.
Soldierwolf stopped by the cemetery that evening on the way back to her motel. Sonny Trimble came out from the enclosed area where they were sifting soil from the graves and examining remains. He had some news about the remains they had disinterred under Hayes Vanderbilt Friday’s gravestone. They were not the bones of a 12-year-old boy. There were in fact parts of two skeletons, both 17-year-old males. Trimble, too, was crying.
He had said, at the outset, the team “feel(s) very confident” they were retrieving the right remains. What could have gone wrong, then, in the process leading up to the disinterment?
For a possible answer, go back, for a moment, to the Army’s privately contracted research leading up to the cemetery dig. “Archival Research of the Carlisle Indian School Cemetery,” published in July 2017, only weeks before the graves would be dug up, confidently places Hayes in plot E-1, and cites a series of cemetery maps dating back to 1927 — when the cemetery was moved to its current location — and several inventories, which it says confirm the location of the boy’s body.
But the records at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center — located adjacent to the Carlisle Barracks — are much more ambiguous. One of the earliest maps lists Plot E-1 as “Frederick Skahsojah”, and puts Hayes in Plot E-15 (next to his friend Horse, or Horace Washington). Several other early records, including a list compiled by high school students who walked the cemetery and recorded names from the inscriptions on the markers, agree with this alternative assessment.
The Army report, which guided the archeologists, says nothing of this discrepancy in its listing of “Hayes” at E-1. But in the listing for Plot E-15, while it identifies the occupant as “Frederick Skahsojah”, it notes “The decedent affiliated with this plot was recorded as ‘Hayes’ in Map (1947), however this was likely an error.” The report incorrectly suggests this was a one-time mistake, when in fact Hayes and Frederick swap places in several documents. It’s not clear whether the archeologists, given the unambiguous description of E-1 in the archival report, even saw the caveat in the E-15 listing.
(Several calls to the Carlisle Barracks public affairs office for the Army’s perspective on these documents were not returned.)
Jim Gerencser, the archivist at Dickinson College’s Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, and his colleague Frank Vitale have independently documented the errors in the Army report that guided the archeologists, and notes that the 17-year-old bones found in Plot E-1 fit the profile of Frederick Skahsojah, an Apache, and the children in the graves adjacent to Skahsojah in the original cemetery, which “likely means that some of the remains of (those) who were in adjacent plots in the earlier cemetery got mixed up with those of Frederick during the move of the cemetery in 1927.”
Hope for the future
As fraught as the return of Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse is for their relatives among the Northern Arapaho, it also has wide-ranging ramifications all across Indian Country. There are graves, marked and unmarked, at many of the boarding schools that followed Carlisle. There are children who ran away from those schools but never returned to their reservations, and other children who were removed and adopted by non-Indians. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is petitioning the U.S. government and the United Nations for a full accounting of Native American children who died or went missing. Director Christine McCleave is seeking a process like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which uncovered more than 6,000 children who had died or gone missing while at boarding schools.
The Northern Arapaho elders, private about ceremonies and prayers, and naturally cautious and reticent around media, are willing to shed their privacy to share the truth of what happened. “Tell the story,” said Crawford White. “It’s got to come out. Tell the whole story. Good will come of it.”
Though the clues seem to point to a different grave at Carlisle where Hayes may lie, the team that dug up Little Chief and Horse won’t be digging again anytime soon. New applications will have to be made, and a new investigation of the evidence. There are fears about mistakenly excavating remains from other tribes, concerns shared by some members of the Northern Arapaho tribe back at Wind River.
On August 18, the remains of Horse were reburied at Saint Stephens Cemetery on the Wind River Indian Reservation, and the warmth and welcome was palpable as a long line of tribal members walked up to the open grave and threw handfuls of dirt on the casket.
Little Chief was honored with prayers and ceremonies as he was reburied at the ridgetop site of Sharp Nose Cemetery, the curving grandeur of the Wind River Mountains sentinel in the west.
But it was a hard, heavy morning that same day as Hubert and Betty Friday walked around the Friday Cemetery, by the flags marking where a grave would be dug that would have held Little Plume. There were small consolations: a ceremonial honoring of the absent boy with soil and memorial artifacts from Carlisle placed in a casket at the gravesite. His relatives hold out hope that the boy will eventually be buried there too.
“We never quit,” said Betty Friday, “We just keep going. We’ve got to get to the truth.”
The Fridays could take some consolation, perhaps, in remembering how from the first day at the Carlisle Cemetery the Northern Arapaho elders had prayed and cedared at the gravesites where the children had lain for 90 years, and where Hayes remains today.
It seemed to make a difference. Nathan Friday, who quietly acts as a key aide to the elders, said it best on his third day in Pennsylvania. “When we first got here, there was a lot of pain, it was hard, it felt so heavy,” he said. “But it feels lighter now. It’s changed. Something has changed here at Carlisle.”
Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, WY. His current work on a documentary about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and the boarding school experience has been supported by major grants through the Wyoming Humanities Council and the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund.