A Voice from the Eastern Door

Remains Of Native Children Finally Being Returned To Families

This coming September, the United States Office of Army Cemeteries declared that the remains of five Native American children who tragically passed away over a century ago while attending a Pennsylvania Indian boarding school will be returned to their closest living kin.

These children include Edward Upright of the Spirit Lake Tribe from North Dakota, Amos LaFramboise of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate from the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, Beau Neal of the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming, Edward Spott of the Puyallup Tribe in Washington, and Launy Shorty of the Blackfeet Nation from Montana.

The extraction of the remains of these five indigenous students is set to commence on September 11, as stated by the Army. This action signifies the sixth excavation and transfer of Native ancestors since the year 2017.

These students lost their lives under the supervision of the government between the years of 1880 and 1910 while studying at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the nation’s premier Indian boarding school located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

In 1879, the Carlisle Barracks was transformed into the site of the country’s initial government-operated Indian boarding school. With the motto “kill the Indian, save the man”, the school administrators aimed to forcefully assimilate around 7,800 indigenous children from more than 140 different tribal nations using a blend of Western-style education and demanding labor. Prior to its closure and the subsequent transfer of the property to the Army in 1918, the school interred the remains of a minimum of 194 indigenous children in the school’s cemetery, including 14 graves labeled as “unknown”.

The deaths of many students were reported in the local newspaper during that period, citing causes of death as “consumption” or tuberculosis, or describing instances of unexplained illness. Edward Spott, a teenage student, succumbed to consumption in 1896, just eight months post-graduation, as per the local school newspaper.

“Edward was a bright young man, brimming with potential and aspirations,” was written about him in the newspaper article, interspersed with updates about other students. “Both prior to and following graduation, he was part of the preparatory school at Dickinson College where he was cherished by many fellow students. His pleasant nature won the hearts of all those who knew him and his passing is deeply mournful.”

Fast-forward one hundred and twenty six years, Edward Spott’s 25-year-old kin, Tiauna Augkhopinee, will be making a journey from Washington state to Pennsylvania accompanied by her aunt to repatriate their ancestor this coming autumn.

While working in her tribe’s historic preservation office, Augkhopinee discovered Edward’s final resting place at Carlisle when she was researching her genealogy last August. Subsequently, she took initiative to arrange for his return by adhering to the Army’s regulations, getting her grandmother to authenticate an affidavit confirming she was Edward’s nearest living relative.

Augkhopinee expressed that although her experience in navigating the repatriation process has mainly been unproblematic, she attributes her smooth journey to the expertise of her aunt and colleagues who lent her their support.

In reporting by Native News Online, Augkhopinee said, “If I was not 25, able bodied, with the ability to communicate and advocate for his return… this would be a very difficult process.”

Since 2017, at the appeal of their nearest living relatives, the Army has initiated the excavation and repatriation of Native children’s remains. As of now, through five disinterment projects, a total of 28 Native American and Alaska Native children have been returned to their families, although the process has not been without disputes.

The Army’s internal procedure for repatriating ancestors has faced persistent criticism and opposition from tribal leaders and lawyers. They argue that it is more rigorous, limiting, and onerous than what the pertinent federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), mandates. NAGPRA was established by Congress in 1990 to lay out a procedure for federal agencies and museums receiving federal funding to return or transfer certain Native American cultural items—such as human remains—back to their respective tribal nations.

The Army contends that NAGPRA is not applicable to the Carlisle Main Post Cemetery as “Individually marked graves located within the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery do not constitute ‘holdings or collections’ of the Army nor does NAGPRA require the Army to engage in the intentional excavation or exhumation of a grave,” as stated in the Federal Register Notice issued on Thursday.

However, attorneys from the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and a representative from one of the impacted tribes, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, have recently reignited the debate insisting that NAGPRA should apply and that the Army’s internal procedure is “inapplicable to the children buried at Carlisle Cemetery,” as articulated in a letter from NARF.

For instance, the Army’s policy does not offer a mechanism for a child’s tribe to claim the remains if a living relative is not identified, whereas NAGPRA authorizes the tribal nation to make such a claim.

In March, attorneys from NARF and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate sent a letter to the Department of Army Cemeteries of the U.S. Army, urging the “expeditious repatriation” of the tribe’s ancestor, Amos LaFromboise, under NAGPRA.

However, instead of collaborating with the tribe on repatriation as NAGPRA prescribes, the Army declared their intention to exhume Amos in September without any prior notice to officials of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, Amos’ kin, or attorneys from NARF, as confirmed by the parties involved.

Tamara St. John, a tribal historian from Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate who has spent over six years researching her tribe’s ancestors interred at Carlisle in anticipation of their homecoming, expressed to Native News Online on May 25 that the Army keeps undermining tribal sovereignty by keeping them uninformed.

She stated to Native News Online, “It’s evident to me that they are effectively dismissing the tribe’s wishes, and they have moved forward without dialogue, and without a plan.”

When her office informed Amos’ relative, who is an elder, about the planned exhumation of Amos in September, his immediate question was: What are the plans?

“Just because [Amos’ name is] listed on the National Register, doesn’t imply that all the necessary procedures are going to be executed,” St. John commented. “Our office has the expertise to manage this process, and yet [the Army is] trying to push this responsibility onto an elderly person.”

Despite tribes having anticipated for over a century to repatriate their kin, St. John asserted that the Sisseton are determined to uphold NAGPRA and respect tribal sovereignty.

“We aspire to bring them home,” she declared. “It’s been an extraordinarily long time, but we want to ensure it’s done correctly.”

 

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