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Bringing The Children Home: Northern Arapaho Exhume Boarding School Graves

Melodie Edwards

On the Wind River Reservation, on the far edge of a wind-swept cemetery filled with white crosses and colorful flowers, a fresh mound blended in with all the others. It was surrounded with stones and gifts. 

“[A] little buckskin horse, I believe that's a bracelet and some tobacco pouches,” said Olivia Washington as she bent down and arranged the gifts around a metal plaque with the name Horse.

Horse was the son of Chief Washington and he was also Olivia Washington's ancestor, only nine when he was put on a cattle train to Carlisle Indian School. In 1881, fourteen other children from the Wind River Indian Reservation went with him to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. All were the children of chiefs, sent bearing gifts for their white educators. But only six of those children survived the experience and three were buried in the school's cemetery.

Carlisle has since been converted to an army war college. In August, Olivia and her son Josiah traveled to Carlisle to see Horse's grave unearthed. 

“Josiah and myself went and sat in the cemetery so that we could watch the entire time and we just kind of sat and said our prayers and talked a little until they were finished.”

Olivia said the war college showed respect and sensitivity to the tribe during the two-week visit. But she said it was traumatic to arrive at Carlisle because of the agonizing stories of physical and sexual abuse that survivors brought home.

Yufna Soldier Wolf is the former Northern Arapaho tribal historic preservation officer who finally convinced the army to let the tribe exhume the graves. But, like the Washingtons, she also made the journey to reclaim a relative. Both Soldier Wolf and Olivia Washington said it was the tour of the school prison that really brought home the reality of what children endured there.

Soldier Wolf choked down tears as she told of coming down one hallway. “We saw the jail,” Soldier Wolf said. “Those walls were thick.”

Olivia says it was in these cells where they held children when they were bad.

“And what they considered bad was maybe the child spoke their native language,” said Olivia. “Or like any child, maybe they didn't want to go to bed when they were supposed to.”

Olivia and Soldier Wolf were on the same tour, along with tribal elders.

“Having elders go through that tour was really difficult for them because they went to boarding school themselves,” said Soldier Wolf.

But as upsetting as it was, Soldier Wolf worked her whole life to go on this trip. When she was a girl, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, and her tribal elders started talking about getting their ancestors back. She came across a book on NAGPRA.

“I was a teenager. When I got to the end of it I was like, this empowered me. This book empowered me.”

Soldier Wolf was empowered to use what she’d learned about NAGPRA to demand the graves be opened. This was personal. Her father's uncle, Little Chief, was buried there, too. At first, the army said no. That was a few years ago. 

“They basically kind of told me, this is a historic site, this is a tranquil site, it's a place where we honor Native Americans,” said Soldier Wolf. “I thought, wow, I thought we were past this. Native Americans aren't out for exhibit. We're not for sale.

Credit Melodie Edwards
A display at the Native American Center at Central Wyoming College in Riverton shows before and after photos of Little Chief, as well as the Carlisle school cemetery and the head stone with the white name assigned to him on it.

But after she wrote a second letter, the army began working with her. It took months of moving up through military protocol, but finally, the army said yes. It was the first time they'd ever agreed to let a tribe exhume a grave. And the army paid for everything, even the families' airfare. They brought the best archaeologists to examine the bones. The first two—Horse's and Little Chief's--looked good, males of about the right age. But then they got to the third of Little Plume.

“When they had exhumed those remains they found that there were two sets,” said Olivia Washington. “The only way they knew that was they had two right hip bones.”

The bones had to be put back and a new headstone placed there that read, “Unknown.”

After all her hard work, Soldier Wolf was devastated. She turned to an elder for comfort.

“When I found out that the remains didn't match, I was literally crying in Bonnie White's arms that night in the motel room. I was just so, it was just so hard.”

In the early 1900's, the cemetery had been moved from its original site to a much smaller plot to make room for a parking lot, mixing up some of the remains. Soldier Wolf said even the army was disappointed, many of them in tears as the tribe left with only two children instead of three.

Back in Wyoming, people turned out in large numbers for the ceremonies.

“We treated it as a funeral because he and the other child were never given the traditional funerary rites that we give every one of our tribal members, and to show him we honor him, we love him. We still care for you as this little boy that's coming back,” said Soldier Wolf.

It's unclear whether the army will continue to search for the third child, Little Plume. The war college declined to be interviewed for this story. But Christine Diindisii McCleave, director of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition says, the army has made a small step to healing the historical trauma of the boarding school era.

“It's great that the army war college was willing to go through this process voluntarily instead of having to be drug through a legal process using NAGPRA,” said McCleave.

She said the government still needs to release the records of what really happened to the children. She said her organization submitted a Freedom of Information request but has received nothing.

“We think that’s because they don’t have school records. They didn’t even keep good accounting of who these children were, where they came from.”

Everyone interviewed agreed it’s time for the government to cooperate and find what records exist wherever they are. Olivia Washington said it's frustrating that Horse's death certificate says the cause of death was only “death.”

Her son Josiah agreed.

“We just would like the truth,” said Josiah. “We deserve to know now. And it doesn’t just go for our tribe. It goes for everybody else’s tribe too.”

Yufna Soldier Wolf now works for the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. She said, in November, they're inviting tribes from around the country to Minneapolis to learn how they too can reclaim their ancestor's remains from boarding school cemeteries.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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