A new film explores the legacy of Indian boarding schools for the Northern Arapaho Tribe
A few years back, the Northern Arapaho Tribe's historic preservation officer Yufna Soldier Wolf sent a letter to the U.S. Army, asking to exhume the graves of three boys buried at a former Indian boarding school. The army wrote back, refusing. But Soldier Wolf wrote again and again until the army relented. Now, a new documentary Home From School traces this story of how the tribe brought back their children to rebury on the Wind River Reservation, the first tribe in the country to do so. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards sat down with Soldier Wolf after the film's premiere on the University of Wyoming campus and asked her why it felt important to share this story with the world.
Yufna Soldier Wolf: It was actually hard for me to think of it in that aspect when we first started because it was a personal story. It was a personal trauma. And it was personal to the tribe. And so it took persuasion for me to be like, we need to tell the story, and we need to let other people know. And then I was feeling alone at that time, like, why is my tribe going through this? But as I learned, other people from various other tribes are going through this. And for so long, tribes were punished for telling those stories, it took so long to tell that story because a lot of those families didn't want to be punished again.
Melodie Edwards: That must have been somewhat challenging, because this was such a personal and emotional journey, to always be sort of documenting those steps along the way.
YSW: Yes, it was challenging. The logistics of the film was not just about, how do we get from here to there, point A to point B? But also realizing there's going to be emotional parts where people are probably like, 'Please don't film this.' There's—we call them protocols—that we follow as a tribe and so there were things that we were like, 'Don't film this, go ahead and film this.' So having those healthy boundaries was really helpful to know that this is what came out of it.
ME: Now that these three children are back home and you've gone through sort of the process of reburial, I wonder, what are you seeing in terms of the long-term healing process within your community?
YSW: A part of the whole healing process is going to take time. I think one of the things I will say about repatriation is it's a part of a bigger picture of civil rights. And not just repatriation, but repatriation of land. Because we have to reconnect with the land as tribal people. We cannot heal until we reconnect with the land. And that's what a part of this whole process is.
ME: I just wonder how you found the strength to just keep refusing to take no for an answer?
YSW: Nobody likes being told no, right? [laughs] The last no that I got, I was so infuriated, I was so angry, and I thought, 'Something is triggering me here. Something is hitting all my buttons, I need to step back.' And we got this letter, and I'm gonna put it away for a while until I find it again. And then until I find this letter, I'm gonna work on myself. I'm gonna work on being strong emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and then come back around and find it again and say, 'Where am I? Have I grown as a person? I need to be more mature. I need to figure out what this is going to take and then move forward.'
ME: One thing that really comes across in the film is just how frustrating it was, even once you got the yes, to deal with the institutions, with the military, and to try and make sure that things were done appropriately. I just wonder if you have any advice for museums and other historical institutions, for how to best handle repatriation requests. What do you wish that some of these institutions were doing?
YSW: So if I were to do best practices for NAGPRA [Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act] repatriations, I would basically say that not every tribe is the same. This is a spiritual journey. Keep that in mind. This is a personal journey for every tribe that goes through this process. Because [our ancestors] are put on this path to come back and they can't receive their full lifecycle when ancestors are sitting on the shelf, waiting to be buried, waiting to meet their relatives again. So it's a real special, unique, sacred process.
ME: Apparently, there are other boarding schools where Northern Arapaho children also are buried? I know that you had shared a story of some of those children that you know something about that ran away. Can you share that story?
YSW: One of the things that we talked about is how there's so many undocumented children between the times of 1881 and the establishment of boarding schools up into the late 1870s when a lot of children were unaccounted for, undocumented. A lot of them would get [to the schools] and something would happen, probably murdered, probably ran away and murdered, you know, various situations. Every situation you could probably think of. And there's no documentation on how these children passed away. And so that's a part of this whole story of missing and murdered Indigenous people, is that it's gone on for this long and nobody's come forward to tell their full stories. And today we're seeing the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people and we wonder why? Well, it stems back to boarding schools and it stems back to the ideology that we're not people. We're objectified as Native Americans. And that idea has been perpetuated for so long that it's easy to take a Native American person's, a minority person's, life. My grandpa Scott Dewey had a sister who went to Carlisle and ran away. And that was that first spark of knowing that, 'Hey, I have a relative somewhere. Does she have children? Who is she? How can I make those connections? Who knew of her? What's her name?' And imagine how many other tribal people are going through that same process?
ME: We have been seeing that this issue of these graves at these boarding schools is something that people are aware of on a global scale, especially since the recent graves were discovered in Canada. And it seems like it's time for some of these governments to step forward with a message. I wonder what it is that maybe you would like to hear from your government?
YSW: So one of the things that people want to know is, do you want an apology? What do you want from the government? Do you want reparations? Do you want some form of monetary survivor funding or an apology? And I'm always like, you know, those things are great. But the one thing I would love to see is changed behavior. Changed behavior in policies, changed behavior in the way Native Americans are treated daily. Because it affects how we move forward in this country.
Home From School will be broadcast nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens on November 23.