CARLISLE, Pa. (WHTM) — The U.S. Army is starting its sixth repatriation project in Carlisle, returning the remains of Native American children buried in the Indian cemetery to their tribes.
This was the site of the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where indigenous children from across the country were sent.
Indian boarding schools, like this one, operated in the US from the 17th to 20th centuries. They were meant to make Native American children “civilized,” but many were terribly abused and died.
Relatives of one child said it is a dark part of history, but this repatriation project is a step forward.
“This is honestly a victory,” a relative of Edward Spott, buried in the Carlisle Indian Cemetery, Tiauna Bill said.
After more than a century, Bill and her aunt Amber Taylor will get to bring their family member home.
“This particularly, was like a huge shock and surprise to our family,” Bill said. “It’s just a really bittersweet feeling to know that we get to bring him home, bury him next to our family.”
Edward Spott, a distant relative — and fellow member of the Puyallup Tribe — was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and died there in 1896.
“It just makes you sad that he’s been there all this time and none of us were aware of it until now,” relative Amber Taylor said.
It was Bill who found Spott while doing research on her ancestors. She and her aunt worked with the U.S. Army to bring him back.
“A lot of people don’t get to bring their ancestors home or their relatives home,” Bill said.
Spott is one of five indigenous children who will be disinterred in September at the cemetery.
“To support the families and tribes with return of their children,” Office of Army Cemeteries Director Renea Yates said of the project.
The other children are Beau Neal from the Northern Arapaho tribe, Launy Shorty from the Blackfeet Tribe, Amos Lafromboise from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, and Edward Upright from the Spirit Lake Tribe.
“Our disinterment project is designed to return children who never got the opportunity to return home,” Yates said.
John Murray, the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, sees it as something more.
“I think it’s more of an atonement from the government,” he said. “The government sent them to schools in which to further erase the language from them.”
Murray’s great-uncle went to a similar Indian school and witnessed the abuse.
“The priest had a hose with a chain in it and knocked that little boy’s teeth out for speaking the language,” Murray described.
In the old ways of the Blackfeet Tribe, Murray explained that remains were not important to them after people died.
“Our belief was that our bodies are just like discarding maybe an old shirt or something,” he said.
However, over the generations, he said some have adopted more stereotypically Western traditions of mourning, and for them, he said bringing these children’s remains back to their native lands is extremely important.
Reconnecting with their ancestors is an emotional moment for these families.
“We’re still grieving for our relatives that have passed on and our ancestors and what they went through and what they endured,” Taylor said.
Still, it is one Bill and Taylor say they are grateful for.
“This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And if we didn’t find him in this lifetime, then he would have been, you know, would have been very easily forgotten about,” Bill said.
Taylor and Bill also said they hope people take the time to educate themselves about this history and stand in solidarity with the Native community.
“This is really, really heavy work, and should be honored and recognized and also respected,” Bill said.
Bill and Taylor are flying to the Midstate next week along with other relatives of Spott to take his remains back to Washington State. Yates said tribal members and family members of the other children will be doing the same.