CARLISLE, Pa. (WHTM) — In Carlisle, the U.S. Army has finalized its sixth disinterment project, returning four Native American children to their families after more than 100 years, however, the recovery of a fifth child’s remains was unsuccessful.
These children died after being sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School over a century ago.
The Office of Army Cemeteries (OAC) found that remains in the gravesites assigned to Beau Neal (Northern Arapaho), Launy Shorty (Blackfeet), Amos Lafromboise (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) and Edward Upright (Spirit Lake) were biologically consistent with the information in their student and burial location records.
However, while these four children were returned to their families, returning the remains of a fifth child proved impossible.
“It was just heartbreaking,” relative Tiauna Bill said.
Bill and several members of her family came to Carlisle in September to bring their ancestor home: Edward Spott of the Puyallup tribe, who was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and died there in 1896.
“He was my age when he went over there,” said Ramona Gallegos, Tiauna’s younger sister and another relative of Spott, whom they call “Eddie.” “It was sad getting to Carlisle and seeing all those graves that they’re just left there,” she said of their trip.
On Sept. 14, the army disinterred the grave marked with the headstone of Edward Spott, but the remains were not his. Analysis showed they belonged to a woman in her late teens or early 20s.
“All of that trauma from the past 127 years had just been released and on top of it to find out that it wasn’t even him made it even worse,” Bill said.
She said it was just as heartbreaking to find out the woman whose remains were found in her relative’s grave has no name or tribe currently assigned to her.
“She was my height and my size,” Bill said. “It’s kind of like you know, let’s take the knife and twist it kind of deal.”
The remains of the unknown woman were reburied over the weekend with the help of Spott’s family and Puyallup tribal members.
“Any time we present the results of our findings to a family, it’s deeply personal and emotional. It’s disappointing, not only for my staff, but personally, it is one of the hardest communications that anyone could make,” Renea Yates, director of the Office of Army Cemeteries said. “The Puyallup family this year were extremely graceful and extraordinarily strong.”
“We love that little girl the same way we would have loved our own children and cared for her and sent her back into the ground with as much dignity as we possibly could,” Bill said, explaining that they reburied her with clothes, medicines and prayers.
Bill and her aunt Amber Taylor both said the army has treated the matter with sensitivity and kindness.
“We all cried on the phone together,” Taylor said.
But how could an error like this happen? Yates said the Carlisle Indian School Cemetery was relocated in 1927 from the current site of the US Army War College. Records from that time period are not always thorough.
“Candidly, moving a cemetery is not a good practice at any time,” Yates said. “Accountability and chain of custody, both of paramount importance in the management of human remains, was likely not as robust as it is today.”
The Army says it will review all available resources and look for new information to help identify the error in order to make an effort to return Spott to his family and the Puyallup Tribe. The Office of Army Cemeteries is also working with tribes across the country to identify the unknown woman.
“The Army is truly saddened we were unable to return Eddie to his family this year,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director, Office of Army Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery. “We remain honored to have had the opportunity to work with these Native American families and to help them find closure. On behalf of my team, I would like to thank all of the families for placing their trust in us throughout this journey in returning their children home.”
Bill and Taylor are doing their own research as well. They said their family does have hope, but right now, they are grieving.
“There’s supposed to be a time of healing. And I think at this point, there’s not going to be a time of healing until Eddie’s returned to us,” Taylor said.
According to the Army, the four other children were returned to their families in a dignified transfer ceremony, and several have already been reinterred on their native lands.
The Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery will re-open to visitors starting Friday, Sept. 22.
Watch ABC27’s full interview with Spott’s family members: