The boy called One That Kills Horse arrived in the first group of children brought from South Dakota to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, stumbling off a train shortly before midnight on Oct. 6, 1879.
Like the dozens who came with him, and the thousands who came later, the 12-year-old was quickly shorn of his hair and heritage.
The school renamed him Alvan.
And after he died two years later, that was the name inscribed on his grave marker.
Now representatives of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe have come to take him home, along with the remains of eight other sons and daughters, including five who were among that fateful first group. A 10th child is going back to her Aleutian people in Alaska.
“It has been a long journey,” said Russell Eagle Bear, a Rosebud tribal councilperson who came to Carlisle this week, having years ago helped set the return in motion. “We have come to visit the kids and let them know we are here.”
The weeks-long endeavor marks the largest repatriation yet from the tidy military-style cemetery on the grounds of what is now the Army War College. It comes at a moment of great reckoning, amid the national cries against white supremacy and the grief and outrage that’s erupting over the discovery of the remains of 751 people, mostly children, at the site of a former Canadian boarding school — weeks after the unmarked graves of 215 children were found at a different school there.
Native American leaders in this country say the trauma, loss, and suffering of the boarding-school era — which pressed thousands of children through painful, government-led assimilation efforts — continue to run through families and tribes, and it’s past time to address it.
“The U.S. also has unmarked graves,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, known as NABS. The organization demands inquiry into the “genocidal campaign” to eradicate peoples and cultures in at least 357 government- and church-run schools where many children faced sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.
This week U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, and whose great-grandfather attended Carlisle, announced the creation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative to investigate policies that forced children to assimilate.
The initiative will aim to identify known and possible student burial grounds, and to determine the identities and tribal affiliations of children in them. A report is due in April.
“We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life, and the lasting consequences of the schools,” Haaland said.
The seed of the system was planted here in Pennsylvania, where former Cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt opened the nation’s first federal off-reservation boarding school at an old Army barracks.
For 40 years, his school worked to “civilize” American Indian children by eliminating their names, languages, religions, customs, and family bonds, forcing them to speak English and teaching them rudimentary job skills.
Beatings were common punishment, and epidemics killed boys and girls weakened by hard labor, poor food, and loneliness. More than 10,000 children passed through Carlisle before it closed in 1918, including about 180 who lie in the cemetery.
”It’s both a time of celebration to welcome them home, but it is also a time of sadness realizing what happened,” said Ione Quigley, the Rosebud Sioux tribal historic preservation officer. “Don’t mind me if you see a lot of tears.”
It was the Rosebud Sioux who in 2016 began to publicly push the Army, which controls the cemetery, to begin returning children to their homelands. During three excavations during the last four years, the remains of 11 children have been returned to tribes including the Northern Arapaho, Blackfeet, Oneida, and Iowa.
Not all has gone according to plan. A haphazard 1927 relocation of the school cemetery created doubt about who lies where beneath the earth.
In 2017, the remains of two children, Little Chief, who was renamed Dickens Nor, and Horse, called Horace Washington, were returned to the Northern Arapaho in Wyoming in the first repatriation. But a third grave that was supposed to contain a boy named Little Plume, also known as Hayes Vanderbilt Friday, held only heartache.
Little Plume was not there. In his grave were two sets of other remains, their identities unknown. The Army subsequently located Little Plume and returned him to Wyoming the next year.
“Our children did not come here on their own,” said Ben Rhodd, a Potawatomi archaeologist who is working for the Rosebud Sioux.
He turned to face the work crew at the cemetery: “Do your best and do it with honor. It has great implication with our history and the treatment of our people, our ethos. The children were innocent, but used as pawns.”
When Pratt went looking for boys and girls to fill his school, he traveled first to South Dakota, to Rosebud and Pine Ridge.
The federal Indian Office targeted discontented tribes, specifically seeking the children of chiefs and leaders “who could thus be held as hostages for the good behavior of the whole tribe,” historian Robert Brunhouse wrote in a study of Carlisle’s founding. “If the hostage system was to be effective, it was necessary to obtain the children of the tribal chiefs.”
Eventually, Native American children would simply be seized by white authorities. But initially Pratt used persuasion to get chiefs to surrender their sons and daughters, telling them that by learning the white language and way, the youths could become effective negotiators for their peoples.
”Carlisle has always planted treason to the tribe and loyalty to the nation at large,” Pratt later observed.
That first group traveled here by wagon, steamboat, and train, 65 children from Rosebud and 18 from Pine Ridge, 59 boys and 24 girls. Also from the Rosebud Sioux came a 27-year-old interpreter who spent eight months enrolled at the school.
They were met on the train platform by hundreds of Carlisle townspeople, Pratt having convinced the town leaders of the wonder of his plans.
At the time, white society considered the idea of forced assimilation to be a progressive solution to “the Indian problem,” more humane than killing Native Americans outright.
“The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians,” wrote a South Dakota newspaperman, L. Frank Baum, later to author the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. “Better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.”
Teachers were less expensive than soldiers. Though at Carlisle and elsewhere, children perished.
How many died at U.S. boarding schools? Nobody knows.
American Indian scholar Preston McBride estimates the figure could top 10,000. Some children simply disappeared. A Canadian commission found that as many as 6,000 died amid abuse and neglect in that country.
This fourth disinterment at the Carlisle Barracks will see the Army transfer custody of the remains, with reburials in family plots or tribal cemeteries. The work is tentatively scheduled to conclude on July 17.
“Our objective is to reunite the families with their children in a manner of utmost dignity and respect,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries.
The boy the school called Alvan died on March 29, 1882, the cause of his death not noted in school records.
“He was a good boy always,” his Rosebud Sioux classmate Luther Standing Bear wrote a few days later. “So we were very glad for him. Because he is better now than he was on Earth.”
Two children who arrived from Rosebud on that first night died on the same day 14 months later: Maud, also called Little Girl, the 16-year-old daughter of Chief Swift Bear; and Ernest, whose given name was Knocks Off, the 18-year-old son of Chief White Thunder.
Maud was the first girl to die at the school, killed by pneumonia. Ernest died from an illness that started out as a sore throat.
At least three others among the first arrivals from Rosebud did not survive their time at Carlisle.
Rose Long Face, or Little Hawk, died in April 1881. Dennis Strikes First, whose father was Blue Tomahawk, died in January 1887. Dora, also known as Her Pipe, the daughter of Brave Bull, was 16 when she got to Carlisle and died about two years later in April 1881.
Lucy Pretty Eagle, also called Take the Tail, arrived at the school at age 16 in November 1883 and died four months later. She occupies one of the most noticeable graves in the cemetery, first row, first stone.
Warren Painter, known as Bear Paints Dirt, died in September 1884. Friend Hollow Horn Bear died in May 1886. Being returned to her people in Alaska is Sophia Tetoff, who was lost to consumption in May 1906.
Few Native American families have been untouched by boarding schools. The trauma of lost children and the suffering of those who call themselves boarding-school survivors have been passed from generation to generation, even as the truth of the era has been omitted from history books.
More than 90% of respondents to a NABS survey blamed high rates of substance abuse and mental-health problems on boarding-school wounds. Nearly all said the federal government must acknowledge the fact that children were abducted and sent hundreds of miles away to places where they were often mistreated.
Next month, if all goes to plan, the remains of the Rosebud Sioux children will be carried back to the reservation, a space bigger than Rhode Island. Some will have been gone more than 140 years.
“They were left here,” Rhodd said. “They need to come home.”
Staff photographer Charles Fox contributed to this article.