Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The last trip home for boy torn from his family in another century

Indian activists say the separation of families at the nation's southwest border mirrors the trauma inflicted on Native American boys and girls who were taken and delivered to Carlisle and other schools, many to never see home or family again.

A new round of repatriations from the student cemetery at the former Carlisle Indian School is underway. Paper flags made by a youth and family program at Native American Lifelines in Baltimore were used to decorate the graves. This flag sits at the spot where one boy was repatriated, his remains sent home to Wyoming.
A new round of repatriations from the student cemetery at the former Carlisle Indian School is underway. Paper flags made by a youth and family program at Native American Lifelines in Baltimore were used to decorate the graves. This flag sits at the spot where one boy was repatriated, his remains sent home to Wyoming.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

CARLISLE, Pa. — George Ell's death was long, hard, and painful.

For three weeks, the teenager lay in a sick bed, bleeding from a burst vessel in his lungs.

After he died on the morning of April 7, 1891, his stricken boarding-school classmates trailed his coffin to the cemetery, grieving a Blackfeet youth they knew as faithful, kind, and true.

A year passed before school officials notified his family in Montana that he was gone, his relatives said.

Ell was hardly the first student to die and be buried at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School — he was at least the 109th. Dozens more would perish after him, victims of an institution designed to solve "the Indian problem" by destroying native cultures, languages, and religions and forcing students to assimilate.

Now his family intends to bring him home, part of a second wave of repatriations that aims to return the remains of four native children to Western states.

>> READ MORE: 'Those kids never got to go home'

"I love and respect this man," said Rhonda Boggs, 47, as she was about to arrive here, designated by her father to guide their relative's remains to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana. "Throughout my whole life I always heard about it."

These new exhumations have been thrown into sudden relief against the backdrop of a national furor over the Trump administration's separation of migrant children and parents at the nation's southwest border. Indian activists say that situation mirrors the trauma once inflicted on thousands of native boys and girls, some as young as 4, who were taken and delivered to Carlisle and other schools, many never to see home or family again.

"Forcibly removing children from their families in America is not new. We natives know this well," said Dakota-Lakota Sioux writer Ruth Hopkins, author of War Bonnets, Bikinis, and Genocide: Exploring Pop Culture's War Against Native Ethos. "My own father and his siblings were taken from their parents and made to attend boarding schools. … It's so sad to see history repeating itself."

At Carlisle, epidemics, loneliness, and overwork claimed lives, even as the school became the model for scores of similar institutions across the United States and Canada, filled with children who were stolen outright by authorities or whose parents were coerced into surrendering them.

Today, on what is now the campus of the Army War College, tall, temporary privacy fences block prying eyes from the student cemetery. But within that enclosure a quiet reckoning plays out, a second straight summer of repatriations from a patch of Pennsylvania lawn that holds the remains of nearly 200 Indian children.

Digging commenced here June 14 and is expected to end in early July.

Once George Ell's remains are returned to Montana, his family plans to hold a funeral both traditional and modern: Blackfeet songs and prayers, an overnight wake, a military honor guard, and blessings from both a Catholic priest and an Indian holy man. He'll be reburied in the valley where he played as a boy.

"This will be in the land he knew," said Irvin Dale Ell, 75, who is Boggs' father and whose grandfather was George's brother. "His spirit will rest better being home."

>> READ MORE: At Byberry Quaker library, a grim find: Native American remains in display case

Last summer, at the request of the Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, the Army undertook a disinterment that returned two children to the tribe – but showed another one to be missing, and added two more to the ranks of unknowns.

Little Chief, the eldest son of Chief Sharp Nose, arrived at Carlisle on March 11, 1881, only 14 and accompanied by Horse, 11, and Little Plume, 9. Like other students, they were assigned new English names: Little Chief became Dickens Nor, Horse was renamed Horace Washington, and Little Plume was called Hayes Vanderbilt Friday.

Horse and Little Chief were identified based on their headstones and the age and sex of the bones in their graves. Little Plume's grave contained the remains of two people, neither of them his.

This month the Army said it knew where Little Plume could be located, and this week the Friday family announced a "successful" conclusion.

In the coming days Herbert Little Hawk, also known as Herbert Good Boy, who died in 1895, is to be reunited with his Oglala Sioux family in Pine Ridge, S.D. Dora Brave Bull, whose original name was Her Pipe and who died in 1881, will go to family among the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation lies in both North Dakota and South Dakota, Army officials said.

Ell was 17, a sturdy 6 feet tall and 165 pounds when he arrived at Carlisle on March 26, 1890.

The nation's first federal off-reservation Indian boarding school was by then well into operation, having been founded in 1879. Taking children thousands of miles to Pennsylvania broke family ties and ensured tribes would be loath to cause trouble, knowing their children were in white hands.

The families got little sympathy.

"I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians," soon-to-be President Theodore Roosevelt said after Carlisle opened, "but I believe nine out of every 10 are. And I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

The Carlisle cemetery was moved across the grounds to its present location in 1927, in what native leaders have criticized as a haphazard job. Headstones contain partial or misspelled names, wrong dates of death, and missing birth dates. Some children known to have been buried at Carlisle are simply missing, a source of anguish to families and tribes.

"They're not asking for too much," said Paul Rosier, a professor and expert in American Indian history at Villanova University. "They're not asking the Army to bow down and apologize. They're asking the Army to return what wasn't theirs in the first place."

This year marks the centennial of the school's 1918 closing, and plans are being laid for commemoration, even as other tribes explore the recovery of their own children.

In October, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minnesota-based rights group, will hold its inaugural national conference in Carlisle. The biennial Carlisle Journeys conference, run by the Cumberland County Historical Society, is set for the same month.

Ell was supposed to stay at Carlisle for five years. He lasted just one.

In the third week of March 1891, he was injured while "jumping," according to the Indian Helper school newspaper.

It's unclear if he had jumped from a height, such as from a ladder or structure, or was hurt during a sports activity, like the high jump or long jump. Either way, a burst blood vessel left him mortally injured.

"The flow of life-blood continued until he peaceably passed away," the Indian Helper wrote.

His family has never forgotten.

"This boy was taken off our reservation, taken out of his home. All the Indian schools, the police would just go to your home and say, 'We're taking this child,' " said Irvin Dale Ell.  "All the hurt, that will be over once we bury him at home."