CARLISLE, Pa. — It's the third time Eleanor Hadden has traveled here, all the way from Alaska, ever in search of a lost relative, a girl who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and then disappeared.
"There's still lots of questions we're trying to figure out," said Hadden, 66, an Anchorage anthropologist who is the great-niece of a Tlingit child named Mary Kininnook.
The youth died three days after her 14th birthday, fighting for breath in a hospital bed, done in by a ruinous turn-of-the-century experiment in forced assimilation. But none of the nearly 200 headstones in the Carlisle student cemetery bear her name.
Hadden wonders: How could the school have lost track of a child?
On Saturday, she joined dozens of native people, many of whom face similar, wrenching questions, who came here from across the country to pray, share, and remember on the 100th anniversary of the school's closing.
"I tell other people: Rely on your ancestors. Use their strength," Hadden said during a panel discussion.
Altogether more than 200 people, including educators and historians, packed the opening session of the biennial Carlisle Journeys conference, sponsored by the Cumberland County Historical Society.
The event continues Sunday, marking the centennial but also exploring how descendant families suffer continuing trauma — and build resilience.
"We're still here," said keynote speaker Christine Diindiisi McCleave, executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minnesota-based rights group.
For many American Indians, Carlisle exists in both past and present, its grounds a place of memory and reflection.
It opened in 1879 as the nation's first federal off-reservation boarding school, created by a government bent on solving "the Indian problem" by initiating a cultural genocide. Here, thousands of Indian children were shorn of their names, languages, religions, and family ties.
"All the history that I have learned [in school], I realize now it's not the truth," said Oneida writer Roberta Capasso, author of Sky Woman Lives in Me. "I'm learning the real truth about what happened in this country."
Carlisle students died from epidemics, loneliness, and overwork. Rows of white headstones define the cemetery on the campus of what is now the Army War College. The remains of five children have been repatriated to Western tribes and families in the last two years.
On Saturday, retired Army Maj. Ed Farnham, 60, a member of the Tuscarora nation in western New York, entered the conference in full regalia, proud of his heritage.
His grandmother Mamie Mt. Pleasant graduated from Carlisle — family lore holds she once turned down a date with Jim Thorpe. A Farnham great-uncle, Frank Mt. Pleasant, played sports here and became a world-class athlete, competing for the U.S. Olympic track team at the London Games in 1908.
Farnham, a West Point graduate, was stationed at the Carlisle Barracks in the 1990s.
"Carlisle doesn't mold me," he said. "Two generations removed, [the school] affects me very little."
Carlisle's end came when the United States entered World War I, the federal government deciding it needed the property for a military hospital. In 1927, the cemetery was moved across the grounds. Today some children known to have died at Carlisle are simply missing.
Hadden, an Alaskan native, believes Mary Kininnook may lie under one of the stones marked "Unknown."
She came to the school in 1903. Hadden wonders how she felt on that long trip, if she was frightened or homesick. Typically, the Alaskan children sailed 700 miles to a Pacific port like Seattle, then moved 2,700 more miles by train to Carlisle.
Mary died at Carlisle on Dec. 28, 1908. Hadden insists she'll be found, and her remains returned to her family. Her 12-year-old granddaughter has begun asking questions, wanting to know if she can come to Pennsylvania to look for Mary.