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Excavating the hidden history of Indian children who died in Carlisle

Two unidentified bodies were found in the grave of Little Plume

The headstone of Little Plume (aka Hayes Vanderbilt Friday), at Carlisle Barracks Cemetery in Carlisle, Pa.
The headstone of Little Plume (aka Hayes Vanderbilt Friday), at Carlisle Barracks Cemetery in Carlisle, Pa.Read moreDan Gleiter / via AP

Now there are signs in places across America that people may be ready to listen, to hear hard truths about how government- and church-run boarding schools inflicted suffering and trauma that still torment tribes today.

"We're totally at a moment," said Anna Naruta-Moya, director of the year-old Indigenous Digital Archive in New Mexico, which shares troves of boarding-school records that continue to emerge from forgotten files. "People want more information, more documents, more public reckoning."

A few states have begun to include in their teaching curricula what happened at the boarding schools where tens of thousands of Native Americans were sent. This month Dickinson College concluded a training program that armed 20 eager educators – half of them natives – with up-to-date knowledge about what has been a largely hidden history. The National Indian Education Association in Washington is creating new, easily shareable lesson plans for teachers.

Here on the grounds of what is now the Army War College, a Northern Arapaho delegation has come to repatriate the remains of three boys who died at Carlisle, buried with nearly 200 other native children lost in a painful, turn-of-the-century experiment in forced assimilation. More disinterments may follow as other tribes and families act.

Little Chief, the eldest son of Chief Sharp Nose, arrived at the school on March 11, 1881, 14 years old and accompanied by two young friends, Horse, 11, and Little Plume, 9. School policy dictated they get new English names. Little Chief became Dickens Nor. Horse was renamed Horace Washington, and Little Plume was called Hayes Vanderbilt Friday.

Within two years, all three were dead.

On Friday night, the Army announced sobering news: The remains found in the grave of Little Plume were not biologically consistent with his age. In fact, two unknown sets of remains were found in the gravesite, one from a 16- to 19-year-old male, and the other from an adolescent or adult, whose sex was not determinable.

Those remains will be reburied at the Carlisle Barracks, the Army said.

The remains found in the gravesites of Little Chief and Horse were consistent with their sex and ages, the Army said. The Army will formally transfer the remains of Little Chief and Horse to the Northern Arapaho on Monday. They're scheduled to be reburied in Wyoming on Aug. 18.

The nation's first federal off-reservation boarding school, founded by former cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt, aimed to cleanse Indian children of their "savage nature" by eliminating their customs, languages, religions, and family ties. Beatings were common; epidemics, deadly. Compelling Indians to assimilate into white society was considered more humane – and less expensive – than killing them outright.

"We want everyone to know what happened here," said Northern Arapaho elder Crawford White Sr.

For decades, even in many Indian families, there has been silence. Grandparents who endured whippings and sexual abuse as children didn't share those horrors with their families. Now a younger generation wants answers – and the return of its people.

"It's time for him to come home with us," said 19-year-old Josiah Washington, here with his mother, Olivia, both of them related to Horse.

Carlisle exported the boarding-school model to Canada, but today it's the Canadians who have publicly addressed their nation's treatment of natives. A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission deemed the boarding schools instruments of "cultural genocide."

Christine Diindiisi McCleave, head of a national coalition that advocates for those who suffered at boarding schools, said formation of a U.S. commission remains far off for one big reason: the conflicting narratives over the creation of the United States — one widely taught, the other mostly ignored.

For Indians, the nation's founding and expansion is not a heroic tale of settlers and wagon trains. It's a murderous story of how natives were killed, their land taken, the people forced onto reservations so white authorities could more readily extract valuable minerals, fuels, and ore from the earth.

Yet the boarding-school story offers common ground for new conversations and learning.

"The thing that's resonating about this is the children," McCleave said. "People can imagine what it would be like to have your children taken away, that they would be gone for years, that some didn't come back. Or they came back, and they were different."