It's time for the federal government to grant requests by Native American tribes to return the remains of hundreds of children who died more than a century ago after being taken to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School for assimilation training.
Some children were torn from their families. Others were voluntarily sent to the Pennsylvania school by families who believed a Eurocentric education would help them succeed in America's white-dominated culture. They could not have known that many children would die, mostly from injuries or diseases.
"A lot of them just thought maybe their tribes had given up on them," said Yufna Soldier Wolf, director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Riverton, Wyo., in an interview with Wyoming Public Radio.
Children suffered from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and the flu. They were forced to forsake their traditions and religious beliefs. Those caught speaking their native languages were beaten. Many were not allowed to return home during the summer. Others were tasked with performing menial chores in local homes.
"Kill the Indian to save the man" was the way former Cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt, who founded Carlisle in 1879, described his philosophy.
Evidence of the children's ordeals is now buried in their graves on the former school's grounds, which was closed in 1918 and today is home to the U.S. Army War College.
Children from more than three dozen Indian nations lie under headstones bearing only first names, some of which are misspelled. In the ultimate symbol of neglect, as the Inquirer's Jeff Gammage reported, 13 tombstones are marked "unknown," as if the very people supposedly caring for the children didn't even know their names.
The Northern Arapaho, Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota, and Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association are among the groups that want the children's remains returned. Yufna told the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune that several years ago, a War College official told her that he was hesitant to disturb the cemetery because it "represents one of the most beautiful tributes to the Native American people."
The Army today seems to be softening its unacceptable position and has agreed to meet with tribal leaders about returning the remains. But there could be another problem. The original cemetery was moved in 1927 to make way for a road, and the proximity of the headstones now suggests that the remains were reburied in a trench rather than individual graves.
Yufna says the possibility that the remains are no longer distinct is outweighed by the symbolism of sending home what is left of the mistreated children. "It's about healing and about showing that this agency is willing to say, 'Hey, what we did was wrong, and we're willing to give back an empty coffin,' " she said. "Then at least we have closure."
Closure is exactly what is needed. The children's remains, in whatever condition they may be, should be returned to their people so they can bury them with the proper religious rituals and the respect they have been deprived of for so long. That won't erase the disgraceful history of mistreatment of Native Americans in this country. But it would show a modicum of decency even at this late date.