Rosebud Sioux Reservation, South DakotaIt was a long-awaited journey for the families of nine Lakota children who died at an Indian boarding school more than a century ago. After six years of lobbying, the remains were finally handed over, wrapped in buffalo hides and placed in the comfort of Grandmother Earth at their ancestral lands.
The Lakota youth were taken from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in 1879 and placed in the government-run Carlisle Indian Industrial School almost 1,400 miles away in Pennsylvania, never to be seen alive again. Their reburial last month was the start of many more to come as unmarked graves are discovered across the United States, exposing the brutal history of boarding schools set up to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children.
“They’re back in our homelands, and they’ll be taken care of for the next 200 to 300 years,” Russell Eagle Bear, an elder and council member of the Sioux Tribe’s Blackpipe community, said after the funeral. “From this day forward these children will be protected by these warriors—our Akicita. They will always be surrounded by the comfort that they’re lying there with the warriors.”
Before they were buried in Lakota lands, the remains had to be disinterred from graves at the site of the former boarding school, now an active military installation and home of the U.S. Army War College.
The handover on the grounds of the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery on July 14 was a somber ceremony attended by relatives of the fallen youth, Rosebud Sioux Tribal leaders, and other dignitaries. Nine small pine boxes lay on tables covered with red cloth. Folded U.S. flags rested atop each coffin. Attendees bowed their heads as they lined a pathway scented with burning sage and listened to Lakota prayer songs as the coffins were ushered into a utility trailer to begin the long journey home.
“It's just very moving to me and it's appropriate,” said actor and producer Mark Ruffalo, who attended the transfer ceremony. Ruffalo is considered an ally to many Indigenous communities for his work supporting the Indigenous environmental rights movement. “I just wanted to witness it, and I was moved by it,” he said of the ceremony. “Healing, I think, is reconciling with this cruel, cruel past of American history. And what better way than to start with the harm that was done to the children.”
Other attendees included Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior. She sat solemnly in the front row wearing a ceremonial red traditional ribbon skirt. Following the recent discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous boarding school children in Canada, Haaland established a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to provide a comprehensive review of possible burial sites for Indigenous children in the U.S. The first report is due next spring.
“The experience of our people and boarding schools’ legacy has been stifled for generations,” said Haaland, whose great-grandfather attended Carlisle, and whose grandparents were also survivors of Indian boarding schools.
“So many families have wanted to know what became of their relatives. People have wanted answers for a very long time, and I think that we finally have an opportunity to get those answers,” she said. “It will give people peace of mind. It will help with closure to this long-standing history. And it will start the healing process.”
The U.S. Army took possession of the remains in 1918, after the Carlisle boarding school returned to operating as an Army barracks. Rosebud Sioux tribal members had been working since 2015 to get them back.
“The Army is privileged to reunite the families with their children in a manner of utmost dignity and respect,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of the Office of Army Cemeteries, said in a statement. “There was complete collaboration and transparency between the Army and all families during every step of the disinterment process and analysis, and we hope all the families find some level of solace.”
History of forced assimilation
Starting in 1879, Native American children from across the U.S. were rounded up and sent by boxcar, boat, wagon, and on foot to the government-run school in Carlisle. The school, and others that followed, were pioneered by Civil War veteran Lt. Col Richard Henry Pratt with the explicit goal of forced assimilation.
During a speech on the education of Native Americans, Pratt said: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Pratt and other colonials of his era considered Native Americans as savages who needed to be civilized by the white race. Upon arrival at boarding school, the Indian children’s long hair was cut short, their traditional clothing was burned and replaced with school uniforms, and they were forbidden to speak their Indigenous language. Even after death, they remained separated from families.
In a letter dated December 27, 1880, Sioux chiefs White-Thunder, Swift Bear, and Spotted Tail wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., begging for the return of the bodies of their dead children. “Our hearts will grieve too long if we don’t have what’s left of them back. We want to dig their graves with our own hands, we wait when the birds begin to sing and the flowers begin to bloom…” the letter partly reads. It’s unclear if any response was ever given.
Russell Eagle Bear likens the tactics used by Pratt to round up Sioux and other Native American children to acts of warfare. Children of chiefs were largely targeted to weaken the leadership of the “enemy,” he says.
“They came and convinced these chiefs to send their children to learn the ways of the white man, to be negotiators. Then once Wounded Knee happened in 1890, it just took all the energy out of our people,” says Eagle Bear, referring to the massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in which as many as 300 Indigenous people were killed during a battle between federal troops and the Sioux.
Over 39 years approximately 10,000 Native American children were taken to Carlisle. Hundreds didn’t make it out alive. The boarding schools were severely underfunded, and the children suffered all kinds of abuses. Malnourishment and medical neglect were common. Tuberculosis, trachoma, consumption, and other diseases ran rampant.
By 1926 nearly 83 percent of school-age Indigenous children were attending boarding schools, also known as Indian residential schools. A total of 367 Indian boarding schools operated in the U.S.
It is believed that there are thousands of Indigenous children across the U.S. buried in gravesites at former Indian boarding schools.
Retrieving the remains
Eagle Bear’s grandson, Chris Eagle Bear, remembers his first visit to Carlisle after attending a youth conference in Washington in 2015. His grandfather encouraged the youth group to go see the former boarding school.
Chris was 17 at the time and didn’t know a lot about the residential schools. Both his grandfather and grandmother had to go to one established on the Rosebud reservation, but it wasn’t something they talked about.
“It's too traumatizing to talk about. You really never heard about it,” says Chris, 23. “So when I went to Carlisle, that was my first time going there and understanding it. As soon as I walked into the barracks, as soon as I stepped foot on those grounds, it was heavy. It's like a sense of being weighed down.”
Chris was shocked to see a graveyard at the school.
“The children’s cemetery is right next to the school. We put candy on each of the gravesites and a couple of us sang a song. When we were walking away, it was really heavy.”
As the group left, fireflies came out of the ground—seemingly out of the gravesites, Chris says, even though it was sunny out. “You could still see the brightness of the fireflies. We connected to them because nothing was there before we went there. They were coming to us; they had no fear of us.”
The teenagers looked at each other in wonderment, believing the fireflies were the spirits of their ancestors calling them to take them back home. “So that right there was kind of the first fire that set us off on this journey,” Chris says.
The group, members of the Sicangu Youth Council, vowed to one day return for their ancestors.
When they got back to the Rosebud community, they brought their endeavor to a tribal council meeting to seek help in getting the remains back home. The response was slow at first, said Asia Black Bull Chu, a member of the youth council.
“At first, I was angry because no one wanted to, you know, hop on board right away,” said Asia. “But then I took a step back and realized that they are dealing with unresolved trauma, historical trauma, intergenerational trauma. And it's hard to speak about things that you need to change within yourself or things that need healing.”
Tribal leadership ultimately came around, assisting the Sicangu Youth Council with technical and legal issues to start the repatriation process.
“I'm very happy, very proud; very proud of our youth,” says Rodney Bordeaux, president of the Rosebud Sioux. “I'm sad about how [the children] died, but I'm relieved that they’re home now. It makes us stronger. You know it's a kind of an awakening. I’m very proud to be a Lakota.”
“They [settlers] just made a mad rush at us. And it was part of this whole scheme to steal our land. And that's when the kids were taken too,” says Bordeaux, “because they wanted to make our chiefs weaker, so they took all the kids. It's terrible what happened, but now we're going to continue working on this. There are schools all over the country that will make this country look at what they've done to our people and let the world know what they've done.”
Reclaiming the remains of the nine children was a massive undertaking, says Ben Rhodd, an archaeologist hired by the Rosebud Tribe who spent 27 days at the Carlisle cemetery during the disinterment process. He was disappointed to discover the bones of the Lakota youth were “haphazardly” thrown into their coffins. The graves were moved from their original spots in the cemetery to make way for a parking lot in 1927. All the relocated graves were less than three feet deep.
“It's terrible. The bones were scattered in and there was no dignity,” says Rhodd, 69, a citizen of the Potawatomie Nation, who also was forced into boarding school at the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma. “In one instance there was even a cow bone in one of the boxes. Now I understand that there was a farm on the west side of Carlisle at that time, so a bone was a bone.”
In most cases, the cause of death was listed as “consumption.”
“Consumption was not something definable at that time. It was a good way of saying unknown causes,” Rhodd says. “If they could specifically determine what their deaths were caused by—say tuberculosis, influenza, smallpox, or whatever—then they would put that on there.”
The nine Rosebud Sioux youth who died at the Carlisle boarding school arrived at the school between 1879 and 1896. According to their student information cards, some died within six months of admission:
Dennis Strikes First arrived on October 8, 1879 and died on January 19, 1881 at the age of 12.
Rose Long Face arrived on August 6, 1879 and died on April 29, 1881, at the age of 18.
Lucy Pretty Eagle arrived on November 14, 1883 and died on March 9, 1884, at the age of 10.
Warren Painter arrived on November 30, 1882 and died on September 30, 1884 at the age of 15.
Ernest White Thunder arrived on October 6, 1879 and died on December 14, 1880 at the age of 18.
Alvan One That Kills Horse arrived on October 6, 1879 and died on March 29, 1882 at the age of 12.
Friend Hollow Horned Bear arrived on March 14, 1883 and died on May 21, 1886 at the age of 17.
Dora Her Pipe arrived on October 6, 1879 and died on April 24, 1881 at the age of 16.
Maud Little Girl arrived on October 6, 1879 and died on December 14, 1880 at the age of 17.
In January 1881, the Big Morning Star newsletter described Maud Little Girl, the daughter of Chief Swift Bear, as “a bright, impulsive, warm-hearted girl, much loved by her schoolmates. She came to the Training School suffering from diseased lungs, and so had not strength to resist pneumonia which seized her. She was the first girl to die here, and the first Sioux out of more than ninety connected with the school.”
When Maud’s remains were disinterred, two extra sets of bones belonging to small children were found in her casket.
“They have no records. But our spiritual people tell us that she tried to run away with these kids. She took two little ones with her and they ran away,” said Russell Eagle Bear. The unidentified bones were not returned to Lakota lands. They remain in Army custody until the identities can be determined.
The journey home
There was no police-led procession out of Carlisle for the youth when they began their journey home on July 14. No one was lined up along the streets to pay respects. Youth council members and chaperons couldn’t wait to get out of the city where their ancestors were once held hostage. They left immediately following the transfer ceremony.
The drive home took two-and-a-half-days. As the caravan—comprised of two vans filled with Sicangu Youth Council members, an SUV carrying chaperones, and the trailer carrying the children’s remains—made its way through Indigenous communities, the procession was honored with ceremonies, prayers, and feasts.
On the final stretch through Sioux City, Iowa, the caravan was led by dozens of Indigenous people on motorcycles waving tribal flags. Tribal police escorted the motorcade flashing hazard lights along the highway to the next stop: a landing on the Whetstone River. This is where the nine children were last seen by family members before they boarded a steamboat to Pennsylvania in 1879. The pine boxes were carried into a teepee for a spiritual ceremony, then loaded back into the trailer for the final journey home, about two hours away.
“Every single one of my peers or people on our reservation is impacted with boarding schools, because either our grandparents or great-grandparents or ancestors have endured it, and they have lived through the abuse,” says Asia, who traveled with the caravan.
As the procession inched closer to the boundaries of the rolling prairie hills of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, the chatter from the traveling youth quieted. Asia stared out the window with tears in her eyes. On her lap was the folded U.S. flag she carried in honor of the late Rose Long Face, her relative. Rose was the daughter of Chief Little Hawk, the brother of famed Lakota warrior Crazy Horse.
“You are home,” Asia whispered, wiping the tears streaming down her cheeks. “We are home again.”
Final resting place
En route to the Sinte Gleska University where the wake would be held that Friday, July 16, the beat of the drums matched the thumping and anticipation of hearts. Hundreds of community members lined the highway to honor the dead. Children stood atop cars so they could see. Other greeters rode horses alongside the procession yelling out Lakota victory cries, fists high in the air, a symbol of resistance and power to the people. Many dressed in orange—the color that has become synonymous within Indigenous communities with the terrible act of children hauled away to boarding schools.
At the memorial service, Ione Quigley, Rosebud’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, shared the writings of a classmate of one of the deceased, who is believed to have been trying to run away when he froze to death.
“This is what was said about Alvan by a survivor of Carlisle, Luther Standing Bear,” Quigley told mourners. “‘We were happy for Alvan when he passed because he was in a better place.’” Then she paused for a deep breath.
“When children say that the child is in a better place, something horrible must have made them take it that way,” said Quigley, who spent weeks helping oversee the transfer of the remains.
Through the evening and into the early morning hours, people of all ages filed in to pay respects. Boarding school survivors shared their own stories of horror and anguish. Elders called it a time to mourn, but also to heal. That night a deafening thunderstorm crackled outdoors and dumped cold rain. It doesn’t rain much this time of year, during the dry season. Elders interpreted the storm as a cleansing, the tears of the children returning home where they’re meant to be.
Just before sundown on Saturday, July 17, the remains of six of the nine youth were taken to the Sicangu Akicita Owicahe Tribal Veterans Cemetery. The remains of the other three traveled home with family members to be buried in private locations.
The six were laid to rest side by side by members of the youth council who fought to bring them home. Chris Eagle Bear was first to jump into one of the six-foot-deep graves and others followed along the line. They were each handed the bones that had been delicately wrapped in buffalo hides and gently placed them back into the womb of Grandmother Earth. Also placed inside the graves were colorful star blankets, sage, other traditional gifts, and the folded U.S. flags.
Getting these nine children—Dennis Strikes First, Rose Long Face, Lucy Pretty Eagle, Warren Painter, Ernest White Thunder, Alvan One That Kills Horse, Friend Hollow Horned Bear, Dora Her Pipe, and Maud Little Girl—back home to their final resting place marks the beginning of what many hope is the return of more souls to their Indigenous homelands.
“Finally, this is all coming out, and I pray for healing and restoration and revitalization because they weren't successful in killing us out,” says Russell Eagle Bear, pointing out that there are still two Rosebud Sioux ancestors buried somewhere in the Carlisle cemetery that the repatriation team couldn’t locate.
“The important thing is that we brought nine of them home. And we still must go look for the other ones,” Russell says. “And we said that too when we said our prayers, ‘we didn't forget you, but we're going to come back for you.’”
Brandi Morin is an award-winning French/Cree/Iroquois journalist from Treaty 6, AB, Canada. Follow her on Twitter @Songstress28
Daniella Zalcman is a documentary photographer based in New Orleans, LA. Her work focuses on the modern legacies of western colonization, and has been supported by the National Geographic Society, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the International Women's Media Foundation, among others. She is also the founder of Women Photograph, a nonprofit working to elevate the voices of women and nonbinary visual journalists.