Bring Them Home: The Grisly Legacy of Kill the Indian, Save the Man

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Over a hundred years after the children of their ancestors were spirited East by white men eager to cut their hair, change their names, ban their language, sever their family ties and otherwise cleanse their "savage natures" - while, alas, often killing them with diseases - Native American groups are now fighting to bring home from Pennsylvania's infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School the small bodies of those lost to the "noble experiment" of forced assimilation. As the U.S. government waged its turn-of-the-century cultural genocide - taking native lands, corralling native survivors into reservations and erasing native identities - Carlisle served as the flagship of a fleet of 23 federally funded Indian boarding schools aimed at furthering the mission of solving "the Indian problem" by seizing their young and "civilizing" them.

From 1879 to 1918, over 10,600 native children from every tribe in the U.S. were sent to Carlisle and immersed in white culture. The school was begun by U.S. Army Captain Richard Henry Pratt, who argued the only way American Indians could survive "progress" was to join it by becoming white. His mantra: "Kill the Indian, save the man." Native children attended English-only classes, prayed in Christian chapel, learned skills like metal-working and farming, and played croquet. Old photos show them at activities and gathered en masse; notably, few or none smile. They reportedly, regularly endured brutality, sexual abuse, crushing isolation and loneliness, and diseases foreign to them, most frequently tuberculosis. About 200 were buried in Carlisle's cemetery, many in unmarked graves.


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Now the Rosebud Sioux, haunted by the tragedies at Carlisle, are seeking to return to their reservations the remains of at least 10 young tribe members, to be reburied with Native rituals. The effort was sparked by a trip last summer by a group of Rosebud teenagers to Washington for the first Tribal Youth Gathering, which included a troubling visit to Carlisle - closed in 1918, it is now the U.S. Army War College - and the cemetery. Back home, after the kids asked why nothing was being done to "bring those kids home," the Rosebud Tribal Council passed a resolution to seek their return. "We talk about historical trauma," says Rosebud Sioux historian Russell Eagle Bear. "A hundred and thirty years later, this still has an impact on our youth. We're trying to make peace with those spirits and bring them home."

The Army rejected the Sioux request. Galvanized, the tribe wrote to Obama and Congress, began working with the Ojibwe and other Indian nations with the same goal, and won the support of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Among those joining the effort is Yufna Soldier Wolf of Wyoming's Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office, who wants to bring home the remains of her great-uncle Little Chief. The oldest son of Chief Sharp Nose, he died at 14 of pneumonia in January 1883, 22 months after arriving at Carlisle; his gravestone bears the name "Dickens." When she sent her request to the Army, a legal officer wrote back demanding she jump through nine bureaucratic hoops; after she did, he wrote again: “I can understand and appreciate your desire to move the remains of your family member to your local burial site," he said, before citing "serious concerns...This cemetery represents one of the most beautiful tributes to the Native American people...We would hate to disrupt such a tranquil site."

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