Community heals as girls’ bodies are returned from Carlisle Indian Industrial School
ONEIDA INDIAN RESERVATION, Wis. – The constantly changing weather matched the emotions of the summer day when young Jemima Metoxen, Sophia Coulon and Ophelia Powless came home, and the heartbreak of the past turned into a celebration of the present.
The morning began gray and somber during a funeral service for the girls at the Church of the Holy Apostles, the sky opening into a downpour of tears during their reburials. A burst of sunshine followed a community celebration, and a fiery orange sunset marked the close of a historic day.
Jemima, Sophia and Ophelia were among 456 Oneida students who forcibly made the 850-mile trip from the Wisconsin reservation to Carlisle, Pa., about 25 miles southwest of Harrisburg, around the turn of the 20th century to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
The school, which operated from 1879 to 1918, was the flagship of the U.S. government’s movement to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American culture via their children, some of whom were seized and sent to Carlisle without family consent. Books and blackboards, the government decided, were a cheaper solution to the country’s “Indian problem” than bullets and battlefields had been.
The three teenage girls died while attending Carlisle: Jemima of spinal meningitis, Sophia of tuberculosis, and Ophelia of pneumonia. This past June, their bodies were moved from Carlisle’s cemetery back to Wisconsin for reburial. All told, they had been away from home, collectively, just shy of 377 years.
The moment marked a milestone in a journey that had begun several weeks earlier, when a group of 11 from Oneida traveled to Carlisle to oversee the exhumation of the girls’ bodies. Of the 11, only Tribal Councilman Kirby Metoxen had previously been to the Carlisle Indian Cemetery, where nearly 200 white gravestones of deceased children stand in perfect rows, like a formation of soldiers. He had made an unplanned stop there a few years before, while passing through central Pennsylvania.
“As I’m walking, I see an Oneida name” on a gravestone, recalled Metoxen, 59. “I see a Wheelock. I see a Powless. I see a Coulon. … I see ‘Melissa Metoxen.’ … I just couldn’t catch my breath – I just sobbed. These were children. They didn’t ask to come here. How come nobody came and got them? As an elected official, if there was one thing I needed to accomplish, it was to bring them home,” he said.
Their homecoming this summer coincided with the 47th annual Oneida Pow-wow. The sound of drums echoed over the rolling hillsides west of Green Bay, filling the landscape like a reawakened heartbeat. More than two dozen descendants of the three girls were in attendance, and the tribe recognized them with an honor song.
Later, young women spun and twirled in the fancy shawl dance, the fringes of their shawls flying in midair. One could easily imagine the celebratory dance being performed a century ago by Jemima, Sophia, and Ophelia but such joyous cultural expressions would have been forbidden at assimilation schools like Carlisle.
It seemed appropriate that two days later, along a road named Freedom and led by a priest named Patience, about 150 people gathered for a homecoming service for the girls. The church bells pealed 16 times for each of them – an estimate of their ages at the time of their deaths.
The sound of hymns, sung in Oneida, drifted over the surrounding Wisconsin hillside as the Rev. Rodger Patience spoke of liberation and restoration.
“Bring the exiles home,” he said, “and return them to the land where they belong.” Ophelia was laid to rest in the cemetery of the historic church; Jemima and Sophia, in the nearby Oneida Sacred Burial Grounds.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School is now the site of the U.S. Army War College. During the disinterment of the girls’ remains, members of the Army National Military Cemeteries team gingerly scraped the soil from the girls’ graves an inch at a time, sifting for objects.
This was a stunning turnaround for the Army, which for decades had refused families’ requests to return the bodies of children who’d died while at Carlisle. The policy was reversed in 2016, and 11 students from various tribes have since been disinterred and reburied in their respective tribal lands. Jemima, Sophia, and Ophelia were the first females to come home.
Violet Metoxen Blake, who attended the exhumation, is a great-niece of Jemima’s. She said her time in the Carlisle cemetery was the most spiritual experience of her life.
“I get goose bumps when I tell people how beautiful and spiritual it was,” Blake said. “Our elders tell us those are ‘goose bump hugs’” – from deceased ancestors – “because they’re there with you. I knew they were with me the whole time.”
During its 39-year existence, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School operated without any attempt to include Native culture. During the disinterment, however, an unexpected bond formed between the Oneida group and the Army National Military Cemeteries team: the Oneida invited the military members to be part of their ceremonies at the grave site.
“They’re the people who are doing all this work, so it’s only right that they be included in our prayers and also in our smudging” – a ceremonial burning of sage, sweet grass, and tobacco – “so we asked them to join us,” Blake said. “We got really close with these people. We laughed with them, cried with them, prayed with them. They were so dignified and respectful and just so personal with us. You couldn’t ask for a better team to be there, to walk us through this process.”
The wonder of the moment was not lost on anyone: What had never been allowed at the school – the seeking of common ground, the merger of two cultures – was taking place 101 years after the school’s closing.
As the bodies were transferred from the Army to the girls’ Oneida descendants, Kirby Metoxen sang “Amazing Grace” in Oneida. Jemima, Sophia and Ophelia, once lost, were now found.
For the Oneida people, the heartbreak and wounds of the past remain vivid in their memories and stories.
Blake remembers how an unexpected knock at the door would startle her grandmother, who remembered the days when government agents arrived unannounced to take Native American children to government boarding schools. (“That was just something they learned: Don’t answer the door because you lose your kids,” Blake said.)
Shirley Thomas, a niece of Jemima’s, remembers how, when she was a child, her family moved off the Oneida Reservation to remote Door County, Wis., where they could live and work in the seclusion of the orchards in the hope of hanging onto their children.
Roberta Capasso remembers hearing how her great-great-grandparents were hounded by the government for living traditional lives – like speaking the Oneida language and being married in a traditional ceremony. Government agents punished them by seizing their 10 children.
Since the reburial, though, the pain of the past is being tempered by proud new memories of the extraordinary day that Jemima, Sophia, and Ophelia came home.
“It is amazing how one event can change your whole life – I got a chance to do this wonderful thing for my family, for my ancestors,” said Blake. The experience has also given her a powerful realization: “I can’t live for my ancestors’ wounds or I would hurt all the time. You can’t live with all that hate in your heart. I want to keep new wounds from happening.”
Since the reburial, Tribal Councilman Kirby Metoxen – who grew up in Milwaukee but spent vacations and holidays on the Oneida reservation – keeps thinking of the comfort he’s always taken in knowing that one day he’d be buried on the Oneida Reservation. He can’t imagine the pain his spirit would feel if he had died and been buried at Carlisle, the way Jemima, Sophia and Ophelia had been.
“These kids are now at the place of their relatives,” he said of the girls now resting in the Wisconsin soil. “All these people in the cemetery are connected to them somehow and in some way. It’s just a feeling – ‘You are home.’”