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Native children’s remains in Pa. cemetery are going home

Michael Rubinkam
The Associated Press

CARLISLE, Pa. — For more than a century they were buried far from home, in a small cemetery on the grounds of the U.S. Army War College. Now they’re heading home.

The Army began disinterring the remains of eight Native American children who died at a government-run boarding school at the Carlisle Barracks, with the children’s closest living relatives poised to take custody.

The disinterment process, which began over the weekend, is the fifth at Carlisle since 2017. More than 20 sets of Native remains were transferred to family members in earlier rounds.

‘You were a stranger’: The children had lived at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where thousands of Native children were taken from their families and forced to assimilate to white society as a matter of U.S. policy — their hair cut and their clothing, language and culture stripped. More than 10,000 children from more than 140 tribes passed through the school between 1879 and 1918, including famous Olympian Jim Thorpe.

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“If you survived this experience and were able to go back home, you were a stranger. You couldn’t even speak the language your parents spoke,” said Rae Skenandore, of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. She is a relative of Paul Wheelock, one of the children whose remains will be disinterred.

The off-reservation government boarding schools — Carlisle was the first, with 24 more that followed — “ripped apart tribes and communities and families,” said Skenandore, adding she lost part of her own culture and language as a result. “I don’t know if we can ever forgive.”

A flower sits at the base of headstone at the cemetery of the U.S. Army’s Carlisle Barracks on Friday in Carlisle.

She and her mother, 83-year-old Loretta Webster, plan to make the trip to Carlisle later this month. Webster said her own father ran away from a similar boarding school in Wisconsin when he was 12.

“It was like a prison camp, what they were putting these little kids in,” Webster said. “It’s a part of our history that’s really traumatic and still affects the community today.”

Sending them home: The children to be disinterred came from the Washoe, Catawba, Umpqua, Ute, Oneida and Aleut tribes. The sex and approximate age of each child will be verified, according to Renea Yates, director of the Office of Army Cemeteries, with archeological and anthropological support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We conduct a very dignified disinterment of each child … and then we do a very dignified transfer ceremony, sending the children back with their families,” Yates said.

A headstone is seen last week at the cemetery of the U.S. Army’s Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Cumberland County.

The small cemetery has been enclosed with privacy fencing during the disinterment pro­cess, which is expected to conclude in July.