ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — An effort to return the remains of young men and women who died at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania will include those of two young men from the Sisseton area.
While Carlisle is just one of many Indian boarding schools used across the country starting before the 1900s, this cemetery is unique.
Unlike many of the school cemeteries, these grounds, which were once operated by the Department of Interior, are now under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army, which is working with tribes from across the country who are interested in claiming the remains of their ancestors and bringing them home. That process started in 2016, according to Justin Buller, an attorney with the U.S. Army General’s office at a public meeting in Sisseton last week.
Tamara St. John, tribal historian for Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, has been looking into the lives of six children who left the Sisseton area in 1879. They’re significant, she said, because these two girls and four boys were the first to leave the area. Of this group, three of the boys died at the school and two are buried in the school cemetery.
St. John’s work has taken many twists and turns, and sparse documents available from that time period have made it a challenge, but through the help of the few documents she’s found and local tribal veterans, she’s been able to confirm the remains of two students buried in the school cemetery are local ancestors of significance, the Aberdeen American News reported.
Now, the Lake Traverse and Spirit Lake Indian reservations will be working together to bring these remains home next summer.
The remains belong to Amos LaFramboise and Edward Upwright, both of whom are descendants of tribal leaders.
LaFromboise went to school with his sister Emily, who completed her education at the boarding school and returned home. St. John said the fact that she completed her education at Carlisle was a point of pride for the family.
Amos, however, died Nov. 26, 20 days after his arrival in Pennsylvania. Their father, Joseph LaFromboise, was a founding father who helped set up the Lake Traverse Reservation government after the Sisseton Wahpeton treaty was signed in 1867.
“He’s the first to die at Carlisle,” St. John said, noting he was initially buried in the county cemetery, but the county residents objected to having a Native American buried there and Amos was ultimately moved onto the school grounds.
Though her research has been ongoing since 2016, St. John said only recently she was able to confirm Upwright’s ancestry as the son of Waanatan II, an early tribal chief.
“We all as tribal nations have our historical figures, and American history doesn’t even touch that,” she said. “And so for us, our children here, we try to educate them.”
Upwright died in March 1881.
St. John said limited information is available about the cause of death, but many at that time died from tuberculosis. In Upwright’s case, he caught the measles.
When she thinks about bringing Upwright home, St. John said, “It would be much like the Lakota were bringing back a child of Sitting Bull.”
The balance of the group included John Renville, his sister Nancy and George Walker.
St. John said she’s still piecing together Walker’s story, and although he was the last of the four to die, she believes his health was failing and he left the school. That, she said, is supported by two letters written by Walker in the Dakota language.
“He’s lonely,” she said. “He wants to go home and he’s very hopeful.”
In one letter, St. John said, Walker talks about leaving the school with an agent and another student. This leads her to believe Walker died after leaving the school.
“I couldn’t find any record after that,” she said. “The idea that he wanted so desperately to come home, it speaks to the level of loneliness and sadness.”
The Renville siblings were also the children of tribal chief Gabriel Renville.
“He was chief until 1892,” St. John said. “The Renville family has a huge presence.”
John Renville would have been the oldest son, who was 13 when he died. St. John said according to documentation at the school, Renville and his classmates were heading out to camp in the area and he became sick after drinking water from a stream.
When Gabriel Renville came to the school to pick up his son’s body, St. John said, Nancy Renville returned home.
But, the fact that Gabriel Renville was able to come get his son and bring him home was a rare occurrence.
“Gabriel Renville had resources that many of our chiefs would not,” she said. Raised by a fur trader, Renville’s ancestry was a mix of both French and Sioux.
St. John said in the case of Waanatan, he had a signed pass that allowed him to go certain places.
“How do you go get your child if you needed a written document that says you have permission to go off the reservation?” she asked.
These six weren’t the only Sisseton Wahpeton tribal members who attended Carlisle. St. John said there’s a long list of youth who attended the school, but these six were the first to leave the area in 1879 and, within a very short period of time, the four boys were gone.
St. John said discussion about bringing these youth home started with a group of Rosebud youth who visited Carlisle, saw the graves and started asking about who they were.
“They looked at the kids... and realized that some were from Rosebud,” she said. “They saw names that were familiar to them. That sparked something within them and they started to ask about their story.”
In 2016, they met with them in Rosebud, St. John said. By then, she said, several tribes were looking at this cemetery to see if there was a way to bring their ancestors home.
These children arrived at Carlisle not long after the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
“I tried to remind people to take into consideration the political climate at the time,” she said.
Through her research she found an article from the time that references a meeting of tribal chiefs in Washington, D.C. and how the chiefs were able to see their children while they were there.
“That says right there they were used as a pawn,” she said.
While some didn’t make it home, others did. St. John said her grandmother attended a boarding school in Rapid City.
“There are a lot of things that happened, but she said there’s a lot of things a person could learn,” St. John said. “The fact remains that those things are a part of people today.”
The first meeting to discuss the process of digging up the remains from the cemetery was last week at the Sisseton Wahpeton College in Agency Village. That’s when Buller explained how disinterment works.
Buller said the process requires a signed affidavit from the closest living relative, which is a determination made locally. This process is outlined in U.S. Army regulations for any family wishing to claim the remains of a relative in a military cemetery.
“The family and tribe can decide who is the closest living relative,” he said.
Once that affidavit is received, he said, a notice about the planned disinterment is published in the federal register. If another tribe objects, Buller said, the tribes are asked to settle the dispute.
Some tribes have chosen to leave the remains where they are, he said. Others have asked for modified gravestones with the removal of the cross at the top of the headstone and corrections to the children’s names.
Expenses for the disinterment process and gravestone modifications are covered by the U.S. Army, Buller said, but also limited. As an example, Buller said the U.S. Army will cover travel expenses of two family members and two tribal leaders for each disinterment.
Because the extended families of these two boys are significant, those limited travel expenses were a point of concern by tribal members who were at the meeting, which was recorded and posted on YouTube.
Buller said the graves have already been moved once in 1927. That’s when the Army decided to move the cemetery, because it was next to a dump. In retrospect, he said officials should have moved the dump, but as early as 1927, families were asking for the return of family members.
Those requests went unanswered.
In 2016, notices were sent to every tribe giving them an opportunity to decide if they want to claim the remains of children in the cemetery. Since then, he said, 21 of the 188 Native American children buried there have been disinterred.
Buller said the original cemetery site has been subject to extensive excavation and no remains were found and documentation they have supports the fact that the cemetery was moved.
Once excavated, remains are evaluated to confirm they are the person who should be in that place. Buller said that’s done by checking to make sure they are the correct gender and the size matches a person of that age.
The final resting place for Upwright and LaFramboise is yet to be determined, and is a decision that will be made by the families, but, St. John said, some possible sites are under discussion.
For example, Joseph Lafromboise is buried near Veblen in St. Matthew’s cemetery. Waanatan is buried at St. Michael’s cemetery in North Dakota.
Now, with the tribe’s involvement and participation from family members who can help with the process, St. John said, she doesn’t see any roadblocks.
“I don’t see anything that would stop us from moving forward in their next cycle of disinterment,” she said.