Remains of Native American youth return to tribal home

The children had been separated from their families more than a century ago under US policies of forced assimilation.

The disinterred remains of nine Native American children who died more than a century ago while attending a government-run school in Pennsylvania were being transported home to Rosebud Sioux tribal lands in South Dakota [Matt Rourke/The Associated Press]

A caravan carrying the bodies of nine disinterred Native American youths who died more than a century ago made its way across the continental United States on Thursday en route to the Rosebud Sioux tribal lands in South Dakota.

The journey represents a long-delayed homecoming for the children, who, like hundreds of thousands of other Indigenous youth, were separated from their homeland as part of a US government effort of forced assimilation in the 19th and early 20th century, largely beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819.

The nine children died between 1880 and 1910 at the government-run Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, an institution that housed some 10,000 Indigenous students and forced them to cut their braids, dress in military-style uniforms and punished them for speaking their native language.

Their bodies were disinterred in June along with the remains of an Alaskan Aleut girl, who has already been returned to her tribe.

With the recent discovery of nearly a thousand unmarked graves in Canada at former boarding schools for Indigenous children drawing attention to the victims of forced assimilation programmes, Thursday’s caravan served as a grim reminder of the decades-long effort by tribal leaders, activists and researchers to gain a more accurate accounting of what became of Indigenous youth who never returned to their families.

Records of separated Indigenous youth remain patchwork at best and scattered throughout institutions and jurisdictions across the country.

“We want our children home no matter how long it takes,” US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a cabinet position, said on Wednesday at a ceremony at what is now the US Army’s Carlisle Barracks and which contains some 180 graves of students from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

In June, inspired by the discovery of the graves in Canada, Haaland launched an investigation into policies at boarding facilities that will attempt to compile as full of an account as possible of the experience of Indigenous children. There will be particular “emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites” and linking interred children to their tribes, the department of interior said at a press release at the time.

The investigation will culminate in a report to be submitted in April of 2022.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland moves to speak during a ceremony at the US Army’s Carlisle Barracks [File: Matt Rourke/The Associated Press]

The caravan carrying the remains of the nine children from the Rosebud Sioux tribal lands will be greeted on Thursday night by a prayer service in Sioux City, Wisconsin – a city that served as a transit point for many separated Indigenous children.

It is the fourth exhumation of Indigenous youth remains conducted by the US Office of Army Ceremonies and comes after a six-year effort lead by the Rosebud Sioux youth council.

Russell Eagle Bear, a Rosebud Sioux tribal council representative, said a lodge was being prepared for a Friday ceremony at a Missouri River landing near Sioux City.

“We’re here today and we are going to take our children home,” Eagle Bear said at the Wednesday ceremony in Pennsylvania.

“We have a big homecoming on the other end.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies