Returning remains of Native children

My attention has recently been focused on the tragic history of the Indian Boarding Schools. Initially this was in preparation for a workshop titled “Quaker Indian Boarding Schools: Facing our History and Ourselves” that will be led by Paula Palmer and held at Scattergood Friends School and Farm, 2 miles east of West Branch, Iowa. This is a free event and the public is welcome.

Whenever I’m learning about an justice, I first learn all I can about it, the good and the bad. The more I learn about the forced assimilation of Native children, the greater my sorrow grows.

I’ve also recently had occasions to see some of the powerful effects of multigenerational trauma. The damage from the Quaker Indian Boarding Schools continues to this day.

Even the U.S. Army concedes “the school’s image shifted with changing American cultural norms.”

In 1879, Carlisle Barracks became the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs until September 1918. The school educated more than 10,000 Native American children, with representation from nearly 50 Native American Tribes from across the nation. During its 29 years, the school’s image shifted with changing American cultural norms. It began as a relatively progressive concept of providing Indian children with an education and vocational training, but this came at the expense of native cultures and languages.

Army completes 2nd year of Native American disinterments from Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery by Alex Pinnell, Public Affairs Office 30 June 2018

A stark example of the ongoing trauma related to the boarding schools is a recent story about the third disinterment of Native Americans at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

(Carlisle, Pa — June 10, 2019) The U.S. Army will continue its commitment to reunite Native American families with their loved ones through its third disinterment project at Carlisle Barracks beginning June 15. 

In 1879, Carlisle Barracks became the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, operated by the Department of the Interior until 1918. The school educated more than 10,000 Native American children, with representation from approximately 50 Native American Tribes across the Nation. 

The decedent names are Ophelia Powless (aka Ophelia Powias), Sophia Caulon (aka Sophy Coulon), Jamima Metoxen (aka Jemima Meloxen), Henry Jones, Alice Springer, and Adam McCarty (aka Adam McCarthy). These students died while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. 

“The Army’s commitment remains steadfast to these six Native American families whose sacrifice is known to only a few. Our objective is to reunite the families with their children in a manner of utmost dignity and respect,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director of Army National Military Cemeteries. 

Army Conducts Third Disinterment of Native Americans at Carlisle Barracks by Lt. Col. Donald E Peters (News Releases) June 10, 2019
The headstone of Little Plume (a.k.a. Hayes Vanderbilt Friday) at Carlisle Barracks Cemetery in Carlisle, Pa. (Dan Gleiter /PennLive.com/AP)

Reclaiming Identity: The Repatriation of Native Remains and Culture

Repatriation involves a return to one’s own people. In the Native American context, repatriation involves returning Native American human remains and cultural objects back to tribal members or governments centuries after their collection. 

Reclaiming Identity: The Repatriation of Native Remains and Culture Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)

Remains and objects are repatriated from museum, university, and government collections that acquired hundreds or even thousands of native remains and objects, and displayed them publicly without tribal consent. Now those remains and objects are, rightfully, returned to tribal hands. Grave protection applies to native remains and objects such as stolen artifacts or remains accidentally unearthed by construction projects. In the past, construction projects have destroyed tribal burial grounds and scattered human remains. Laws now require protection, excavation, and consultation with tribal governments when native remains are discovered. In all cases the bones and objects of Native American’s ancestors are to be treated with respect and returned to the tribe of origin for proper care and reburial.

In 1990, Congress passed the landmark Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA instituted guidelines for the respectful return of Native American human remains and cultural objects from any collection (museum, university, government, etc.) that received federal funding. The law has “teeth,” i.e., civil and criminal penalties for violation of the law such as knowingly selling or purchasing sacred objects stolen from graves.

Since the passage of NAGPRA in 1990, institutions have cataloged their collections, identified objects and human remains that belong to more than 400 modern-day tribes and repatriated hundreds of thousands of cultural objects and tens of thousands of remains to those appropriate tribes. Tribal members engage in emotional ceremonies that return their long-lost ancestors to the earth with respect and savor the return of their tribal cultural objects. The grave protection section of the law protects accidentally discovered remains by requiring anyone who unearths or finds historic Native American remains or objects to immediately contact federal authorities. 

After years of advocacy from the Indian community, the passage of NAGPRA was a prized victory. It helped to establish a model of tribal consultation, which is now incorporated into more and more legislation concerning native peoples. The act enforces criminal sentences for grave robbing, requires anyone who unearths remains or objects on federal or trust land to notify authorities and mandates the return of all identifiable remains and objects held in federally funded collections to their tribe of origin. 

Some experts say the bill represents more than just legal code. “This was more than a law; it was a change in the American consciousness,” says Steve Russell of Indiana University, “NAGPRA has helped transform Indian bones from archeological specimens to the remains of human beings.” NAGPRA reinstated basic respect for Native American humanity, which much of American society had lost.

Reclaiming Identity: The Repatriation of Native Remains and Culture Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)

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