In late August, sixteen members of the Northern Arapaho tribe made their way from St. Stephens, Wyoming, to the Army’s Carlisle Barracks, in Pennsylvania, to witness the disinterment of three of their family members from a cemetery on the post. The exhumation of remains was the culmination of a two-year-long process involving the Arapaho, active-duty Army, Arlington Cemetery (which oversees Army National Military Cemeteries), and specialists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps’ team of specialists included three key participants on site during this sensitive procedure: chief archaeologist Dr. Michael Trimble; forensic anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth DiGangi; and Sacramento District tribal liaison Mark Gilfillan.
Trimble, chief archaeologist for the Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections at the Corps’ St. Louis District, was contacted by Arlington Cemetery and tasked with putting together a team to carry out the disinterment process at Carlisle Barracks. Trimble contacted Gilfillan to ask him to join the team and use his expertise.
To understand the modern-day connection between the Arapaho, the Corps and Carlisle Barracks, one needs to understand what was happening concerning Native Americans in the early 1880s. During this time, many Native American children were being forced to attend government-run schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (The school had no affiliation with the U.S. Army).
According to nativepartnership.org, the goal of forcing Native American children to attend these industrial schools was, “to ‘civilize’ Indian people and make them accept white men’s beliefs and value systems.” This philosophy was summed up in a phrase popularized at the time by CIIS headmaster Richard Henry Pratt: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
At the CIIS, students were forced to cut their hair, abandon tribal dress for school uniforms, forsake cultural and religious practices, and speak only English. Beatings were common and infectious disease and harsh conditions claimed many of the students’ lives during the nearly 40 years the school was in operation.
Three such Arapaho students who did not survive their time at CIIS were 15-year-old Little Chief (also called Dickens Nor), 14-year-old Horse (also called Horace Washington) and 10-year-old Little Plume (also called Hayes Vanderbilt Friday).
It is the remains of these three children which members of the Arapaho tribe came to Carlisle to recover. However, while the remains of Little Chief and Horse were successfully disinterred and transferred to tribal members to be re-interred on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, it was discovered that the remains of Little Plume were not in his gravesite. In fact, found in Little Plumes’ gravesite were the remains of two other unidentified individuals.
As tribal liaison, Gilfillan said he and the team had to have a rather long and uncomfortable conversation with members of Little Plume’s family, and explain to them how it became possible that Little Plume’s remains were not in the grave marked with his name.
“The three children were originally interred in a cemetery behind the Carlisle Indian Industrial School that was established in 1879,” said Gilfillan. “In 1927, after the 1918 conveyance of the CIIS property from Interior to the Army, the Army relocated the cemetery to its present location. Until this disinterment, the Army had no ability to attempt a match between remains and headstones.”
With the relocation of the entire cemetery and lack of detailed record-keeping at the time, the identity of the remains found under Little Plume’s grave marker are still unknown.
Even though Little Plume’s remains are unaccounted for, Gilfillan said the disinterment process was painstakingly handled by the Corps. So much so that he and the team spent four months working with the tribe to ensure the correct procedures for a ceremonial handover of remains were in place.
Gilfillan joined the team on-site at Carlisle for 10 days, where he continued to relay information between the tribe and active-duty elements of Carlisle Barracks to ensure the exactness of the procedures. To this end, the Corps team also carried out all disinterment work by hand. Nothing mechanized was used during the process, said Gilfillan.
Another complicating factor is that this was a mission of “firsts.” Gilfillan explained that this is the only Indian boarding school cemetery on Army property, and this is the first time the Army has carried out such a task. It is also the first time tribal descendants have requested it.
While the duties of properly communicating between all of the participants had Gilfillan at times “feeling like the narrow portion of an hourglass,” he said everyone involved – Army National Military Cemeteries, Carlisle Barracks, Arapaho and the Corps – all had an amazing level of motivation and passion for making the ceremonial handover of remains a sensitive and respectful event.
“It was a great honor to be part of a team in service to help Indian families with closure and healing for their very difficult history with the government boarding school experience,” said Gilfillan”
A Statement from the Army says they will:
Honor familial requests to disinter remains buried at the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery.
Honor familial requests for ancestral remains to stay in place in a dignified manner.
Pay and perform or contract for the reasonable and legal expenses including but not limited to: Tribal discussions • Travel of a family member and spiritual leader for disinterment of remains • Disinterment of remains in a dignified manner • Transportation of remains in accordance with Federal Law • Re-interment of remains in a cultural and respectful manner.