Two Native American boys died at a boarding school in the 1890s. Now, the tribe wants them home

When two Native American boys from Nebraska died after being taken to a notorious boarding school hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania, they were buried there without notice. Nearly 130 years later, the tribe wants the boys’ remains back home.

So far, the Army has refused to return to the Winnebago Tribe the remains of Samuel Gilbert and Edward Hensley. A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the tribe accuses the Army of ignoring a law passed more than three decades ago aimed at expediting the return of the deceased to Native American lands.

Samuel had been at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania for just 47 days when he died in 1895. Edward spent four years at the school before dying in 1899. Both died in their teens, but records do not disclose their exact ages. Tribal leaders weren’t informed when the boys died, and relatives never learned what killed them.

The tribe made a formal request to the Office of Army Cemeteries for the remains in October but learned in December that the request was denied, according to the lawsuit filed Jan. 17.

“The Army always sought to maintain a position of control, dominance over native peoples while they were alive — and while they were dead,” said Greg Werkheiser of Cultural Heritage Partners, one of the lawyers for the tribe.

The bodies remain in a graveyard along with those of about 180 other children not far from where the school once stood in Carlisle, some 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers) from the tribe’s eastern Nebraska home. The graveyard serves as a “tourist attraction,” the lawsuit states.

A spokesperson for the Office of Army Cemeteries said she can’t comment on pending litigation. But the spokesperson said in an email that Samuel and Edward, along with other children who died at the boarding school, are buried in individual graves with named headstones.

“The cemetery is a dignified resting place demonstrating respect and care of all the deceased buried there and is absolutely not treated as a tourist attraction,” the spokesperson said.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in south-central Pennsylvania, the first government-operated school for Native Americans, was founded by a former military officer, Richard Henry Pratt. He believed that Native Americans could be a productive part of society, but only through assimilation.

After it opened in 1879 in an old Army barracks, thousands of Native American children were sent by train and stagecoach to Carlisle. Drastic steps were taken to separate them from their culture, including cutting their braids, dressing them in military-style uniforms and punishing them for speaking their native languages. They were forced to adopt European names.

More than 10,000 children from more than 140 tribes passed through the school by the time it closed in 1918, including Olympian Jim Thorpe. The children — often taken against the will of their parents — endured harsh conditions that sometimes led to death from tuberculosis and other diseases. The remains of some of those who died were returned to their tribes. The rest are buried in Carlisle.

After the school closed, the property was transferred from the Department of Interior to the War Department. It was used by the Army for a rehabilitation hospital and the Medical Field Service School.

The OAC spokesperson said the original cemetery was “in an inappropriate location adjacent to the pre-existing refuse dump, and blacksmith shop,” so the remains were moved in 1927 to another location on Carlisle Barracks. Servicemembers, veterans and their families also are buried there.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. It allowed for remains to be returned to tribes at their request. But the lawsuit said the Army refused to follow that law and is instead requiring the tribe to adhere to an Army policy.

The difference: While NAGPRA requires the remains to be returned, Army policy gives the agency discretion to decide if, and when, to do so. It also requires a request from the boys’ “closest living relative” — which the lawsuit called “nearly impossible to apply in these circumstances.”

“Defendants’ conduct perpetuates an evil that the United States Congress sought to correct when it enacted NAGPRA in 1990,” the lawsuit states.

The Army has disinterred 32 remains of Native American children at the Army’s expense since 2017, the OAC spokesperson said.

But Werkheiser said those remains weren’t technically returned to the tribes, but rather to the children’s relatives, and often after arduous waits. He said that using the Army process rather than NAGPRA “strips the tribes of all of their political rights.”

Tribes whose members had remains returned include the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Spirit Lake, Washoe, Umpqua, Ute, Rosebud Sioux, Northern Arapaho, Blackfeet, Oglala Sioux, Oneida, Omaha, Modoc, Iowa and Alaskan native.

“The Winnebago, after listening to what all those other tribes went through, said, ‘We’re not going to play this game. We’re not going to be bullied.’”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, has pushed the government to reckon with its role in Native American boarding schools. In 2022, her agency released a report naming the 408 schools the federal government supported to strip Native Americans of their cultures and identities. At least 500 children died at some of the schools, including Carlisle.

The lawsuit states that the Winnebago Tribe “continues to experience the pain of knowing that Samuel’s and Edward’s spirits remain lost.”

“The way Winnebago views it is that the boys have been waiting to come home for nearly 125 years,” said another attorney involved in the lawsuit, Beth Wright of the Native American Rights Fund. “Their spirits can’t rest and they can’t go on unless they are returned to the place that they were taken from.”

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.