Mark Soldier Wolf (left) and Nelson White Eagle are part of the visiting Northern Arapaho delegation at the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Efforts begin to return Carlisle children’s remains

By John W. Coleman


At the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., hidden behind the tall chain-link fences draped with black cloth and the signs that read, “Cemetery closed, please respect Native American privacy,” history was being made over the past week, and long-deferred dreams were coming true.

Two leaders ­of the Eastern PA Conference Committee on Native American Ministries (CoNAM) were involved in unprecedented Army efforts to dig up and repatriate buried remains of renamed Native children who died there over 130 years ago as students of the infamous, former Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

The burial there of Little Plume (aka Hayes Vanderbilt Friday), Little Chief (aka Dickens Nor), and Horse (aka Horace Washington), among nearly 200 others, is part of a dark, painful ongoing legacy of abduction, forced assimilation and reported abuse of more than 10,000 Native children and youth from nearly 50 tribes. Many of them were taken from their homes and brought to the former school from its opening in 1879 until its closing in 1918.

With their hair, clothing, language and other attributes taken from them, they were indoctrinated into an Anglo-American culture that robbed them of their own, causing generations of family and community dysfunction and trauma.

Carlisle was the nation’s first federal off-reservation boarding school. Retired Army Colonel Richard Henry Pratt established it to cleanse Indian children of their “savage nature” by eliminating their customs, languages, religions and family ties. There was some madness to his methods, which included brutal punishment for those who rejected the indoctrination. Those methods were replicated in similar schools set up in areas across the U.S. and Canada.

“When you see the graves, it’s a heavy heart,” said Crawford White Sr., 76. Media reporters and others met with the families on August 7, but only those families were allowed to witness the five days of exhuming that began the next day. White and his brother, Nelson White Eagle, were sent to the boarding school as children. “Healing, it’s a process. I need it to begin,” he said, “not just for me, but for the families. … There’s a lot of healing to be done.”

Eastern PA Conference CoNAM president Barbara Christy Lee (left) comforts Millie Friday, a descendant of one of the Carlisle buried children.

Barbara Christy Lee (Seneca-Munsee) and Sandra Ciancuilli (Lakota), CoNAM’s current and previous presidents, respectively, helped host a potluck dinner for the Northern Arapaho families. They came to witness the historic disinterment of the three Arapaho boys’ remains and to take those remains home to the Wind River Reservation in Freemont County, Wyoming, where they belong.

Christy and Ciancuilli are board members of Circle Legacy Center, a Native American cultural preservation and advocacy organization based in Lancaster, which hosted the visiting families. Lee serves as treasurer of the group, which also includes members of the Susquehanna Conference CoNAM.For four decades Ciancuilli and other members of Circle Legacy Center have helped care for the graves of hundreds of children in the Carlisle cemetery. During Memorial Day weekend they host a public Remembrance Ceremony, in association with the American Indian Society of Washington DC, to clean and decorate the headstones.

Former Eastern PA Conference CoNAM president Sandra Ciancuilli (left) shares a laugh with with Mark Soldier Wolf and Hannah Keller (right), a member of the Susquehanna Conference CoNAM. Both CoNAM members serve on the Circle Legacy Center Board of Directors.

The Circle Legacy Center dinner and fellowship was “an emotional union,” said Ciancuilli. It was also an intergenerational one, as children and youth accompanied aged elders, some in feathered regalia.

Yufna Soldier Wolf, the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historical Protection Officer, was emotional about their time together, recalled Ciancuilli. “She was comforted to discover that there were many people who visited the cemetery for decades to honor her ancestors while they were out here all alone. It was emotional for us too.”

However, the repatriation effort was only partly successful. Remains of two children were recovered and delivered to the families. But Little Plume’s suspected grave, exhumed this week, contained what appeared to be not his remains but those of two other, older persons.

Nonetheless, this effort, resulting from years of official requests by the tribe, may be the first of more to come. The Army is contacting all Native American tribes whose members attended the school. The Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota, Native families in Alaska and other tribes want their children returned from Carlisle, while many are asking for the tragic boarding-school blot on our nation’s history to be exposed and learned from as a possible path to healing.

Meanwhile, some states, communities, colleges and religious bodies—like the Mennonites—are finally willing to examine and teach this painful, long repressed history, some of which was enabled by Christian groups. The United Methodist Church likewise has addressed it as part of its Acts of Repentance carried out by the denomination and its annual conferences over the past quadrennium. The Eastern PA Conference conducted a solemn, youth-led tribute to the Native children of Carlisle at its 2016 Annual Session, as a precursor to its own full Act of Repentance ceremony in 2017.

There was plenty of great news coverage of the repatriation event, especially by the The Sentinel publication and (online Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News). Read the weeklong series of articles listed below, reported by staff writer Jeff Gammage. Also, enjoy the photography of’s Charles Fox. Some of his images appear in an album on our Flickr page, Efforts to return Carlisle children’s remains.”

Both men have covered the ongoing saga of Carlisle’s own hard-sought acts of repentance and reconciliation that are finally bearing fruit.

Also, you can revisit past articles about CoNAM and the Carlisle Indian School graves that we have published on our website since 2014: