The US Stole Generations of Native American Children to Open the West
Nearly 200 Native children lie buried at the entrance of the Carlisle Barracks in the “Indian Cemetery” — the first thing you see when entering one of the United States’ oldest military installations. It is a grisly monument to the country’s most infamous boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which opened in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and closed in 1918. Chiseled onto the white granite headstones, arranged in the uniform rows typical of veterans’ cemeteries in the U.S., are the names and tribal affiliations of children who came to Carlisle but never left. Thirteen gravestones list neither name nor tribe; they simply read “UNKNOWN.”
It’s a chilling scene that I was unprepared for when I visited last year on the 100-year anniversary of the school’s closing. And the experience was made even more jarring by the mandatory background check and armed checkpoint I faced just to visit the cemetery and the school’s remnants. The campus is an active military base, and the heightened security measures are due to post-9/11 precautions. The unquiet graves of these young casualties of the nation’s bloody Indian wars lie next to the Army War College, which trains officers for the nation’s longest war, the war on terror.
The cemetery was not supposed to be at the front entrance. It was an accident: In 1927, to make room for a parking lot, the Army dug up the children’s graves and relocated them behind the base — out of sight. Then, in 2001, the back of the base was turned into the entrance to satisfy new security protocols. Now, Carlisle’s deadly past is on full display.
(Carlisle, and boarding schools like it, are remembered as a dark chapter in the history of the ill-conceived assimilation policies designed to strip Native people of their cultures and languages by indoctrinating them with U.S. patriotism. But child removal is a longstanding practice, ultimately created to take away Native land. Although Carlisle is located in the East, it played a key role in pressuring the West’s most intransigent tribes to cede and sell land by taking their children hostage.
A century after its closing, however, unanswered questions surround the Carlisle Indian School’s brutal legacy. Secrets once thought buried — why did so many children die there? — are coming to light. And the descendants of those interred are demanding more than just the return of their stolen ancestors.
“The past of Carlisle is really about justice,” says Ben Rhodd, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s tribal historic preservation officer. Since April 2016, his office has been pursuing the return of 11 children buried at the Carlisle Indian Cemetery. Even in death, Rhodd explains, Rosebud’s children remain “prisoners of war,” held at a military base and unable to return to their home on the Rosebud Reservation, children who were “hostages taken to pacify the leadership of tribes that would dare stand against U.S. expansion and Manifest Destiny.”
Rosebud is not alone in seeking justice for its young ancestors. The Northern Arapaho reclaimed its first children in 2017, and other tribes have followed suit. Since 2013, the National Congress of American Indians has requested all federal records for the hundreds of Native children who have disappeared or died while attending one of the hundreds of federally run or funded boarding schools. So far, there has been little response from federal officials, who say the requests are nearly impossible to fulfill. “A lot of students end up disappearing in the archival record,” says Preston McBride, a graduate student who has researched the case for the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and written about disease and student deaths at Carlisle. McBride calls this phenomenon “administrative disappearance,” in which “even tribes don’t have the records.”)
“SON, BE BRAVE AND GET KILLED,” Ota Kte’s father told him, as if he were going to war. The boy recalled the phrase as he was led onto a boat with other Lakota children guided by strange white women and men. This was Carlisle’s first class: 86 Lakota, 66 from Rosebud Agency and 20 from Pine Ridge Agency, the children of recalcitrant people who refused to cede any more land to the United States. The expression — “be fearless” — had been so thoroughly engrained in Ota Kte’s being that, he claimed, “I knew nothing else.” During the long, difficult journey eastward, which continued by rail and ended at Carlisle, the boy clung to his father’s words.
At the barracks, orderlies lined the children up and told them to take turns sitting in a chair. It was Ota Kte’s turn: Long, thick locks of black hair fell from his head as he sat motionless and at the mercy of the barber. His eyes burned, and he forgot his father’s instructions. It was the first time in his young life he remembered crying and feeling fear. To his people, cutting one’s hair meant grieving the death of a relative. By taking his braids, Carlisle had shorn him of his physical and cultural identity. Ota Kte mourned the loss of himself.
He was no longer Ota Kte, “Kills Plenty,” a name he earned for the enemies slain by his father, George Standing Bear. That name, which held so much meaning, was replaced by an arbitrary one. Told by a white teacher to choose a Christian name from the chalkboard, a name he couldn’t even read, “I took the pointer,” he wrote in his book My People the Sioux, “and acted as if I were about to touch an enemy.” That day, he became “Luther” in the enemy’s language. With his culture stripped from him, he felt that he “was no more Indian” but “an imitation of a white man.”
Although Luther Standing Bear eventually returned to his home at the Rosebud Agency, many of his peers didn’t. “The change in clothing, housing, food, and confinement combined with lonesomeness,” Standing Bear reasoned, “was too much.” He estimated that in the first three years at Carlisle, nearly half the Lakota children of his class died. “In the graveyard at Carlisle most of the graves are those of little ones,” he lamented.
In those early years, more students died at the school than graduated from it. And if one did escape death and return home, that survivor became, in Standing Bear’s words, “an utter stranger” to their own family.
STANDING BEAR'S STORY OF LOSS and transformation wasn’t solely his own; it was a shared, collective experience. And many families continue to grapple with its legacy, including my own. While researching this story, I discovered that at least five of my ancestors from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe had survived Carlisle; the boarding school experience is just one generation removed from my own. My father, Ben Estes, and his siblings were students and survivors of the Catholic-run St. Joseph Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota — the town where I was born and raised.
For Ben Rhodd, it’s also difficult not to see echoes of this sordid history in today’s headlines as thousands of migrant children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are confined in detention facilities. “Children are being incarcerated unjustifiably, without merit but for economic gain.” Many of those children are Indigenous, fleeing violence in countries like Guatemala and Honduras. To return Rosebud’s children from Carlisle, Rhodd says, “is to seek justice for all children and all humanity who come to this land, our land, to the Native land.”
Since 2017, students’ remains have been successfully returned from Carlisle’s notorious Indian Cemetery on three occasions. After more than a decade of negotiations with the U.S. Army, the Northern Arapaho Tribe secured two returns. The first, in August 2017, brought home two children, and the second brought home three more in June 2018. They paved the way for a third effort this June that returned six more children — three from the Oneida Nation and the rest from the Iowa Nation, Modoc Nation and Omaha Nation. At the request of the descendants, the Army disinterred the remains, transferred custody of them, transported and reburied the children on tribal lands or in private cemeteries. The children of Carlisle are starting to return home.
But not yet to Rosebud.
Despite numerous petitions, Ben Rhodd says, “we have not been able to retrieve them due to the Army’s process.” The Department of the Army requires a certified affidavit from each child’s living descendants. Unfortunately, some of those children were orphans or have no living descendants, and the tribe, according to the Army’s procedure, cannot advocate on behalf of its own deceased members. “Why does the Department of the Army say that a tribe — as a legal entity, a government and a people — cannot petition for the return of those who have no living descendants?” Rhodd asks. “How is it that the Army cannot change its ruling that a nation has no right to claim its own dead?”
The answer to that question partly lies with the history of how Lakotas lost their sovereignty, land and children in the first place.
WEAKENED BY THE CIVIL WAR, the United States capitulated to the Lakotas in the aftermath of Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868), which expelled white settlers and military forts from the buffalo hunting grounds of the Powder River Country in present-day Montana and Wyoming. This resulted in the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which set aside 35 million acres for a “permanent home” for Lakotas “that no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy” — a significant victory against an invading nation. Just three years later, Congress abolished treaty-making with Native nations altogether. The opening of Carlisle marked a radical change not only for Standing Bear’s people but also with regard to Indian policy and the aims of U.S. imperialism.
During the late 19th century Plains Indian Wars, the Indian boarding school found its primary purchase. The bloody consequences of two bedrock U.S. institutions — African slavery and the killing of Indians — inspired Carlisle’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt, a military man, to embark on a bold experiment to solve the so-called “Indian question,” once outright extermination was no longer palatable. Like many of his peers, Pratt was a Civil War veteran turned Indian fighter. And he came to regard Indian killing as he had slavery — as unsustainable. A radical solution was needed.
As the title of his autobiography — Battlefield and Classroom — suggests, Pratt transposed the Indian wars from the frontier to the boarding school. By removing Native children by the hundreds and then thousands from their families, he thought he could break the resistance of intransigent Native nations. Between 1879-1900, the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened 24 off-reservation schools. By 1900, three-quarters of all Native children had been enrolled in boarding schools, with a third of this number in off-reservation boarding schools like Carlisle. Pratt had turned Gen. Philip Sheridan’s murderous expression — “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” — into a new motto: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Only the military could achieve that kind of goal.
According to Ben Rhodd, the expression also stemmed from a Christian desire to convert Native people. “The churches in their benevolence — and I say that facetiously — sought not to destroy Native people by warfare or annihilation,” he says; “they sought to change the man, change the heart, change the spirit of Native people. They concentrated on the baptism of Native children.” Pratt himself was a lay minister in the Methodist Church. A cleric and a soldier, he wielded two powerful instruments of colonization, a Bible and a gun. “In Indian civilization I am a Baptist,” Pratt wrote, “because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”
Pratt first came to the idea of the boarding school while commanding mixed units of freed African-American and Indian scouts in punitive campaigns against Kiowas and Comanches on the southern plains of Texas. He believed the U.S. military had succeeded where past attempts to “civilize” enemies had failed: They had forged a sense of duty and loyalty in conquered peoples. Pratt observed how the Army of the West had successfully brought together whites, blacks and Indians by turning them into Indian fighters. Under white leadership, of course, the military had the greatest civilizing influence on the frontier. But not everyone was equal.
While Pratt rejected biological notions of white racial superiority, he subscribed to social evolutionary theory. Regarding white Europeans as the most civilized, he placed black people above Native people in terms of social development and readiness for citizenship. He believed slavery was “a more humane and real civilizer” than the reservation system. Slavery, he thought, was the ultimate “Americanizer” — “forcing Negroes to live among us and becoming producers,” as opposed to the “Indian system through its policy of tribally segregating (Indians) on reservations.” Forced alienation, starting at birth, from homeland, language, family and culture, and enslavement with intimate oversight by white overlords had prepared black people for assimilation, according to this view. Pratt wanted to reproduce similar conditions for Natives. The prison became his first laboratory and prisoners his first students.
In 1874, an opportunity presented itself. A military tribunal failed to convict Native resistance leaders on the Plains because the U.S. attorney general had ruled that “a state of war could not exist between a nation and its wards.” It was decided to imprison without trial the most intractable “wards,” paradoxically, as “prisoners of war.” The next year, Pratt became the jailer of 72 Cheyenne, Caddo, Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanche prisoners at Fort Marion, Florida. “A few of the chiefs were sent as hostages for the good behavior of their people,” observed Henry Benjamin Whipple, an Episcopal bishop who visited the prison. Prisoners were drilled with military discipline, wore surplus Civil War uniforms, cut their hair, learned English, and eventually became their own prison guards. “They learned by heart life’s first lesson,” Pratt observed, “to obey.”
Fort Marion was a small experiment with a large impact that gained more traction during a tumultuous time. The same year the United States celebrated its 100th birthday, at the Battle of Greasy Grass (known in U.S. history as Little Bighorn), a Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho alliance wiped out Col. George Armstrong Custer, Pratt’s former commander, and his 7th Cavalry. A U.S. military victory seemed unlikely. Tactics shifted to starving out the militant Lakotas by killing off the remaining buffalo herds, a primary food source, making reservation life not a choice but a necessity for survival. The next step was to undermine customary authority by weaponizing Native kinship systems against reservation leadership. “Carlisle was established to intern, so to speak, the children of leadership,” says Ben Rhodd, “to hold them as hostage, so that their fathers would not be so warlike and resist.”
Pratt’s success at Fort Marion convinced Indian reformers in Congress to authorize the Indian Bureau to turn the old Carlisle cavalry barracks into the first federally run off-reservation boarding school. It was a peculiar assignment: an active military officer overseeing a school administered by the civilian-run Department of the Interior, which itself managed wildlife and Indians. And the first class would be drawn from those most responsible for Custer’s crushing defeat, the Lakotas. In 1879, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ezra Hayt ordered Pratt to recruit first from Pine Ridge and Rosebud, “because the children would be hostages for the good behavior of their people.”
When Pratt first visited Rosebud in September to recruit children, he was met with suspicion. “White people are all liars and thieves,” Spotted Tail, a principal leader, told him bluntly. Two year earlier, the United States had taken the sacred Black Hills for its coveted gold under a policy known as “sell or starve.” Spotted Tail saw boarding school as another ploy to take more land. But Pratt told the leader that the Black Hills were taken mainly because the Lakotas couldn’t read the documents they had signed. Convinced by this logic, Spotted Tail conceded. The agency leaders decided that education was necessary for the survival of their people. They agreed to send their children. Yet Spotted Tail’s initial distrust proved tragically justified.
A year later, when he joined a delegation to Washington, D.C., and visited Carlisle, Spotted Tail witnessed a horrific scene: Children wore Army uniforms, marched and did drills under the flag of the military that had killed so many of his people. He saw child soldiers, not students, and an Army base, not a school. Spotted Tail’s own son faced a court-martial for bad behavior and was confined to the guardhouse for a week, a military jail originally built to house prisoners during the Revolutionary War. Jail was entirely foreign to Lakotas, and corporal punishment for children was taboo. Out of protest, Spotted Tail withdrew his own children from the school. He wanted to take all the Lakota children with him but was prevented from doing so. It was clear to Spotted Tail that Carlisle taught children not to read and write, but rather to obey and submit.
Available data suggest that most of the students succumbed to illness or were sent home because of it and died there. Unsanitary conditions caused outbreaks of disease, and the lack of warm clothing and bedding added to the miserable conditions. In the first two years, 16 Native children died at Carlisle, and eight died after being sent home. Sent to recruit more students from Rosebud as an adult, Luther Standing Bear encountered resistance from grieving parents, because “so many had died there that the parents of the Indian boys and girls did not want them to go.”
In December 1880, Ernest White Thunder and Maud Swift Bear, children of prominent Rosebud leaders, died at the school. Their parents petitioned the commissioner of Indian Affairs to have their bodies returned home but were denied to discourage other parents from making the same request. While it was willing to expend resources taking children from their parents and shipping them to far-off boarding schools, the Indian Bureau considered it impractical to send their bodies home when they died.
When Spotted Tail visited Carlisle, a homesick Ernest White Thunder stowed away on the train home with him, hoping to escape. He was soon discovered and sent back. Shortly thereafter, sick and refusing both food and medicine, he died at the age of 13. “His father, Chief White Thunder, was very angry that he had not been notified that his son was even sick,” Standing Bear recalled. If they could not return his son’s body, the chief asked if “they might at least place a headstone over his grave.” According to Standing Bear, “Neither request was ever granted.” To this day, the site of his burial remains unknown.
CARLISLE WAS NOT UNIQUE, either in its existence or its depravity. “Child removal is a global issue for Indigenous peoples,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, executive director of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). Australia’s “stolen generations,” for example, were “mixed-race” Indigenous children ripped from their families with the aim of “breeding out the colour” of Indigenous Australians. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also documented the violent and traumatic legacies of Canadian residential schools and Indigenous child removal policies from the 1880s to 1996, which were modeled after U.S. boarding school policies. In 2015, the commission found that at least 6,000 Indigenous children died in Canadian residential schools. Canada had a total of 150 schools, less than half the 357 identified in the United States. “It’s likely that the number of students who died in the United States is much higher,” McCleave concludes.
Seeking justice for past abuses of child removal, Indigenous peoples have successfully pressured Australia and New Zealand for increased Indigenous political autonomy and partial land return. The United States, however, refuses to account for its failure to document the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous children in its boarding schools. The responsibility of counting the dead and disappeared falls to individual descendants, tribal nations like Rosebud, and organizations like NABS.
In a report filed for NABS, Preston McBride documented more than 450 children who died as a result of attending Carlisle. The majority of deaths happened during Pratt’s oversight (1879-1904) and peaked in the 1890s. But McBride thinks that number is a vast undercount. “Carlisle’s ultimate demographic impact is hard to pin down,” he says. It’s difficult for several reasons; sometimes tribes and parents were never notified of a child’s illness or death, and federal record-keeping was careless.
The National Archives in Washington, D.C., holds the majority of the thousands of student files. The children’s death records are kept on index cards in shoeboxes simply labeled the “Dead Files.” But the records themselves are incomplete. “All of the (male children) with the last names L through Z are missing,” McBride tells me. And the bodies might not even be at Carlisle; children who didn’t die on campus were sent home to die, but the tribes might not have recorded the death. Others died at a nearby sanatorium. At least 11 died while on the so-called “outing program,” which put Native children to work, for little or no pay, for white families in Pennsylvania, New York or New Jersey as housekeepers or farm laborers.
McBride says that this was common practice among nearly all government-run boarding schools, making individual researchers’ attempts to document deaths a monumental task. That’s why last April, NABS, the Native American Rights Fund, the International Indian Treaty Council and the National Indian Child Welfare Association jointly filed a petition with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances “to account for the fate of Indigenous children taken into federal custody” as part of U.S. boarding school policy. The U.N. Working Group was created in 1980, in part to document and respond to the thousands of disappeared political dissidents following the U.S.-backed military coup in Chile in 1973. Since then, it has documented tens of thousands of cases in 88 countries.
If the petition is successful, the U.N. Working Group could open a dialogue with the United States to begin to account for missing Native boarding school children. It could also launch an official investigation whose results would likely bolster cases like Rosebud on behalf of all Native nations, to return missing children to their tribes. That’s the outcome McCleave desires — a thorough documentation to provide answers to descendants and pathways toward justice. “It’s important to see where we’ve been, to know where we are and where we’re going,” she says.
BY 1889, A DECADE INTO THE CARLISLE EXPERIMENT, Lakota parents were heartbroken. Up until then, the Lakota leadership had put up a united front opposing the 1887 Dawes Act, which proposed to allot reservation lands by parceling out individual plots to individual Lakota families and selling off “surplus” lands to white settlers. Given the forced starvation already occurring on reservations and the loss of the Black Hills, the horror of the unexplained deaths of boarding-school children was just too much to bear.
During a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., in December 1889, Lakota and Dakota leadership discussed the loss of their children in regard to their decision to finally accept allotment. Coupled with the slashing of food rations, the taking of their children was “like cutting our heads off,” American Horse from Pine Ridge told the commission. White Swan from Cheyenne River explained, “It seems as though (our children) learned how to die instead of reading and writing.” The delegation had been lured to the East not only to sign over their lands but to also see their children. “Pine Ridge and Rosebud have their children at Carlisle mostly, so wherever their children are, they would like to go that way on their road home and see their children, and then go right home. That’s all,” Chief John Grass from Standing Rock pleaded before the delegation departed.
That same month, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan issued a memo to boarding schools — “Inculcation of Patriotism in Indian Schools” — which ordered the singing of “patriotic songs,” the recognition of U.S. national holidays, “reverence (for) the flag,” and a day commemorating the passage of the Dawes Act. The aim was “to impress upon Indian youth the enlarged scope and opportunity given them by this law and the new obligations which it imposes.”
Hoping to ease the pangs of hunger and reunite with their children, the Lakota and Dakota leaders accepted the Great Sioux Agreement of 1889, which opened up 9 million acres for white settlement and created the six modern Sioux reservations of Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, Lower Brule and Crow Creek. But the off-reservation boarding schools stayed opened — more children died, and more land was taken.
Between 1887 and 1932, federal allotment policy, which coincided with the peak of government-run off-reservation Indian boarding schools, devoured 91 million acres of Native land. In total, two-thirds of all tribal lands were lost, an area nearly the size of what is currently the state of Montana.
For Carlisle students like Luther Standing Bear, the civilizational project — from boarding schools to allotment — was a failure. Unable to apply the trade he learned at Carlisle on the reservation — there were no jobs there for tinsmiths — and frustrated by the restrictions regarding what he could do with his land, he chose a career off-reservation, acting in Hollywood Westerns. In his twilight years, Standing Bear pondered his father’s instructions to “be brave” and to go to Carlisle. If he were given such a choice with his own son, Standing Bear concluded, “I would raise him to be an Indian!”
THE FOUR WORST THINGS THAT COULD HAPPEN to a Lakota family happened at Carlisle, Ben Rhodd says. “The worst thing is to lose a child,” he tells me. “The second is to lose your mother. The third is to lose your father. The fourth one is to not know where a warrior lies.” The heavy price of losing relatives was intertwined with the loss of homelands.
The morbid task of disinterring and reinterring dead children, something unknown to Lakota culture, has forced the creation of new practices. “We still retain spiritual traditions,” Rhodd explains. “We have had to create another way to bring back the dead from another place, whether it be from a museum, university or lab. With spiritual guidance, we still retain enough of our ancient knowledge to bring our children home.
“Each child will be wrapped in their own buffalo robe, except for one, a female, who will be wrapped in smoked elk hide at the request of her descendants,” he says. “We’re preparing.”
And while the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s recovery of three children from Carlisle’s Indian Cemetery has been successful, even giving credence to Rosebud’s case, not all tribes want their children returned. For some, cultural customs forbid disturbing the dead.
The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act might not be appropriate for the Carlisle Cemetery, either. According to Christine McCleave, if invoked, NAGPRA might require a full archaeological survey, potentially disturbing the graves of children who come from tribes who don’t want them disturbed. “As they continue more repatriation, it does affect those tribes,” McCleave tells me. “What if they pull up a grave and it’s the wrong set of remains again? They don’t know who’s buried where,” she tells me. During the excavation of one child’s grave in 2018, for example, the Army found two other sets of remains from other children.
Rosebud is aware of this concern. But Rhodd knows the history of the cemetery: Some of the children have already been moved, five times at most, others at least twice. He fears that under Army jurisdiction, the cemetery may be relocated again. To the tribes who don’t want their dead disturbed, he offers the lessons Rosebud has learned. They had to create new ways of retrieving their stolen ancestors, he says, and he hopes a successful tribal appeal will encourage others to do the same. “We will help you,” he says to those who have doubts. “We will assist them with what they need. But it is up to them.”
As the Rosebud Sioux Tribe moves forward with its appeal to recover its 11 missing children, the stakes go beyond Carlisle. Much like Ota Kte (Luther Standing Bear), I began writing about Carlisle’s legacy, trying to be brave, but found my feelings teeter between hopelessness and anger. The struggle is as much for the return of stolen children as it is for the land itself. The boarding schools were created, not as educational efforts, but as instruments to dispossess Indigenous people of their territory. And like the conflicts that raged during Luther Standing Bear’s youth, which led to him to Carlisle, the struggles over the land have not ended.
When it’s not working on the missing children, Ben Rhodd’s office defends tribal sovereignty, fighting the oil pipelines crossing the territory of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline route snakes through a patchwork of tribally and privately owned land in the northeastern part of the Rosebud Reservation. The fragmentation of this part of the reservation is a direct result of the Dawes Act, which the tribe accepted on the condition of its children coming home from boarding school — a promise that never materialized. And while Rosebud may get its children back, the future of the tribe’s land is still in question.
But the return of the children is a step towards justice.
“I can see that place in my mind’s eye. I’ve stood there twice,” Rhodd says to me calmly, speaking of the Carlisle Cemetery. His resolution seems simple and inspiring in the face of the history that has worked against his people. “We’ll bring them home.”
[Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and the author of Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance(Verso, 2019). This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund. Help High Country News investigate more stories like this.]