This story may trigger individuals suffering from boarding school and related inter-generational trauma. To find self-care resources, visit the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition at: https://boardingschoolhealing.org/self-care-resources/
On September 17, 2023, Spirit Lake Tribe (SLT) and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (SWO) arrived at Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery to bring two of their children, Amos LaFromboise and Edward Upright, home. On the morning of their arrival, as the Tribes sang their honor songs for the first time on Carlisle’s grounds, the rain began to pour. Two days after their arrival, the Tribes carefully wrapped the boys’ remains in buffalo robes and prepared for the long journey home. After nearly 150 years, the Tribes were finally bringing their boys home to lay them to rest next to each other at the Tribes repatriation grounds.
A week before, the two Tribes finalized a first-of-its-kind signed Plan of Action (Plan) with the U.S. Army for the return of their children’s remains. The Plan was established to provide a robust set of terms to ensure a manageable and culturally appropriate process for the disinterment and return of the remains. The predictability and assurance the Plan provided was invaluable after the Tribes spent nearly seven years working to have their children’s remains returned to them.
Beginning in 2016, led by the SWO Tribal Historic Preservation Office (SWO THPO), the Tribes began their efforts to bring their children home. The Army instructed SWO THPO that the only way the Army would return their children was via internal Army policies designed for the return of servicemembers from Army cemeteries.
The Tribes were forced to navigate a difficult and unwieldy regime of policies the Army imposes on all Tribes seeking to have their children returned from Carlisle Cemetery. This, despite the fact that many Tribal Nations agree that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) should be applied to the return of remains buried at Carlisle.
Even so, by January 2022, the Tribes submitted all paperwork, and were assured by the Army their children would be returned that year. The Army failed to fulfill that promise and informed SWO THPO in June that the Army did not have the time or money to be able to complete disinterment and return of Amos and Edward.
The Tribes, which had celebrated the anticipated return of the boys in February 2022, were devastated to learn that yet another year, at least, would pass before they could see their children home. Based on the Army’s inconsistencies and contradictions, the Tribes feared that the Army might fail yet again to return their children.
Frustrated by the Army’s policies and lack of communication, SWO submitted a request in March 2023, to have Amos repatriated pursuant to NAGPRA. While the Army did not concede the applicability of NAGPRA, the Tribe’s NAGPRA request was a significant turning point in getting the Army’s attention and meaningful cooperation, which led to establishment of the Plan.
The Plan allowed the Tribes to take a clear and active role in determining how the disinterment and return of Amos and Edward would unfold. Through the Plan, the Tribes negotiated for provisions regarding the Tribes’ travel to Carlisle, coverage of expenses, the forensic analysis conducted to verify Amos’ and Edward’s remains, and specific tribal ceremonies the Tribes performed.
In addition to these significant terms, the Plan provided disclaimers that the Tribes neither waived their NAGPRA rights nor agreed with the Army’s interpretation of NAGPRA or its conclusion that NAGPRA does not apply to the remains at Carlisle.
“The Plan of Action was a significant step in providing Tribal Nations more control over the disinterment and return of their children. Yet, at the end of the day, the Tribes continue to maintain that NAGPRA applies to Carlisle Cemetery and should have controlled the return of their children, and the Army disagrees,” said Native American Rights Fund (NARF) Staff Attorney Beth Margaret Wright.
On September 15, 2023, nearly 60 citizens of both Tribes traveled from Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake Tribe reservations to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Multiple generations of tribal members—including youth, elders, descendants of both boys’ families, the Tribes sacred societies and spiritual leaders, and tribal leadership—made the 24-hour journey together.
“This is a difficult task,” said SWO Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Dianne Desrosiers. “We have a lot of people at home who have supported us, including present and past tribal leadership. With that support, all our people that came here have one heart and one mind to do what we were tasked to do, to bring our children home.”
As provided by the Plan, the disinterment of both boys began on September 17. The disinterment began at 10 am and continued until midnight. Despite relentless rainfall, tribal members gathered around the boys’ graves as they were disinterred and remained there until the disinterment was complete. Spirit Lake Tribe’s Chairwoman Lonna Street stood in the rain at the front of Edward Upright’s grave for the duration of his disinterment.
“The Tribes showed great commitment through the inclement weather and late hours to oversee the safe disinterment of their children,” said NARF Staff Attorney Jason Searle. “It was moving to all present, but also just one example of the tireless efforts the Tribes have made for the past several years to see this through.”
Following disinterment, the remains were carefully transferred to a tent for archeological forensic analysis to determine consistency of the remains of Amos and Edward. This stage is critical and can be a cause of concern for Tribal Nations who go through this process, given the history of gross mismanagement of the remains at Carlisle in the more than 100-years the Army has possessed them. This possession included a hasty removal of the entire collection of remains in 1927 from the Old Carlisle Cemetery. As a result of the Army’s mismanagement, some Tribes have, unfortunately, gone to Carlisle to disinter and return, only to find the remains in the grave with their child’s marker inconsistent with their child.
On the final day, September 19, the Army presented the findings of the forensic analysis to the Tribes. The forensic analysis results found the respective remains consistent with Amos and Edward.
“Even though it’s a good day, it’s still a sad day to leave the remainder of the children here,” said Chairwoman Street. “We pray and hope that the rest of the children be returned to their homelands.”
The Tribes’ closing ceremonies included prayers for the children that remain at Carlisle Cemetery and a final transfer ceremony for Amos and Edward. In the final transfer ceremonies, the Army formally transferred physical and legal custody of the boys’ remains to the Tribes.
The Tribes wrapped Amos’ and Edward’s remains in buffalo robes and delivered them to a van driven by the Kit Fox Society. The Kit Fox Society—the Tribes’ warrior society sworn to protect their people—stood guard over the remains as they were being analyzed in the tent, and they drove the remains directly home, not stopping overnight at any hotel for rest, to ensure the safety of the boys’ remains.
“For the past seven years, not a day went by that the Tribes did not think about bringing these boys home,” said SWO archivist and historian Tamara St. John. “Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake Tribe, two Dakota Nations, came together with strength to bring them back to where they belong.”
More About: The Tribe’s NAGPRA Request
NARF’s repatriation efforts related to boarding schools is supported by the generosity of The Christensen Fund.More blog posts