Louellyn White came to Pennsylvania to search for graves of native children who died after their Carlisle Indian School masters sent them out to work as maids and farmhands.
But as she hunted for burial records in the dusky, seldom-used library of the Byberry Quaker Meeting in Philadelphia, she made a horrifying discovery: a yellowed skull, labeled as Native American, set in a display case among a collection of rocks and fossils.
A note taped to the cabinet said the skull was dug out of a canal near Lambertville, N.J., part of a skeleton that in one hand held a pipe and hatchet.
“It’s just wrong,” said White, of Mohawk descent, who teaches First Peoples Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. “This is really an ancestor here, who’s been stuck on this shelf next to animal skulls.”
A Meeting representative said that she was shocked by the find — and that the Quakers will offer to return the remains, to conduct a burial, or take any action that Indian leaders may desire.
“We want to do the right thing,” said Mary Ellen McNish, a longtime member and former clerk of the Meeting. “We will do whatever they want.”
The discovery comes at a time when Indian nations are increasingly asserting their rights to the remains of their kin, not just from boarding-school cemeteries at places like Carlisle, but from museum storerooms and university laboratories. Institutions are being pushed to return human remains and sacred objects by enlightened moral values and by federal laws like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The change was a long time coming. For generations in this country, the rough treatment of native dead was not merely tolerated but endorsed.
In the late 1860s, the Army collected 4,000 Indian heads from graves and battlefields at the direction of the surgeon general, who wanted specimens for study.
More than 230 native skeletons excavated from Dickson Mounds in Illinois were put on display in the 1920s and kept on view, despite protests, until 1992. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln incinerated what it saw as useless Indian bones from its archaeological collection in the mid-1960s, a destruction acknowledged only in 1998.
“Broadly speaking, there’s increased cultural sensitivity around these kinds of issues — sacred items, spiritual items, bones, all of it,” said Ari Kelman, a chancellor’s leadership professor of history of the University of California at Davis and author of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek. But at the same time, “there’s a longstanding sense on the part of some collectors that their property rights trump the human rights of tribal peoples.”
White traveled to Pennsylvania this month at the behest of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minnesota-based rights group. The coalition wants to strengthen its demand for a national accounting of all Indian children who went missing while under official supervision at dozens of boarding schools run by the government and by churches, the Quakers prominent among them.
Carlisle was founded in 1879 as the nation’s first federal off-reservation boarding school. It worked to destroy the “savage nature” of Indian children by erasing their customs, languages, religions, and family ties.
Nearly 200 boys and girls who died in the experiment are buried on the grounds of what is now the Army War College. But others died or disappeared away from the school, lost during an assimilation program called “Outing.” It’s those children White seeks. Outing sent students to live with white families, immersing them in the dominant culture and turning them into cheap labor.
Today, Indian children known and unknown are buried across central and eastern Pennsylvania.
Two lie side-by-side in the Byberry Meeting cemetery.
City records identify one as 14-year-old Gertrude Spotted Tail, daughter of a famous Sioux chief, who died of pneumonia while on Outing in 1883. The identity of the other girl is unknown.
As White searched for graveyard ledgers in the library — crammed with stuffed birds, clothing, shells and books — she came upon the skull.
Her legs wobbled. And her stomach dropped.
She alerted Christine Diindiisi McCleave, the boarding school coalition executive officer, who then messaged Jaime Arsenault-Cote, a tribal historic-preservation officer.
Arsenault-Cote offered advice and reassurance.
“You’re out there looking for them, and now they’re showing themselves to you,” she told White. “He’s been waiting a long time.”
Two days later, White returned to the library. She covered the skull with red cloth, sprayed cedar water, placed an offering of tobacco.
“I felt I needed to comfort this ancestor, and let him know we’ll be taking care of him,” she said.
Elsewhere, she found strings of wampum, the sacred white-and-purple shell beads. Byberry Quakers say they’ll return those too.
Historically, Philadelphia Quakers were “inconsistent friends” to Indians, engaged in the same colonizing projects as other faiths while seeing themselves as uniquely able to educate natives, Kari Elizabeth Rose Thompson wrote in her 2013 University of Iowa dissertation.
The Friends were strong proponents of Indian schools, managing more than 30 during the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Colorado Quaker activist Paula Palmer. Just this month in Wallingford, a Quaker-sponsored conference sought to examine the church’s historical mistreatment of natives and try to find ways to right the relationship.
McNish said the Byberry Meeting is discussing the possibility of inviting Sioux and other native representatives to hold a joint ceremony honoring the two girls in the cemetery.
The Meeting is among the oldest in Pennsylvania, founded in 1683. Today, McNish said, its membership has shrunk to about 22 people, the library rarely visited.
She believes the skull came to the library when the old Byberry Philosophical Society ceased operations and transferred its holdings. She doubted members knew the skull was there, though Meeting Clerk David Nepley, nearing 70, said he remembered seeing it as a boy.
The cabinet note said the skull was among bones dug from the feeder to the Delaware and Raritan Canal, which was completed in 1834. The feeder stretches 22 miles; there’s no indication where the remains were found on that route.
Judging by geography, the remains are likely those of a Leni Lenape, people who lived for thousands of years along the Delaware River watershed in what is now New Jersey, Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, and New York City.
European settlers drove the tribe west in the 1880s. Today, some people of Lenape heritage live in the Philadelphia region, but the tribe has its headquarters in Oklahoma and Kansas.
Tribe cultural director Curtis Zunigha declined to comment. But already native groups are moving to sort out which tribe or agency might take possession of the remains and ensure that the ancestor is accorded a dignified — and final — burial.
Tribes often work together to ensure that human remains are respectfully repatriated, particularly when information on their lineage may be lacking.
“The goal,” said Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, executive director of the nonprofit Association on American Indian Affairs in Maryland, “is to return the ancestor to the earth.”