One quote attributed to William Penn is, “To delay justice is injustice.” There have been variations of the platitude, but its meaning is clear and typically valid. But there are times when justice, no matter how long the delay, brings satisfaction.
Such was the case Friday, when the remains of two boys who died 130 years ago at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania were reinterred on burial grounds of the Northern Arapaho people on the Wind River Indian Reservation near St. Stephens, Wyo.
Native American children were once routinely taken to Carlisle for assimilation training. “Kill the Indian to save the man” was the way former cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt, who founded Carlisle in 1879, described his philosophy.
Some children were forcibly removed from their families. Others were voluntarily sent to Carlisle by parents who wanted their children to succeed in a white-dominated culture. They didn’t know many of the children would die at Carlisle, mostly from injuries or diseases.
Children suffered from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and flu. They were forced to forsake their traditions and religious beliefs and were beaten if caught speaking their native languages. Many were not allowed to return home during the summer. Others were tasked with performing menial chores in local homes.
Carlisle, whose students included Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, closed in 1918 and today is home to the U.S. Army War College. For years, the Northern Arapaho, Rosebud Sioux, Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, and others asked the federal government for the remains of nearly 200 children buried at Carlisle. They finally got the answer they sought this year.
Staff writer Jeff Gammage, who has been following this story for months, traveled to Wyoming to witness the arrival of the first bodies and their reinternment. He said three riderless horses, each with a small war bonnet strapped to its empty saddle, kicked up clouds of brown dust as they led a procession of shiny late-model sedans and mud-splashed old pickup trucks to a cemetery,
Reburied were the remains of children whose Native American names were Horse and Little Chief. They were identified based on their headstones at Carlisle and the age and sex of their bones. A third small casket was buried in memory of Little Plume, whose remains were missing from his grave.
Other tribes across the country have been paying attention to the long journey of the Carlisle children. Carlisle was the first off-reservation boarding school opened by the U.S. government to “civilize” Native American children. But others later opened in Canada and the United States boarded thousands of children.
Bringing some of these children home to finally rest among their people isn’t compensation for any neglect that might have contributed to their deaths. Nor does their reinternment excuse past attempts by this country to eradicate Native American culture. But, delayed though it may be, it’s justice.