ST. STEPHENS, Wyo. – People arrived at the cemetery in shiny late-model sedans and in old pickup trucks splashed with mud, but it was three riderless horses that led the Northern Arapaho into a day of grief and celebration.
The children were home at last.
Around and around the horses went, each with a small war bonnet strapped to its empty saddle, kicking up clouds of brown dust, provoking calls and cries to honor three boys who died in the confines of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
For 130 years the youths lay in Pennsylvania soil, far from their homes and families, never seen but never unmourned. Their return to these majestic mountain lands became a quest that reached an emotional conclusion here Friday on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
"It's been a long time coming," said tribal elder Crawford White Sr., 76, who this month helped lead a delegation to Carlisle, where authorities disinterred three graves on what is now the campus of the Army War College. "It's the beginning of the closure, the start of healing."
Horse was reburied first, at the St. Stephens cemetery, defined by its handmade wooden crosses. Eager hands reached for his small white coffin, carrying him the few steps from white hearse to rocky soil. A drum banged, and voices rose in song – followed by a silence as big as the Wyoming sky.
The only sound was the crunch of gravel underfoot as more people arrived, more than a hundred stepping close to the grave to bid welcome and farewell.
A much older generation, gone now, said goodbye in 1881 to Horse, Little Chief, and Little Plume when they were taken across the country to Carlisle, where masters and teachers did all they could to extinguish the students' native traditions and culture. Within two years, all three were dead.
On Friday, a newer generation, people who grew up hearing the stories and imagining the boys' terror, stepped forward to fulfill the hopes of their ancestors.
At Carlisle, where nearly 200 Indian children lie in a neat, military-style graveyard, this month's painstaking, trowel-by-trowel excavation unearthed three small pine coffins – and shocking news.
Horse and Little Chief were identified based on their headstones and the age and sex of their bones. But Little Plume's remains were missing. No one knows where he lies. His grave held the remains of two people, neither of them Little Plume.
On Friday, Little Plume's relations bore an empty coffin to the family cemetery – richly symbolic, people here said, of how Carlisle treated its students. Little Plume's family swore to continue to search for him.
Little Chief was reburied high on a mountain, amid the sage and cactus in Sharp Nose cemetery, where others of his family lie, and where Yufna Soldier Wolf says she will one day rest as well.
"To finally get to this point is surreal to me," said Soldier Wolf, who is Little Chief's great-niece and the tribe's historic-preservation officer. She labored years to recover the children's remains.
Little Chief, the eldest son of Chief Sharp Nose, arrived at Carlisle on March 11, 1881, only 14 and accompanied by Horse, 11, and Little Plume, 9. Like other students, they were assigned new English names: Little Chief became Dickens Nor, Horse was renamed Horace Washington, and Little Plume was called Hayes Vanderbilt Friday.
The nation's first federal off-reservation boarding school worked to "civilize" Indian children by erasing their languages, religions, and family bonds. Beatings were a common punishment, and epidemics killed boys and girls already weakened by hard labor. At the time, forcing Indians to assimilate into white society wasn't considered wrong – it was thought to be a more humane alternative than killing them outright.
The Carlisle model spread through the United States and Canada — tens of thousands of Indian children boarded. Today some scholars blame the legacy of broken family ties and lost languages for ills that plague modern tribes. American Indian leaders say a haphazard 1927 relocation of the school cemetery created painful doubt about who lies beneath the earth – and where.
For the Northern Arapaho and others, this repatriation is many things — a sign of hope for the future, of rapprochement with the U.S. government and even with the Army, the chosen instrument of the Indians' destruction in the 1800s.
"If it was my family member I would want them home," said Clarinda Calling Thunder.
Tribes across the country have been watching to see how this first recovery from Carlisle would fare.
Within days of the boys' exhumations, the family of George El, who died at Carlisle in 1891, told the Inquirer and Daily News they want his remains returned. The Oglala Sioux in Pine Ridge, S.D., say they're now exploring the recovery of five children. The Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota seek at least 10 boys and girls, and Alaska tribes may want children too.
On Friday, a long line of cars trailed dust from one cemetery to the next, traversing part of a reservation that's roughly the combined size of Delaware and Rhode Island. It's home to both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, traditional enemies who in 1878 were forced to share the land in what the government promised was a temporary arrangement.
Here on Wind River, horses romp through luminous green meadows, bighorn sheep tiptoe through mountain crags, and the rivers run sapphire blue.
It's that land the boys left and to which, people here say, their spirits have returned.