Forced assimilation, the nation’s policy toward American Indians in the late 19th century, stands out in uncomfortably bold relief  in Carlisle, Cumberland County. On the grounds of the Army War College is a cemetery holding the remains of some of the thousands of Indian children made to attend a boarding school there.

Now, the Army is disinterring the remains of three of those children — Little Plume, Little Chief and Horse — and returning them to the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming. More disinterments may follow. 

Tribal leaders have pushed to have the remains returned to them, and American officials, bound by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, are honoring their wishes. The children deserve to go home.

While the seizure of Native American soil is a well-known part of the nation’s history, the drive for assimilation has received less attention. 

It involved the creation of boarding schools in various parts of the country where Indian children were shorn of their names, hair, clothes, language and cultural practices so they could be remade as Americans. 

More than 10,000 children are believed to have attended the first of these, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which operated between 1879 and 1918. Photos of the children, taken when they arrived at the school and after they had spent time there, show a startling and disconcerting transformation, with some looking as if they had been squeezed into new identities that didn’t quite fit. 

Lt. Richard Henry Pratt, the driving force behind the Carlisle school, cast himself as something of a progressive for his era, asserting that Americanizing the Indians was the only way to save them. 

However misguided Pratt appears in hindsight, his motivations must be viewed in the context of his times. Yet darker forces also were at work. 

 In a 2013 article in the Gonzaga Law Review, Ann Piccard described the schools as a tool for systematically destroying Native American culture, noting their organization under an arm of the War Department “speaks volumes.” 

 Unable to kill all of the Indians, she said, this was the next best thing. Ms. Piccard, professor at Stetson University College of Law in Florida, stressed that “school” was a misnomer and that Pratt, who once ran a prisoner-of-war camp, operated the Carlisle establishment like one.

Though the last of the Indian schools closed in the 1950s, their impact lingers. Among other demands, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition wants a “truth report” about the scope and effects of the boarding school system.

Pratt tried to take his charges’ identities. But with their disinterments, Little Plume, Little Chief and Horse have reasserted theirs in a highly publicized way.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aug. 9, 2017

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