Boys' remains could come back to the Dakotas from notorious Native American boarding school
A group of six Sisseton and Wahpeton Sioux children were among the first students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Only three of them left the school alive.
Editor's note: This is the first story in an occasional series on Native American boarding schools and their impact on the region's tribes.
HANKINSON, N.D. — On Nov. 6, 1879, four boys and two girls from the eastern edge of the Dakota Territory stepped off a train in Carlisle, Pennsylvania — more than 1,000 miles from the rolling plains they had called home all their lives.
The Sisseton and Wahpeton Sioux children numbered among the first students to arrive at a boarding school explicitly designed to assimilate Native American youth into a white man’s world by stripping them of their culture, language and family ties.
By May 1881, three of the boys — Amos LaFromboise, Edward Upright and John Renville — were dead, all before the age of 17.
Amos and Edward, both sons of influential tribal leaders, are still buried near the site of the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Their graves are marked with white military-issued headstones containing glaring spelling errors and no biographical information other than the day they died.
But after more than a century away from their native lands, the boys may soon find a final resting place in the Dakotas.
Officials and elders from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake tribes met at the Dakota Magic Casino in Hankinson on Saturday, Feb. 19, to take a crucial step in bringing the boys’ remains back home.
In a ceremony that included prayer and storytelling, relatives of Amos and Edward signed affidavits attesting their familial bonds to the boys. Submitting the documents to the U.S. Army, which maintains the cemetery in Carlisle, will set off the process of exhuming the boys’ remains and returning them to the tribal nations as early as this summer.
Spirit Lake resident Marva Tiyowakanhdi said she almost started crying as she watched her aunt Helena Waanatan sign the affidavit affirming her relation to Edward.
“I felt so much honor and respect and love,” Tiyowakanhdi said. “It’s almost like she brought him home in the spirit, like she was welcoming him back.”
If all goes according to the families’ plans, Amos will be buried beside his father Joseph in the St. Matthew’s Cemetery on the South Dakota side of the Lake Traverse Reservation, and Edward will lie next to his father Chief Waanatan II in St. Michael’s Cemetery on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota.
The successful return of the boys’ remains would add to the running total of 21 repatriations that tribal nations have completed from the Carlisle cemetery since 2017. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has spearheaded repatriation efforts in South Dakota, reburying the remains of nine children on its reservation land last year.
For Sisseton Wahpeton tribal historian Tamara St. John, repatriating the bodies of Amos and Edward is a long time in the making. She undertook the cause six years ago, pouring hundreds of hours into historical and genealogical research to connect the boys to their ancestors and modern-day relatives.
St. John said “a maternal feeling” compels her to fulfill a promise she made to the boys to bring them back to tribal land.
“We can only imagine how deeply they were missed. And the loss of each as a future leader or chief is still felt today,” St. John said. “We are committed to them and to bringing them home like the chiefs that they are.”
Buried in a foreign land
Just a few years removed from his service to U.S. forces in the waning American Indian wars, Richard Henry Pratt had a new idea. The military man wanted to start a school where the children of Native Americans he had recently viewed as adversaries could learn to blend into a white-dominated society.
During an 1892 speech in Denver, Pratt stated in no uncertain terms the objective of the American Indian boarding school he had helped establish 13 years earlier on a former Army base in southern Pennsylvania.
“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” he said.
“It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage. He is born a blank, like all the rest of us. Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life,” Pratt continued. “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.”
Pratt was superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School from its founding in 1879 until 1904. The federally funded school under Pratt’s leadership operated with “zero tolerance of all aspects of Indian culture,” according to author Jacqueline Fear-Segal’s book “White Man’s Club.”
High-ranking federal officials targeted Sioux children from the Dakotas for recruitment in the early days of the school because their parents and grandparents had proven more resistant to signing away their lands, St. John said. The government gained leverage in negotiations by holding the offspring of tribal leaders in a faraway boarding school, she noted.
“(The children) were essentially being used as a tool,” St. John said. “It was a way to get (tribal leaders) to come talk about ceding their land. It was a way to get them to the table in Washington.”
As the first government-run, off-reservation American Indian boarding school, Carlisle became a model for similar institutions across the country during an era when officials favored a strategy of forced assimilation for Native Americans.
Scrutiny of American Indian boarding schools and their mission has greatly intensified over the last year following the discovery of mass graves containing the bodies of Indigenous children at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia, Canada.
More than 400 American Indian boarding schools are known to have existed in the United States, according to author Denise Lajimodiere. But Carlisle sticks out as a symbol of the institutions, said Jim Gerencser, an archivist at Dickinson College in Carlisle.
Many Americans only recognize Carlisle as the alma mater of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe, but Gerencser and a team of researchers have uncovered a much darker side of the school’s history over the last decade.
At least 233 students, nearly 3% of the 7,800 who attended Carlisle, died while enrolled at the school.
Amos LaFromboise was the first to perish.
On Nov. 26, 1879, just three weeks after the 13-year-old arrived at Carlisle, his body was laid to rest in a government-owned plot in the town cemetery. His cause of death remains unknown, but documents refer to him as being ill shortly before he died.
The Carlisle Herald, a local newspaper, referred to Amos’ fate as “the first and we sincerely hope … the only death in the school.”
But Pratt knew Amos wouldn’t be the last student to die. The day after the boy’s funeral, Pratt wrote to his bosses in Washington to ask if burying Native American children in the city’s cemetery was allowed.
In response to Pratt, a military judge wrote that “the premises shall be used for the burial of White persons only,” according to correspondence detailed in Fear-Segal’s book.
Shortly thereafter, the superintendent had Amos’ body disinterred and reburied at the school next to a Cheyenne boy, Abe Lincoln, who died in January 1880.
John Renville was the next to die of the Sisseton-Wahpeton boys. The 16-year-old contracted typhus after taking a sip of water from a stream during a hike and succumbed to the illness on Aug. 10, 1880, according to contemporary newspaper articles.
Unlike the vast majority of students who died at the school in its first 27 years of existence, John is buried in his homeland on the Lake Traverse Reservation.
Gabriel Renville, John’s father, served as the longtime chief of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and due to his dignitary status, he was permitted to retrieve his son’s body from the school.
Gerencser said it was extremely rare for a family member to claim the remains of a child at the school.
Edward Upright died less than a year later on May 5, 1881, after coming down with measles, and later, pneumonia. A doctor at the school didn’t bother to fill out Edward’s age in a letter notifying Pratt of the boy’s death, but he was no older than 14.
Despite being the son of well-regarded Spirit Lake Chief Waanatan, Edward was buried in the school cemetery.
Tuberculosis and pneumonia were the main causes of death among students, but others fell ill with measles, mumps and other diseases, Gerencser said. The close quartering of children from all over the country mixed with the stress of being taken far from home and a dramatic change in climate and diet contributed to student fatalities, the archivist added.
The 233 deaths at the school don’t account for sick students who “were sent home to die,” Fear-Segal notes. After receiving fierce criticism for the high rate of death among students in the school’s early days, Pratt decided to send more students with potentially fatal illnesses back to their communities, the author writes.
St. John thinks that’s what may have happened to George Walker, the fourth Sisseton-Wahpeton boy who arrived at Carlisle in 1879. Walker, who came to the school at age 15, was discharged in April 1883, according to school records.
Pratt had written a letter to an American Indian reservation agent earlier in the month recommending that Walker be sent home because he was “exceedingly anxious” and his mental state was “having quite an influence on his health.”
The paper trail on Walker runs cold after he left the school, but St. John believes he died shortly after returning to the Dakota Territory.
Even in death, Amos, Edward and the more than 180 others buried in the campus cemetery did not remain undisturbed for long.
In 1927, nine years after the school's closure, the Army, which had taken back the property, decided to disinter the bodies in the cemetery to make way for a new officers building, according to Fear-Segal.
The Army’s online description of the cemetery where Amos and Edward currently lie portrays the site as more of a quaint tourist attraction than a burial ground for children who died far from home: “Small, orderly and historical, the Carlisle Cemetery offers visitors a glimpse into the unique past of the United States and Native American history.”
Confronting the past
Just the thought of burying Amos and Edward next to their fathers on tribal land is enough to make St. John emotional. The archivist, who also serves as a legislator in South Dakota, said she’s used to dealing with difficult history, but she can’t remember working on something that became so intensely personal.
The mother of four knows repatriating the boys’ remains will be challenging for the two tribes as well.
“It can be scary having to acknowledge and feel things that maybe we’ve only read about in books,” St. John said. “You’re actually feeling what their father felt in losing a precious, precious son — one they’ve invested so much in.”
For Robert LaFromboise, Amos’ deadly experience at Carlisle evokes traumas he has carried almost his whole life as a survivor of South Dakota boarding schools. He still can’t shake the mental image of his sister screaming and hanging onto the bumper of a car because she didn’t want to stay at the school.
After signing his name to the affidavit verifying his blood link to Amos on Saturday, Robert said he felt great relief in knowing his relative will be returning to Lake Traverse after so many years away.
The process of repatriating the boys’ remains would start with the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe’s Kit Fox Society, a group of veterans, heading out to Carlisle.
But the next step involving the disinterment of the graves worries St. John. She knows that, given the lack of care that went into previous burials, there’s a possibility the plots supposedly belonging to Amos and Edward do not actually contain their remains. Amos in particular has been buried in three different places, increasing the chances his body was lost or interred incorrectly, St. John noted.
If the boys’ remains are in the right graves, the Kit Fox Society would bring them back to Lake Traverse where they last saw their homeland before departing for Carlisle, St. John said. From there, the remains can be taken to the boys’ respective family cemeteries, where Amos and Edward would receive the traditional burial ceremonies they never got at the school.
St. John said burying the boys for a final time is going to be sad and hurtful for the tribes, but “it will be healing when we as a people are able to understand more of what our ancestors went through.”
“The best thing I can say is we will be addressing this all together,” St. John said. “It’s not going to be one family doing this on their own — it’s going to be all of us.”
About the “Buried wounds” series
In May 2021, an anthropologist discovered unmarked graves likely belonging to 200 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. This disturbing finding drew attention to the United States’ role in forcibly assimilating thousands of Indigenous children through its own boarding school policies.
From 1819 and through the 1960s, the U.S. government oversaw policies for more than 400 American Indian boarding schools in the nation, including at least 13 in North Dakota. Many of the children who attended schools in North Dakota and elsewhere were taken from their homes against their will, stripped of their culture and abused physically, sexually and psychologically.
Little research has been done on exactly how many schools existed in the U.S. and the extent to which the federal government knew about the conditions of each school. The U.S. Department of the Interior under Secretary Deb Haaland is investigating the history and legacy of federally run boarding schools.
The Forum has launched its own investigation into boarding schools in North Dakota and other parts of the country by interviewing survivors, reviewing public records and exploring the impact these schools still have on North Dakota's Indigenous population today.