An untold number of indigenous children disappeared at U.S. boarding schools. Tribal Nations are raising the stakes in search of answers.


PHOTO/John N. Choate via Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

When Yufna Soldier Wolf was a kid, she was made well aware of why her family members only spoke English, and why they dressed the way they did. Her grandfather and other elders used to recount their experiences at boarding schools, where the government sent hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children, from nearly every Indigenous nation within U.S. borders, to unlearn their languages and cultures. “A lot of them were physically abused, verbally abused, sexually abused,” she said.

At the center of the stories were the children who never came home from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where her grandfather was a student. “My grandpa used to say, ‘Don’t forget these children. Don’t forget my brother — he’s still buried there,’” Soldier Wolf said. She promised that she would remember.

The school, which opened in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and closed its doors 100 years ago this month, was the United States’ most notorious Indian boarding school and the starting point for more than a century of child removal policies that continue to tear apart Indigenous families today. Carlisle, and hundreds of federally funded boarding schools like it, were key to the U.S. government’s project of destroying Indigenous nations and indoctrinating children with military discipline and U.S. patriotism.

It was Soldier Wolf’s closeness to her family and their stories of abuse at the school that inspired her to become the Northern Arapaho tribal historic preservation officer and work on the return of the children lost at Carlisle.

In June, after about a decade of back-and-forth with the U.S. Army, which owns the Carlisle property, Soldier Wolf stood present as Little Plume, the last of three Northern Arapaho children buried there, was exhumed and sent back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The remains of two others, 14-year-old Horse and 15-year-old Little Chief, Soldier Wolf’s great uncle, had been returned the previous August.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe is the first to succeed in bringing home children interred at Carlisle’s military cemeteries — but it won’t be the last, and Carlisle is only the tip of the iceberg.

A coalition of Indigenous organizations — including the National Congress of American Indians, which represents 250 Indigenous nations, the International Indian Treaty Council, the Native American Rights Fund, and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition — has turned to the United Nations to demand that the U.S. government “provide a full accounting of the children taken into government custody under the U.S. Indian Boarding School Policy whose fate and whereabouts remain unknown.”

After unsuccessful attempts to obtain such information directly through Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, the coalition members hope that pressure from the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will make the difference. An appeal could require the U.S. to report on the statuses of missing Native boarding school children every six months.

“Our greatest hope is to start to raise awareness about this part of American history, but also to get some acknowledgement and accountability from the U.S. government,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, executive officer for the Boarding School Healing Coalition. “The fact that they haven’t willingly done that is disrespectful and a human rights violation.”

The Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Education, did not respond to a request for comment.

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