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Episcopal leaders hear stories of repatriation of remains of Native American children

11 February 2022


The grave of White Thunder, the son of Chief White Thunder

The grave of White Thunder, the son of Chief White Thunder

THE remains of several Native American children who died while in government-run boarding schools in the United States have finally been returned home, but many more are still thousands of miles from their homelands.

Tribal leaders had called for the repatriation of the children for years, but it was not until 2016 that the army — which now owns the site of the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Pennsylvania — agreed to the repatriation in principle.

More than 10,000 children, from 50 tribes, were brought to Carlisle in its 40-year existence to undergo a process of assimilation to white culture, abandoning their own cultural identity and becoming Christians. At least 200 children are known to have died at the school.

Leaders from the Episcopal Church heard the stories of some of the repatriations at a virtual conference to highlight Indigenous and Native American traditions and contributions to the Church.

Several schools are thought to have been run by the Episcopal and other Churches, although few official records remain. The Episcopal Church has acknowledged its past complicity in the federal boarding-school system.

Last year, the remains of nine children from the Rosebud Sioux tribe were returned home, after more than 140 years, but many other graves of children remain.

Canon Lauren Stanley, who was formerly the priest of the Rosebud Episcopal Mission, supported members of the tribe in their efforts to repatriate the remains of nine of their children.

The remains were repatriated last year, after a careful exhumation, which involved wrapping the bones in buffalo hides and placing them in cedar boxes. Tribal members drove the remains 1400 miles home in a 400-vehicle caravan to the Rosebud reservation; people lined the roadside to salute as they passed. Ms Stanley joined them for part of the journey home.

She was asked to bury one of the children, White Thunder, at Old St James Cemetery. Of the other eight children, six were interred at the Native American Veterans Cemetery, on the Rosebud reservation, and two were interred in family cemeteries.

White Thunder was the son of Chief White Thunder, who was told that his son would learn the white man’s ways. White Thunder, the son, arrived in October 1879, part of the first class of students. He ran away twice, but was “recaptured” and forcibly brought back to Carlisle. In October 1880, White Thunder developed what was described as typhoid pneumonia, but refused to take the “white man’s medicine”, Ms Stanley said.

After he died, Chief White Thunder was told that his son had died as he was stubborn and ignorant, and that his body would not be returned home.

Ms Stanley said: “My role was to be present, to be supportive, to listen, and, in the end, to do one of the burials. We all cried, we all smiled. We all celebrated. We all cried again.”

The Revd Rodger Patience, Vicar of the Church of the Holy Apostles, the oldest Native American mission in the Episcopal Church, accompanied one of the three families from the Oneida tribe who went to repatriate some of their children’s remains from the school.

The remains of three girls were reinterred on the Oneida reservation in 2019. One of the girls, Ophelia Powless, who died in 1891 at the age of 16, is now buried in the the Holy Apostles’ cemetery on the Oneida reservation, in Wisconsin. The other two girls were buried in the tribal cemetery. All three girls were honoured at a funeral ceremony in the church before the burial.

Mr Patience said that the tribe understood that there were several more Oneida children buried at Carlisle who would be brought home in the future. He said that some tribes had “engaged in the discovery process with the army, and have decided the remains must stay where they are and be disturbed no further”.

The Episcopal Church’s annual gathering of Native American church leaders was held at the Holy Apostles’, and leaders, including the Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry, heard of the repatriations at first hand.

The President of the House of Deputies, the Revd Gay Clark Jennings, said that the testimonies underscored the need for the Church to face the truth of its historic complicity in the boarding-school system.

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