Army: Boys’ remains won’t return to Dakotas from notorious Native American boarding school this year
Despite successfully turning in the necessary paperwork this spring to have the former boarding school students' remains exhumed, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake tribes will likely have to wait another year before they can bring the boys home.
Editor's note: This is the fourth story in an occasional series on Native American boarding schools and their impact on the region's tribes.
BISMARCK — More than a century ago, administrators at the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania decided to bury the bodies of two young Native American students in a cemetery more than 1,000 miles from their homelands in the Dakota Territory.
To correct this perceived misdeed, members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake tribes recently petitioned the federal government to help return the remains of Amos LaFromboise and Edward Upright to the Dakotas so they can lie next to their fathers.
Despite successfully turning in the necessary paperwork this spring to have the boys’ remains exhumed and brought back home, the tribes will likely have to wait another year.
Officials from the U.S. Army, which maintains the Carlisle cemetery, said Amos and Edward will not be returned this year due to insufficient planning time and funding constraints. The boys’ remains are now scheduled to be exhumed next summer.
Tribal leaders are frustrated by the delay and say the Army’s disorganization is to blame. They believe the federal government should pull out the stops to address the historical trauma it has inflicted on Native Americans through boarding schools.
Sisseton Wahpeton tribal historian Tamara St. John, a leader in the repatriation efforts, said the Army is not treating Amos and Edward like loved ones who deserve a proper reburial.
Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Doug Yankton sent a letter to U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both R-N.D., asking their offices to aid the tribes in repatriating Amos and Edward by the end of this summer.
“The indigenous people of this country deserve healing, respect, honesty, and fair dealings,” Yankton wrote in the letter. “The further delay of repatriation of these remains does the opposite, instead sending the message that we are neither valued nor important.”
A Hoeven spokesman said the Republican senator’s office will be reaching out to the Department of Defense “to see if we can get the Department to work with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake tribes to return the remains of the tribal members as soon as possible.”
The long journey home
In 1879, Amos and Edward numbered among the first students to arrive at the Carlisle boarding school — an institution designed to assimilate Native American youth into a white man’s world by stripping them of their culture, language and family ties.
The Sisseton and Wahpeton Sioux teenagers, both sons of influential tribal leaders, succumbed while attending the school. Edward died of measles and pneumonia, while Amos’ cause of death is unknown. Both boys were buried in Carlisle.
The remains of Amos, Edward and more than 180 other former students were later disinterred and moved to an Army cemetery in the southern Pennsylvania city after the school closed and the military took over the property.
Since 2017, Native American tribes across the country have repatriated the remains of more than 20 former Carlisle students from the cemetery. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has spearheaded repatriation efforts in South Dakota, reburying the remains of nine children on its reservation last year.
Forum News Service reported in February that relatives of Amos and Edward took the critical step of signing affidavits attesting their familial ties to the boys during a ceremony near Hankinson, North Dakota.
Amos’ family hopes to bury him beside his father Joseph in the St. Matthew’s Cemetery on the South Dakota side of the Lake Traverse Reservation, and Edward’s family would like their relative to lie next to his father Chief Waanatan II in St. Michael’s Cemetery on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota.
The tribes sent the affidavits to the Army in late February and expected the boys’ relatives to make the repatriation trip to Carlisle this summer.
A few weeks later, Justin Buller, an attorney with the Office of Army Cemeteries, wrote to family members that their requests to exhume and return the boys had been approved, but he noted it might not be possible to repatriate the remains this summer. Tribal leaders and historians say they never received a similar update from Buller.
After Sisseton Wahpeton Historic Preservation Officer Dianne Desrosiers asked Buller about the status of the disinterments earlier this month, Buller wrote in an email that the Army is “just too far along in the complex process in the planning this year and have reached our maximum number we are able to return due to funding this year.”
The Army began facilitating the disinterment of eight former students this month, according to The Associated Press. The Army oversaw the exhumation of 10 former students in 2021.
Army Cemeteries Director Renea Yates said in an email to Forum News Service that the necessary planning for the exhumations must be completed by Jan. 15, and the requests to repatriate Amos and Edward arrived after that date.
Yates mentioned that Amos and Edward will be “the first two planned for disinterment during the project window next summer.”
St. John and Desrosiers said the Army never told them about its Jan. 15 deadline during their extensive correspondence. The tribal historians said they’re frustrated by the Army’s lack of communication.
Neither Yates nor Buller responded to a request for further comment.
Yankton and St. John said adding a year onto the timeline for repatriation matters for their tribes and the boys’ family members.
Helena Waanatan Littleghost, who signed the affidavit affirming she is Edward's closest living relative, just turned 86, and she may not be able to travel to Carlisle if another year passes, Yankton said.
St. John undertook the repatriation cause more than six years ago, and she said it pains her to think about all of the tribal members who have died without getting to see Amos and Edward come home.
The historian said she’ll be “very upset” if any more tribal elders are unable to see the repatriations come to fruition because of the Army’s postponement.
About the “Buried wounds” series
In May 2021, the remains of 215 children were discovered in unmarked graves 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.
The first installment in the series about the Sisseton and Wahpeton children who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School can be found here.
The second installment in the series about the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara children who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School can be found here.
The third installment in the series about Christian denominations reckoning with their role in Native American boarding schools can be found here.