‘My heart feels so heavy’: Young men from western North Dakota tribe never came back from boarding school
Thomas Suckley and George Bears Arm, two young men from the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, died while attending the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Their bodies remain buried in a cemetery near the site of the former school.
Editor's note: This is the second story in an occasional series on Native American boarding schools and their impact on the region's tribes. You can find the first installment here .
BISMARCK — The white marble headstone marking Thomas Suckley’s burial plot in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is all wrong.
His last name is missing an “e.” His tribe is spelled “Mandau” instead of “Mandan.” Even his date of death is off by five days.
Across the cemetery, George Bears Arm’s grave marker isn’t much better. His tribal affiliation is represented as “Grosvontre” — a misspelling of Gros Ventre, a Montana-based tribe of which Bears Arm was not a member. He was Hidatsa.
Darren Lone Fight, an American studies professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, believes the location of the young men’s graves is also wrong: They never should have been buried in Pennsylvania at all.
Suckley and Bears Arm hailed from the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. Both men fell ill and died around the turn of the 20th century while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an institution designed to assimilate Native American youth into a white man’s world.
Lone Fight, who belongs to the same tribal nation and grew up in North Dakota, thinks Suckley and Bears Arm’s remains should be brought home from the cemetery near the site of the former school.
“When we see someone who was taken from us and we have the opportunity to bring them back and treat them with the respect they deserve and were denied, I think that’s good for Suckley and Bears Arm, but also good for the people as part of the grieving process,” Lone Fight said, noting that he does not represent the views of the tribe.
The U.S. Army, which now occupies the site of the former school and maintains the cemetery, has overseen the return of 21 students’ remains to American Indian tribes since 2017.
The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake tribes held a ceremony last month in Hankinson, North Dakota, where tribal members signed documents attesting their familial ties to two boys buried in the Carlisle cemetery, according to previous Forum reporting. If the Army approves the documents, the boys’ remains could be returned to the two tribal nations as soon as this summer.
MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox said the tribal government was not aware of Suckley and Bears Arm before being approached by Forum News Service in January, but the leader recalls elders during his childhood speaking about “students that went away to school and never came back.”
“My heart feels so heavy to think of little ones so far away and then suffering and then dying — no parent there, no loving and support,” Fox said.
Earlier this month, Fox appointed a historic preservation officer to coordinate with Carlisle cemetery officials, but the tribe has not yet decided what it will do in the case of Suckley and Bears Arm.
Traditionally, the MHA Nation does not disinter the remains of tribal members unless their graves were disturbed by people or nature. However, the tribe would support the families of Suckley and Bears Arm if they wish to bring their relatives home from Carlisle, according to a statement from the chairman’s office.
At a minimum, Fox said the tribe will pay to correct their headstones, though he thinks the federal government should pick up the tab.
Doing right by Suckley, Bears Arm and other boarding school victims will be a complex process, but Fox said he’s committed to “bringing peace to the souls of our relatives that were caught up in being misplaced so far away.”
A painful history
More than 400 American Indian boarding schools are known to have existed in the United States, according to author and researcher Denise Lajimodiere, but Carlisle was a pioneer in the mission to assimilate.
Carlisle opened in 1879 as the nation’s first public off-reservation boarding school specifically for Native American children, and about two dozen similar schools cropped up across the Midwest and West in the decades that followed.
An extensive propaganda operation managed by the school’s first superintendent, Richard Henry Pratt, aimed to convince the country that Carlisle was effectively “civilizing” American Indians and turning them to the white man’s ways, writes researcher Molly Fraust.
In Lone Fight’s words, Carlisle was a “reprogramming camp” that carried out acts of cultural genocide on Native American students by robbing them of their traditions and languages. The school and its targeting of Native children still represents a “deep wound,” he said.
About 7,800 Native American children and young adults from across the country attended Carlisle during its 39 years in operation. They ended up at Carlisle for a variety of reasons, but most were coerced to attend through active recruitment or a lack of alternatives at home, said Dickinson College archivist Jim Gerencser.
In the school’s early days, high-ranking federal officials ordered Pratt to pluck students from Sioux tribes in the Dakotas that had proven more resistant to signing away their lands.
Thirty-seven Chiricahua Apache prisoners-of-war from Geronimo’s band became students after arriving at the school from a fort in Florida in 1886.
Other students were orphans, possibly because the U.S. military had killed their parents. They didn’t have much choice in attending boarding school, Gerencser noted.
Some families chose to send their kids to Carlisle, perhaps because of financial struggles or poor living conditions on American Indian reservations. With job opportunities scarce back home, a number of older students self-registered.
At least 233 students, nearly 3% of those who attended, died while enrolled at the school, Gerencser said.
But the odds were even worse for Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara students. About 60 students from Fort Berthold attended Carlisle. At least three and possibly four perished while enrolled at the school.
Suckley and five others were the first to arrive at the school from Fort Berthold on Feb. 23, 1890.
At 21, Suckley was older than most of his peers, but since the school emphasized the teaching of trades over academics, it was common to have students in their 20s on the enrollment list, Gerencser said.
By the time he got to Carlisle, Suckley had attended several boarding schools, including the Hampton Institute, a predominantly Black school in Virginia that began taking Native American students in 1878. It was there his Mandan name Kawhat was changed to Thomas Suckley, according to scholar Nancy Jones-Oltjenbruns.
Suckley died from tuberculosis at Carlisle on April 16, 1892, at the age of 23, according to school records. A paragraph in the school newspaper said Suckley’s death “takes from the rank of the Y.M.C.A. one who was ever ready to welcome strangers, and to use the musical talent God had given him, in any way he could.” He was buried in the school cemetery.
Bears Arm arrived at Carlisle on Nov. 3, 1901, at the age of 17.
Like every Hidatsa student, his tribal affiliation was erroneously logged as Gros Ventre. (Last year, Lone Fight noticed this persistent mistake in the records — the product of “non-Indigenous people running around calling stuff whatever they wanted” — and notified Gerencser who helped change Dickinson College’s digital Carlisle archives. The Gros Ventre Tribe, also known as the Aaniiih, is based on Fort Belknap in north-central Montana.)
Bears Arm died of appendicitis at the age of 19 in a Philadelphia hospital on Jan. 8, 1903, shortly after an operation at the school hospital. The school newspaper referred to him as “a most patient sufferer” and noted he was buried at the school cemetery in a Catholic ceremony.
Both men’s bodies were later disinterred in 1927, when the Army, which took back the property after the school closed, decided to relocate the cemetery to make way for a new officers' building, according to author Jacqueline Fear-Segal.
While Suckley and Bears Arm are the only MHA members known to be buried at the school, they’re not the only students from Fort Berthold who died in Pennsylvania.
Charles Packineau, a 21-year-old Hidatsa student, was killed when he fell under a train he was riding while attempting to run away from Carlisle in April 1912, according to contemporary newspaper articles.
Gerencser said young men between the ages of 12 and 25 frequently ran away from the school, which forced a strict military-like regiment onto students.
Packineau’s younger brother David, who was also a student, brought his brother’s body home to North Dakota and did not return to the school.
An 11-year-old Arikara boy, Oliver Duckett, arrived at Carlisle in 1898 with a group of eight other children from Fort Berthold.
Duckett’s student information card indicates he left the school in May 1901 due to poor health. However, a note in red ink at the top of the record reads, “Died 5-22-1902 at Carlisle.”
The circumstances surrounding Duckett’s death remain a mystery to Gerencser who cannot think of a reason he would have died at the school a year after he was discharged. Duckett isn’t listed anywhere in cemetery records, and Gerencser said he’s not sure whether the boy was buried in Carlisle, Fort Berthold or somewhere else.
A ‘black eye for the U.S. government’
Lone Fight felt called to Carlisle.
The young professor liked the idea of the MHA Nation being back in the Pennsylvania town on the teaching side rather than the receiving end of education.
Lone Fight knew when he arrived for his job interview at Dickinson College in 2019 there were two members of his tribe buried in the Carlisle school cemetery, and one of the first things he did was visit them.
“I was able to go and pray. I brought some corn from back home, from Fort Berthold, and left that for them,” Lone Fight said. “I try to make sure to visit them periodically just to let them know that I’m here, and that I know they’re there.”
This summer, Lone Fight plans to research the stories of MHA students who attended the Carlisle and Hampton schools. He hopes to present his findings to the tribe later this year, but he understands not everyone will want to talk about boarding schools.
It’s difficult to look back on a recent era in history when the federal government tried to eradicate the tribe’s culture through its youngest generation, Lone Fight said. Learning about Carlisle and other boarding schools shouldn’t be “compulsory education,” but Lone Fight said he feels a responsibility to tell stories of former students and reveal the lasting effects of the institutions to tribal members who want to know more.
Fox called boarding schools a “black eye for the U.S. government” and said he hopes more information about the institutions comes to light so people across the country begin to “understand the tragedy and the terribleness of the actions taken by the United States government toward Indian people and be committed to stopping it from happening in the future.”
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the position, announced an initiative last year that aims to review “the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.” A final report on the investigation into boarding schools is due to come out next month.
Lone Fight said he’s eager to see the report, but he thinks there needs to be significant pressure on the federal government to investigate and recognize its complicity in the damage caused by boarding schools.
“You shouldn’t ask the victim to have to advocate for themselves and pull you by your hair to at least address a problem that you caused,” Lone Fight said.
At the very least, Lone Fight said the government could make research grants available to scholars wanting to study boarding schools.
Fox said the federal government forced boarding schools onto Native Americans for so many years, and Congress should pass legislation to provide funding for tribes trying to rectify mistakes made by the institutions.
Boarding schools like Carlisle inflicted lasting traumas that members of the MHA Nation are still battling generations later, Fox said. As a father, Fox said he can’t imagine sending his young son to a boarding school and then learning he won’t be coming home.
“That’s a sorrow and an emptiness and a grief that no parent could ever get beyond,” he said.
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.