Jan 17, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Tribe sues to force U.S. Army to hand over remains of 2 children

Male and female students reading in class, Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1901.

Native American students reading in class at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1901. Photo: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Another Native American tribe is demanding answers for the deaths of tribal children more than 100 years ago at a federally run boarding school for Indigenous students.

Driving the news: The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army, seeking the return of the remains of two children who died at the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Details: The Army has refused to give the tribe the remains of Samuel Gilbert and Edward Hensley as required by federal law, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

  • Gilbert died only 47 days after arriving in 1895 at the Pennsylvania school that Native American children were forced to attend. Hensley died four years later, the lawsuit alleges.
  • The pair were part of the more than 180 children who died at Carlisle.

Zoom in: The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska submitted a repatriation request letter to the Department of Defense in October.

  • But the request was denied and the remains of the two boys are still at the Carlisle Cemetery, where the remains of other Indigenous children are seen as "a tourist attraction," the tribe says.
  • "Edward's and Samuel's arrivals and deaths, and Carlisle officials' neglect of the boys and their families after their deaths reveal that neither Winnebago nor Samuel's and Edward's families gave consent for the boys to be buried at Carlisle," the tribe says in the lawsuit.

The other side: Army spokesman Bryce S. Dubee says the Army does not comment on pending litigation.

Context: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 allows for human remains to be returned to tribes at their request and seeks to halt the exploitation.

  • The tribe says the Army is refusing to follow that law and instead is forcing tribes to honor the Army's policy of requesting human remains of tribal members.

Background: The boarding schools were part of a plan to force Indigenous children to assimilate by forbidding them from using their native languages and names.

  • A 2022 Interior Department report says children at 408 federal Indian boarding schools endured sexual and physical abuse, manual labor, and malnourishment between 1819 and 1969 as part of the U.S. campaign to compel their assimilation.
  • Initial research shows that hundreds of Indigenous children died throughout the system.
  • The remains of nine Indigenous children who died at the Carlisle school were returned to the Rosebud Sioux tribal lands in South Dakota in 2021.

What they're saying: "By bringing its boys home under NAGPRA, Winnebago seeks to heal one of the greatest historical traumas it, and virtually every other Tribal Nation, has suffered," Beth Wright, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said in a statement.

  • "The Army at Carlisle has been defying Congress and abusing Tribal Nations in the shadows. Winnebago now brings this misbehavior into the sunlight," Greg Werkheiser, attorney at Cultural Heritage Partners, said.
  • Both are working on the case for the tribe.

Of note: According to Winnebago's traditional beliefs, Samuel's and Edward's spirits will remain lost until they are returned home and laid to rest in accordance with Winnebago's customs.

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