FEATURE: Return to Wind River

By on September 20, 2017

The U.S. government promised to teach three Arapaho boys “the right way” and return them to their tribe as ambassadors of European assimilation.

136 years later, Little Chief and Horse are finally home. So where’s Little Plume?

“We give our children to the Government to do as they think best in teaching them the right way, hoping that the officers will, after a while, permit us to go and see them.”

– Sharp Nose, Northern Arapaho, 1881.

As the shovels gently broke the ground in the old Native American cemetery on the Army base in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a somber Arapaho song rang out, low and sorrowful.

The Northern Arapaho tribe members who’d made the trek from Wind River Reservation in western Wyoming watched intently as the forensic archaeologists carefully moved aside small piles of dirt and rubble, sifting through the soil to try and identify the remains of three boys who’d died at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the late 1800s.

The Northern Arapaho had fought for more than a decade to have their ancestors returned to the reservation, and the excavation was the final step in the process of bringing their family home.

By the end of the ceremony, though, it would be clear that only two of the boys — Little Chief and Horse — would be on their way home to Wind River.

The third, 9-year-old Little Plume, was to remain buried in the Pennsylvania cemetery among the rest of the Carlisle casualties—and a handful of soldiers—at least for now.

The Long, and Unclear, Road

The story of how Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse ended up at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first federally-funded Indian boarding school in the nation, is one mired in contradictory — and often outright whitewashed — misinformation.

As with many issues relating to the federal government’s treatment of Native Americans, the issue of forced boarding schools has been swept under the rug for decades, making it tough to unravel the truth behind the story. Information about Native American boarding schools rarely even graces the page of a textbook.

What is clear is this: The three boys left the reservation in Wyoming on March 11, 1881 to travel to an Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The boys would have traveled 2,000 miles to get there, which would have taken 11 or 12 days.

Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse likely arrived at Carlisle in a group of 15 children — 13 boys and two girls — most of whom were Northern Arapaho.

Some Shoshone children were also in the group, but no matter the nation or tribe they hailed from, all of the children would join the hundreds of other Native children who now called Carlisle home.

“Carlisle was the first school of its kind,” Jim Gerencser, College Archivist for Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, said. “It was specifically designed to take children far away from their families. The whole idea of Carlisle was taking them far away so they no longer have contact with cultures or families — so that they couldn’t take part in cultural ceremonies, traditional dress, and all of those kinds of things.”

The purpose of Carlisle was simple: Assimilation.

“They did that to isolate them, essentially, from their own culture, to have their assimilation from the perspective of the white man,” Gerencser said.

Little Chief would have been 14 years old when he was sent to Pennsylvania, standing about 4 ft 10.5 inches tall, according to documents archived by the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. He was the son of Sharp Nose, who would later go on to become chief of the Northern Arapaho.

The rules at Carlisle dictated that students were to shed their Native names and take on anglicized names as part of the assimilation process.

Upon enrollment, Little Chief became known as Dickens Nor.

Little Plume was only 9 years old when he was sent to Carlisle, and was renamed Hayes Vanderbilt Friday, according to records from the school.

Horse was just 11 years old when he was sent to Carlisle, and his name was changed to Horace Washington upon arrival.

Tom Torlino, a Navajo prisoner of war taken to Carlisle in his 20s, before arriving at Carlisle and after

Life at Carlisle

Life at Carlisle couldn’t have been easy for the three boys from the Northern Arapaho tribe. They been forced to trade their families, Native culture and the jaw-dropping landscape of western Wyoming, dotted with red rocks, rivers and rolling hills for the strict rules and vastly different landscape of central Pennsylvania, where they would be forced to turn away from their Native heritage and culture upon arrival.

Those challenges were just the beginning, though. In addition to being renamed, Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse would have been housed in a converted army barracks and given haircuts to remove their long braids, a symbol of much religious and cultural meaning for Native Americans.

The boys would have been forced to wear military uniforms in place of their traditional Northern Arapaho dress.

The Native girls sent to Carlisle weren’t issued military uniforms, but were instead forced to shed their native dress for those worn by the Quakers and Christian missionaries helping to run the school, complete with draping cloth and fitted bodices.

“[Long hair] was the pride of all Indians. The boys, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor. All of the buckskin clothes had to go and we had to put on the clothes of the White Man. If we thought the days were bad, the nights were much worse. This is when the loneliness set in, for it was when we knew that we were all alone. Many boys ran away from the school because the treatment was so bad, but most of them were caught and brought back by the police,” Blackfoot tribe member and former Carlisle student Lone Wolf said.

Students may also have been forced to convert to Christianity and many students were baptized during their time at Carlisle.

Breakouts of consumption and tuberculosis were also common, especially during the early years when herd immunity among the children from tribes and nations across the United States would have been virtually nonexistent.

The kids at Carlisle would have kept tight schedules. They would have been woken at 5:45 a.m. with – of course – the call of a military bugle. The children would have exercised and been forced to march, military style, before breakfast.

Each day followed a similar schedule: Industrial work at 8:00 a.m., followed by school an hour later – both of which continued into the evening hours.

The students at Carlisle would have had less than an hour of free time each day, and were prohibited from speaking their native languages. Should they have been caught “speaking Indian,” corporal punishment likely would have followed, at times by the hand of one of their classmates, a handful of whom were chosen to act as leaders of Carlisle’s assimilation movement.

There were other issues, too: The children were often used as laborers and farmhands on neighboring properties. Physical and sexual abuse ran rampant.

All but a handful of accounts about life at Carlisle exist these days, but the ones that do exist are telling.  

Former Carlisle student Merta Bercier spoke with PBS about Carlisle’s assimilation tactics for a documentary that aired in 2006.

“Did I want to be an Indian? After looking at the pictures of the Indians on the warpath — fighting, scalping women and children, and Oh! Such ugly faces. No! Indians were mean people — I’m glad I’m not an Indian, I thought,” Bercier said.

Pratt’s Plan

Forced assimilation boarding schools were the brain child of a famous former U.S. Cavalry officer, Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, the source of the infamous quote about assimilation, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

In time, that quote would become the de facto motto of Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Pratt’s first foray into forced assimilation took place well before he established Carlisle. In the 1870s, Pratt was in charge of a group of about a dozen prisoners who’d surrendered in the Indian Territory at the end of the Red River War at Fort Marion, Florida.

During his time guarding the prisoners, Pratt worked to teach them guard duty, English, and a number of other skills deemed useful for taming the “savages.”

From Pratt’s experiment in Florida came the idea that if you “transfer the savage born infant to the surroundings of a civilization, he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.”

Pratt used the success of his earlier assimilation project to sell the idea that federally-funded off-reservation boarding schools are not cruel or inhumane. Rather, they are a way to “save the Indians,” who Pratt saw as “a vanishing race,” one which must either be exterminated or assimilated.

Pratt was a successful salesman of the need for assimilation, which worked in his favor in 1879, when he convinced the Bureau of Indian Affairs, three years after Custer’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn, to let him to establish a school where he could “civilize” the Indian.

Enter Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres,” Pratt said in a 1892 speech, years after he founded Carlisle. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Pratt modeled the Carlisle school on the military: “with discipline, crystal clear instructions and total inflexibility,” pushing corporal punishment as a way to force Native children to become dependent on themselves.  

Pratt’s grand plan for forced assimilation didn’t stop at the boarding school doors, either. Upon release — or “graduation” — Pratt’s plan was to have students return to their tribes and act as ambassadors of European assimilation, “taming” the rest of the Native American people from their tribes.

As one can imagine, what actually happened when the former students returned to their homes was quite the opposite.

Less than 10 percent of the Native children enrolled actually “graduated” from the school — although it’s unclear what graduation would have even entailed.

Students who left Carlisle, by way of graduation or otherwise, would often return to the reservation only to suffer alienation from language and cultural barriers, amongst other issues, according to numerous first hand accounts.

Still, Pratt’s idea was a popular one among government officials, and by October 1879, Pratt had enrolled 82 boys and girls at Carlisle.

The school officially opened its doors on November 1, one month later, with 147 students under its care – 84 Lakota, 52 Cheyenne, Kiowa and Pawnee, and 11 Apache.

The three boys from Northern Arapaho would join them only two years later, but unlike some of the other students, Little Chief, Horse, and Little Plume would never return home.

Panorama of Carlisle

A Model Project

Despite the clear issues with Carlisle, the boarding school was considered to be a success, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it had become the model for 26 other Bureau of Indian Affairs-run boarding schools across the nation.

The private sector also used Carlisle as a model for hundreds of other Indian boarding schools, most of which were funded by religious organizations.

The trend of removing Native children from their homes and placing them in federally-funded assimilation schools continued for several decades, with enrollment in the schools reaching its pinnacle in the early ‘70s.

By the time the doors to Carlisle shut in 1918, an estimated 10,000 Native American children from tribes all over the nation – from anywhere between 50 and 120 different tribes, Ojibwa, Oneida, Apache, Lakota, Cheyenne, and, of course, Northern Arapaho – had walked through the doors of the nation’s first federally-funded Indian boarding school.

And like Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse, many of them would never walk out.

What Happened to the Boys?

As with much of Little Plume, Little Chief and Horse’s stories, details about their deaths remain scarce.

The year that Little Chief left for Carlisle, his father, Sharp Nose, dictated a letter to the school, stating:

“We are anxious to go on learning till we know how to do as white men do…There are not enough good men to show us how to plant and cultivate our crops. We give our children to the Government to do as they think best in teaching them the right way, hoping that the officers will, after a while, permit us to go and see them.”

Sharp Nose’s plea in the letter, to one day be permitted to see his son, was not fulfilled. Little Chief died two years after being sent to Carlisle, and well before Sharp Nose was allowed to visit his son.

According to Little Chief’s death records, he passed away on the same day as a sledding trip in the winter of 1882 from whatwas believed to be a bout of pneumonia.

A letter written by a girl named “Rosa Ross” that was published in The Morning Star in February 1883 confirms the information, reading in part:

“Dear Mother,

Every month I have written my letter to Father, but this month I shall write it to you…Dickens, one of our school-mates, died on the 22nd of this month. William Sunke, another died yesterday morning and will be buried this afternoon. Capt. Pratt was away when Dickens died. On the 22nd thirty-four girls went out for a sleigh ride. We had a delightful time…”

The details on the deaths of Little Plume and Horse are just as hazy.

According to Little Plume’s file, he died of what was suspected to be an infectious disease in Spring 1882 — on Saturday, April 15, 1882, to be exact.

Just one bright red word, “dead,” is written in script is at the top of Little Plume’s enrollment card. No other notes or even a cause of death are recorded on it.

The card lists Little Plume’s date of discharge as April 15, 1882, and hand-written in the box where administration were to note the reason for discharge is one word: died.

While we can’t be certain that infectious disease is what killed Little Plume, it’s likely that at least one of the boys died from such an illness.

According to a 1928 Meriam report, infectious disease was widespread at the schools due to malnutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and students weakened by overwork.

Horse’s file, like Little Plume’s, is eerily as devoid of information.

The historical record contains only the word “dead” across the top in red ink.

The date of discharge on his enrollment card is listed as June 12, 1882, and the cause of discharge simply reads “died.”

Little Chief’s cause of discharge: “died.”

The Fight for the Boys

What caused Little Plume, Little Chief and Horse’s deaths remains be unclear, but one thing is certain: The Northern Arapaho have had to fight long and hard to have the remains of the three boys returned to the Wind River Reservation.

Little Chief’s great-niece Yufna Soldier Wolf  told the Star Tribune in 2016 that she learned about Little Chief from her grandfather, Scott Dewey, who was Little Chief’s younger brother.

Soldier Wolf told the Tribune that her grandfather always told her the same thing: “Don’t forget about my brother.”

Soldier Wolf first tried to bring home the remains of her great uncle while a college student nearly a decade ago, but the government red tape proved doing so would be a difficult and defeating process.

Soldier Wolf wrote to Thomas Kane, the legal officer at the Army War College, and six months later, she received devastating news.

Kane responded to Soldier Wolf’s request with a letter, stating that in order to exhume the remains of their ancestors, Native tribes have to, among other things, provide notarized affidavits issued by “all close relatives of the decedent that they have no objection to the disinterment.”

The process of bringing was complicated in part because the land where the boys were buried is now owned by the military.

The U.S. Army took over the land shortly after Carlisle closed, and what remains  of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School is now known as the Carlisle Barracks at the U.S. Army War College.

What that means in layman’s terms is that the cemetery where Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse were laid to rest is considered a military cemetery, and the rules for exhuming remains are arduous.

“I can understand and appreciate your desire to move the remains of your family member to your local burial site; however, this installation has serious concerns related to this proposal,” Kane wrote, in part. “The most obvious is that this cemetery has become part of our community and is a historic site. This cemetery represents one of the most beautiful tributes to the Native American people.”

“We would hate to disrupt such a tranquil site, if such can be avoided,” Kane said.

He ended the letter with a quote from Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux leader: “My lands are where my people lie buried.”

Nearly a decade later, Soldier Wolf tried again, this time armed with help from members of Native American tribes and nonprofits across the nation. The group began requesting the return of not only Little Chief, but also Little Plume and Horse, in 2016.

It would be nearly a year before any positive news would come of their work.

A Somber Win

The government finally relented to the requests of Yufna Soldier Wolf and the Northern Arapaho earlier this year, agreeing to return the remains of Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse after numerous studies, hearings and planning were completed.

“The U.S. Army honored its promise to reunite Native American families with their children who died more than 100 years ago at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” Army National Military Cemeteries Executive Director Karen Durham-Aguilera said in a statement. “We are thankful to the Northern Arapaho families for their patience and collaboration during this process.”

The remains of Little Chief and Horse were exhumed in a private ceremony on August 11, with about 15 members of the Northern Arapaho in attendance. A banner draped across the fence warned outsiders of the private Native ceremony taking place just behind the fence.

A Northern Arapaho elder sang a song of healing as the boys were unearthed.

The U.S. government paid the nearly $500,000 to exhume and ship the bodies back to the Wind River Reservation in western Wyoming, where the Northern Arapaho, and the boys’ relatives – at least some of them — were finally able to lay the Northern Arapaho boys from Carlisle to rest.

“It’s a long time coming,” Crawford White Sr., one of the tribe’s elders, told the Post-Gazette in August.  “It’s something that had to be done for our tribe, and the healing begins.”

“The Army is grateful to have the opportunity to help the Northern Arapaho families find closure by reuniting them with their relatives who were buried at Carlisle Barracks Cemetery more than 100 years ago,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries, said in a statement issued in August.

Still, while the exhumation was mostly successful, things didn’t go exactly as planned.

Where is Little Plume?

While Little Chief and Horse were successfully exhumed and identified by their remains on August 11,  Little Plume was not.

When the forensic anthropologists exhumed Little Plume’s gravesite, it became apparent that the area identified as the little boy’s plot was not where he was laid to rest. The grave contained instead the remains of two people much older than Little Plume.

One set of remains was positively identified as those of a teenage male, but the other set was of unknown gender.

“We looked at the remains and we just knew. We just knew,” Forensic anthropologist Elizabeth DiGangi told The Sentinel in August.

“Neither of these people were biologically consistent with Little Plume. The skeleton associated with the gravesite of Little Chief was biologically consistent with his sex and his age, as was the skeleton associated with the gravesite of Horse,” DiGangi said.

Given the question of whose remains were in Little Plume’s grave, the bodies could not be turned over to the Arapaho for proper burial.

The remains were reburied, and Little Plume’s whereabouts in that old Indian cemetery on the Army base remains a question without a firm answer.

There are also questions as to whether the rest of the grave markers are accurate.

An archival report written to help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepare for the excavation said, “With the data at hand, it is impossible to definitively state whether the markers are correctly associated with the physical remains of the individuals’ names on these respective markers without physical investigation.”

A couple of empty rows in the cemetery were also used to bury military people who died while stationed at the barracks during the 1930s and ‘40s, making the task of finding Little Plume, or any other person buried at Carlisle, a bit more complicated.

Down the Road, Hope Springs Eternal

All hope is not lost in the search for Little Plume, however. While obtaining his remains will most likely require another round of petitions, studies and planning, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The city of Carlisle, Pennsylvania was home to another school during the late 1800s—Dickinson College. The college has a history with Carlisle that stems back to 1879, when then-Dickinson President Dr. James Andrew McCauley became an advisor and friend to Pratt.

McCauley began collaborating with the school, offering entrance into Dickinson Preparatory School and college level education to some of the students at Carlisle.

The relationship continued through the years and through several other university presidents, with Dickinson, which sat just two miles down the road, playing a crucial role in the education of Carlisle students.

Unlike Carlisle, Dickinson is still around these days, and is working to help piece together a history long lost to the erased narrative and whitewashing, as well as some simpler issues, like shoddy record-keeping.

The project is formally known as the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, and is a collaborative effort between college researchers and archivists and the community at large.

The mission of the digital resource center is simple: To develop a comprehensive searchable database of Carlisle Indian School resources, including digital copies of school records, old photos and documents from Carlisle, which may help piece the mystery of where Little Plume lays at rest.

“At the beginning of 2013, we obtained a grant that made us well-positioned to digitize information on Carlisle that’s not readily available to the public,” Gerencser said.

Gerencser works alongside Sociology Professor and Director of the Community Studies Center Susan Rose, Special Collections Librarian Malinda Triller Doran, and a host of other project partners: Cara Holtry Curtis and Barbara Landis, both from the Cumberland County Historical Society; Jacqueline Fear-Segal, a professor at University of East Anglia; Dovie Thomason, Lakota, Kiowa Apache Storyteller and author; and Dickenson College Professor of American Cultures Sharon O’Brien.

The group sends out teams armed with laptops and scanners to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where they work to take original documents related to Carlisle and put them in digital format.

So far, the project has been pretty darn successful. Gerencser said they’ve archived over 8,500 pages of documents related to at this point, including photos, documents, enrollment information and – recently – burial information for the Carlisle cemetery where Horse, Little Chief and Little Plume were laid to rest all those years ago.

Given the incomplete history of America’s sordid affair with Indian boarding schools, the task of digging up and archiving information on Carlisle is a monumental one, and is ongoing.

It’s also a monumentally important one, one that the folks at Dickinson hope will help to answer questions and heal wounds.

Does Dickinson Know?

While there’s no way to be sure, Gerencser said the group may have a pretty good idea of where Little Plume’s true burial plot is.

“When the first students died at the school, it was clearly something they (Pratt and administrators) had not considered,” Gerencser said. “They did not have a plan for that at first, so what happened is they began a cemetery on the grounds at school.”

That initial site was located on the grounds of Carlisle, and was dotted with headstones to mark each child.

“Over those 39 years that the school operated, roughly 190 to 195 were buried in that cemetery, including infants of the students and a number of infant burials,” Gerencser said.

Given the lack of plan for a formal cemetery, mistakes in marking the original plots were made. Further complicating the situation was the Army’s relocation of the old cemetery, which was done during an expansion of the military campus.

“In the 1920s, the military base needed to expand, and in 1927 they moved original cemetery to its current location,” across the street from the Army school, Gerencser said.

New headstones were issued at some point, too, further complicating the issue. But with the success of the archives and a crude original plot of the cemetery from 1935, Gerencser said the group thinks they may know where Little Plume is buried.

“There are two cases where they appear to have made mistakes when replacing the headstone,” Gerencser said.

One is a student named Samson Noran, and the other, Little Plume.

“When we learned that Friday that the tribe had publicly announced the remains of one student were not found, we looked and noticed that where they had dug for the third student was not where our research showed him to be,” Gerencser said.

The project leaders quickly got in touch with Yufna Soldier Wolf, a relative of Little Chief whose great-grandfather also attended Carlisle. The group from Dickinson met with the leaders of Northern Arapaho the Sunday after the exhumation took place to share with them what they’d found.

What’s Next?

The cemetery at Carlisle is now a military cemetery, which makes exhuming remains difficult.


Perhaps the work at Dickinson can help solve the mystery of where Little Plume’s body lays, bringing some peace of mind to his relatives, and the young boy whose life ended at Carlisle to his rightful resting place.

Although simply identifying where Little Plume probably isn’t enough to prompt another exhumation out at the old Carlisle cemetery, it’s a good place to start.

And while the petition by the Northern Arapaho only succeeded in bringing home two of its boys, it’s ignited a conversation among nations and tribes whose relatives are being held at the military cemetery, far from the lands they call home. The Rosebud Sioux, a tribe from South Dakota, have 10 children buried at Carlisle, and the other 188 or so children still need to be returned to their rightful resting places, too.  

Officials with the Office of Army National Military Cemeteries said in August that the Northern Arapaho children are just the first to be returned to their tribe, and while there are no other disinterment plans right now, the army expects there will be more, similar efforts in the future.

With any luck, and some good old-fashioned research at Dickinson, one of those efforts will be for Little Plume, the last of the Northern Arapaho children to remain at Carlisle.

As with Little Chief and Horse, it’s time for Little Plume to go home. PJH


About Angelica Leicht

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