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Army Faces Lawsuit Over Denial to Repatriate Native American Boys’ Remains

In the late 1890s, two Native American boys from Nebraska tragically died while attending a distant Pennsylvania boarding school, far from their home.

Samuel Gilbert and Edward Hensley were laid to rest without their tribe’s knowledge.

Now, nearly 130 years later, the Winnebago Tribe is seeking the return of their remains, but the Army has thus far refused to comply.

Federal Lawsuit Filed

Credit: DepositPhotos

A federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of the tribe, accuses the Army of disregarding a decades-old law designed to expedite the repatriation of deceased individuals to Native American lands.

Burial Far From Home

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Samuel and Edward met their untimely deaths at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1895 and 1899, respectively.

Both were in their teens, although exact ages remain undocumented.

Tribes in the Dark

Credit: Winnebago Tribe Logo – winnebagotribe.com

Their tribe was never informed of their deaths, and their relatives were left in the dark regarding the circumstances surrounding their passing.

Denied Request and Lawsuit

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In October, the Winnebago Tribe formally requested the return of the boys’ remains from the Office of Army Cemeteries.

However, in December, they were informed that their request had been denied, prompting the tribe to initiate a federal lawsuit on January 17th.

Historical Context

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The lawsuit underscores a historical pattern of control and dominance over Native Americans by government authorities, both in life and death.

Greg Werkheiser of Cultural Heritage Partners, one of the tribe’s lawyers, pointed out that “The Army always sought to maintain a position of control, dominance over native peoples while they were alive — and while they were dead,”

Current Burial Site

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Samuel and Edward, along with approximately 180 other children who also died at the boarding school, rest in a graveyard near the former Carlisle school site, now considered a “tourist attraction.”

The lawsuit argues that this is an inappropriate resting place for the deceased.

Army’s Response

Credits: DepositPhotos

The Office of Army Cemeteries spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation in an email query posted by Associated Press.

However, they emphasized that the cemetery is a dignified resting place with named headstones for each individual, and they reject any characterization of it as a tourist attraction.

History of the Carlisle School

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The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded by Richard Henry Pratt, aimed to assimilate Native American children into society.

It operated from 1879 to 1918, adopting harsh measures to separate students from their culture and identities.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

Credits: DepositPhotos

In 1990, Congress passed NAGPRA, which allows tribes to request the repatriation of remains. However, the Army’s policy differs, granting the agency discretion over the timing and necessity of returning remains.

Request From Closest Living Relative

Credit: DepositPhotos

The policy also requires requests from the “closest living relative,” which the lawsuit argues is impractical in these circumstances.

Selective Compliance

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While the Army claims to have disinterred 32 remains of Native American children since 2017, the process doesn’t align with NAGPRA.

According to Werkheiser, these remains were returned to the children’s relatives, often after lengthy delays, rather than directly to the tribes.

Tribe’s Resilience

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Several tribes have navigated the process to have remains returned under NAGPRA, but the Winnebago Tribe refuses to accept what they see as a flawed system that strips them of political rights.

Interior Secretary’s Efforts

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Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, has actively encouraged addressing the historical injustices inflicted by Native American boarding schools.

Her agency identified 408 such schools that were supported by the federal government.

Long-Awaited Return

Credit: DepositPhotos

The Winnebago Tribe continues to endure the pain of knowing that Samuel and Edward remain far from their homeland.

For them, the boys’ spirits can only find peace and rest once they are returned to the place from which they were taken, a sentiment echoed by Beth Wright of the Native American Rights Fund.

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