//The documentary poster for “Home From School: The Children of Carlisle.”
Editor’s note: The following story discusses the plot of “Home From School: The Children of Carlisle” with some spoilers. The film can now be watched on PBS.
The grounds of the U.S Army Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania give a distinct sense of peace and order. Covered in luscious green grass and historical buildings, at first glance one wouldn’t know it housed the first-ever off-reservation, government-funded boarding school.
This event that has been erased by our history books comes to light in a new documentary. On Nov. 11, Colorado State University’s Native American Culture Center partnered with the ACT Human Rights Film Festival, RamEvents and the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery for a film viewing and panel discussion. More than 150 people came together at The Lyric, an independent movie theater in Fort Collins to watch “Home From School: The Children of Carlisle.”
The film dives into the history of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The school was founded under federal authority by Lt. Richard Henry Pratt, who believed the Indian boarding school system was the strongest method to “kill the Indian to save the man.”
“This subject is conveniently left out of history books because it would lead to conversations about state-sanctioned violence and the Catholic Church’s role in that,” said Tiffani Kelly, assistant director at the NACC and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “People aren’t ready to talk about the stories of Western expansion that don’t include Thanksgiving or Pocahontas.”
“Home From School” also chronicles the journey of modern-day Northern Arapaho tribal members, a tribe that has historically called the plains of Colorado home. The tribal members in the film seek to recover the remains of Arapaho children who were buried on the Carlisle school grounds. The cemetery is now located on land owned by the U.S. Army War College.
At Carlisle, Native children were stripped of their tribal identities and forced into an English-only, military-style remedial education. The children were often also used for labor purposes. Many boarding school students eventually returned to their tribes, emotionally scarred and culturally unrooted, their trauma echoing down future generations.
“How can you expect an entire group of people to heal from this trauma when there has never been the opportunity and resources to address it?” Kelly said.
While those who returned home carried trauma back with them, many others never returned. Their deaths were often caused by European-introduced diseases. Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse were three Arapaho boys who would never see their families again.
The driving force behind the repatriations sought after in this film is Yufna Soldier Wolf, the great-granddaughter of Sharp Nose, the last War Chief of the Northern Arapaho. Chief Sharp Nose sent his son to the Carlisle school expecting him to return with information about what white men were like, how they thought and the weapons they had.
However, his son would not return. While guiding President Chester Arthur to Yellowstone, Sharp Nose learned of his son Little Chief’s fate. Arapaho tribal members traditionally grow their hair long to honor their people and when someone dies, they cut their hair in mourning and bury it with their loved ones. Sharp Nose and many other parents were never given the chance to properly put their children to rest in this way.
“Carlisle was something I grew up hearing about,” Wolf said in the film. “That was the stories I heard about boarding schools. It was waiting for me. I was like, ‘Why didn’t anyone bring these kids home?’”
Wolf set out to bring home the three boys her tribe lost. The Army originally denied her request, but Wolf persisted, jumping through every hoop they put in front of her. She never gave up, and eventually, the Army gave in.
Tribal members recognized this was an uncomfortable story to tell, letting others into this moment of pain and healing. They ultimately agreed it needed to be publicly addressed—enter filmmaker Geoffrey O’Gara.
“This is an important part of our country’s history and theirs are the voices we need to be hearing it from,” O’Gara said during the panel discussion.
Wolf is joined by tribal elders and teens on an emotional journey to the U.S Army Carlisle Barracks. Following a tour, they meet with analysts and anthropologists to determine if the bodies beneath the headstones of Little Plume, Little Chief and Horse are, in fact, the three boys in question.
What should be a moment of relief quickly turns to one of despair. Misidentified graves and the wrong remains beneath a headstone forced the group to return home without Little Plume. As they start to leave with the remains of the other boys, Wolf looks back at the cemetery, silently promising to return.
“I didn’t know when or how, but I knew we were gonna come back and get him,” Wolf said.
Back on the reservation, emotionally exhausted and cloaked in what felt like a failure, they march on. Wolf stays persistent in the fight to retrieve Little Plume, advocating for the anthropologists to find him and allow the tribe to grieve. Her determination pays off and in the summer of 2018, she returns to Carlisle with a second delegation to retrieve the boy they had been forced to leave behind.
The Northern Arapaho officially became the first tribe in the U.S. to successfully retrieve their children’s remains from a U.S. government-run Native boarding school.
“If we didn’t share our journey, then nobody would ever know the truth,” Wolf said during the panel. “This documentary created a safe space for us to not only raise awareness but to heal.”
The release of this film goes hand in hand with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s June 22 announcement of a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. This initiative entails a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies, as depicted in this film, and is designed to develop processes and procedures for protecting identified burial sites at or near school facilities and the identities and tribal affiliations of children buried at these locations.
“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past,” Haaland said in her announcement. “No matter how hard it will be.”
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