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South Dakota’s fight to bring home two Native American children

South Dakota’s fight to bring home two Native American children

SISSETON, S.D. (KELO) – The remains of two Native American children will be returned to South Dakota from more than a thousand miles away in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, according to the US Office of Army Cemeteries.

The boys were among thousands of children sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the late 1800s, where they died.

Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate historian Tamara St. John has spent more than half a decade researching two young boys who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the late 1800s – Amos LaFramboise and Edward Upwright.

“They were sent there because they were our best and brightest. They were amazing students,” St. John said.

Her research began in hopes of one day returning the boys’ remains home to the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota.

LaFramboise and Upwright are buried at the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery in Pennsylvania along with 180 other Native American students who died at the school between 1879 and 1918.

The photos below are from the US Office of Army Cemeteries.

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was the premise behind the start of the school, according to the National Park Service. Students were forced to speak English, wear uniforms and give up their culture and beliefs.

The photos below are from the Library of Congress.

In an effort to right that wrong, the US Army is working with families and tribes of the students buried at the cemetery to honor their wishes – in some cases, that means bringing them home to tribal land.

In July 2021, nine students from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe were returned home from Carlisle in a caravan making stops for ceremonies along the way.

St. John hopes for a similar homecoming for LaFramboise, son of a Sisseton Wahpeton founding father and Upwright, son of a Spirit Lake Nation Chief.

St. John recalls a conversation she had with an elder discussing the two boys.

“No matter what you do, you bring them home in a buffalo robe. You bring them home like the chiefs that they are. I made that promise that day to do that,” St. John said.

But keeping that promise has been difficult.

“The Army chooses to assert their military cemetery policy. And their military cemetery policy is essentially a disinterment much like any serviceman and then the transfer ceremony to that next of kin,” St. John said.

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Army Regulation 290-5 states those requesting disinterment must submit notarized statements by all close living relatives of the deceased stating they have no objection to the disinterment.

“But how do you find that next of kin to a child that died in 1879 with no children at the age of 13 or 14?” St. John said.

That’s where St. John’s research comes into play. She found the closest living relatives of both of the boys. The families signed affidavits and the papers were sent off with high hopes. But then – silence.

“The Army ceased to communicate with me,” St. John said. “After six years of working on this issue, one-on-one, all of a sudden they didn’t even tell me, alert me, my office or my chairman, Chairman Hopkins at the time, that they were going to deny disinterment for that year.”

St. John says the denial letter was sent to the next of kin elders, with the Army stating they viewed the disinterment as a family matter.

“That elder, really, their only intention was to help us as a tribe,” St. John said. “Under the Army’s policy, that means by signing that paper that they have to accept this huge responsibility of arranging their travel, funding it and then being reimbursed, all of these things.”

Frustrated, St. John turned to the Native American Rights Fund for help.

“With Native American Rights Fund, we sent a letter to the Army on behalf of the tribes stating that we wish to now repatriate our children using NAGPRA, under the NAGPRA process,” St. John said.

NAGPRA, or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, states the tribe could request the disinterment and be consulted on the repatriation back to tribal land.

However, at the end of May, a federal notice was sent out stating LaFramboise and Upwright would be disinterred this coming September – a decision St. John says the tribe was not a part of.

In the notice, the Office of Army Cemeteries says transportation and burials in private cemeteries will take place as soon as practical after the disinterment.

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“The feeling is like, on behalf of the families, that they’re going to disinter them, who is going to be there? Do they know? Do we know? Are we prepared? What are you doing with our child,” St. John said. “That’s really the way that it feels without talking to us. I can’t think of a more horrible, disrespectful way of doing something. I think anybody would object to that.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Office of Army Cemeteries said they encourage coordination with the tribes in support of families with children being returned. They went on to say they’ve reached out to the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Historic Preservation Officer to begin planning for LaFramboise’s disinterment, but hadn’t received a response as of June 16.

“The Army plans to conduct the disinterment of both Amos and Edward in September 2023.  The Office of Army Cemeteries approved the disinterment of Amos Lafromboise and Edward Upright in March 2022 and informed the requesting families at that time. Tribal leaders were notified in the summer of 2022 that the disinterment would occur during the 2023 program year. We acknowledge and apologize for the limited communication since last summer.  We have been conducting internal planning and are in the process of providing additional information to both the tribes and the respective families. We have requested to begin conducting detailed planning for the return of Amos and Edward with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Spirit Lake Tribes.” 

US Office of Army Cemeteries spokesperson

When it comes to NAGPRA, the Office of Army Cemeteries says their process has several advantages over NAGPRA’s claim process. They state the Army’s process only requires two straight-forward documents. Plus, under Army Regulation 290-5, expenses related to disinterment, transportation and reburial are covered by the Army, including travel expenses for two family members and two tribal representatives to be present for the disinterment.

“The Army funds the disinterment, transportation, and reinterment of the children and therefore must begin detailed planning at a minimum of four months prior to the disinterment each year.  The Office of Army Cemeteries coordinates with the tribes and individual family members of the respective child to ensure special requests and ceremonies are accommodated as where practical.  This coordination has already begun with three of the five tribes and families scheduled for disinterment this September.”

US Office of Army Cemeteries spokesperson

Now if the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate were given the chance to create a plan with the Army to bring home the remains of LaFramboise and Upwright, St. John said they already have a number of details they would like to see fulfilled.

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That includes a stop at what are now the tribe’s pow wow grounds. St. John says that land would’ve been the last land the two young boys would’ve stepped on in their home as they knew it.

“In bringing them home, we want to bring them home to the site where they left, the last place where they saw people that love them,” St. John said. “The last place that their feet touched, ground that they called home. And to bring them back here, into our community, where our families as a whole will be able to, you know, hold each other, cry together to remember them and to honor them in the right way.”

St. John says the families would help select the next steps –perhaps burying the two boys next to their fathers with a traditional scaffolding burial.

“There will be tears. I am afraid of that. I’m afraid of that for that elder that would sign an affidavit. I’m afraid of that for them to experience that alone. We have to be there for them,” St. John said. “The one thing that I could say, when we address horrible, hard, painful history, is that we address it together. We as a community, as bigger families and as tribes.”

The spokesperson for the Office of Army Cemeteries said Tribal representatives for each of the 28 children returned since 2016 have accompanied families to Carlisle Barracks for the disinterment of their loved ones.

  • June 25, 2023