By Vi Waln
Kudos to the Sicangu Lakota Youth Council. For nearly a year, these young adults have worked passionately on an issue of great importance to us all. Their prayers and determination are what led several tribes to a meeting with the Department of Defense last week. Through the efforts of our young adults, several children buried in a cemetery in Carlisle, Pennsylvania will be disinterred and brought home for reburial.
It all began last summer when students from Rosebud traveled to Washington, DC to attend the White House Tribal Youth Gathering. As the students planned their trip, they laid out an itinerary to include visits to the National Museum of the American Indian and Georgetown University. A trip to be remembered for sure.
Yet, the most memorable stop for them was the cemetery at the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Over 10,000 children from 150 tribes were sent to Carlisle. The school was in operation from 1879 through 1918.
Visiting the cemetery was an emotional and spiritual experience for the Lakota youth. Children and teenagers their age, or younger, were forced to leave their homes on the Rosebud to attend the school. Many students who attended Carlisle were separated from their families for years. Nearly 200 students who journeyed to Carlisle never saw their relatives again. Those students died and were buried near the school.
These tribal children were denied a traditional burial ceremony in their own homelands. Today, the cemetery is designated as a National Historical Landmark. It is located next to a busy intersection in downtown Carlisle. The site is visited annually by tourists with no familial ties to the children buried there.
The group from Rosebud offered prayers at the cemetery last summer. They also placed sage and candy on each grave. The spirits of the children seemed happy with the gifts; this was evident through a swarm of fireflies appearing in the cemetery.
We hear all the time about how sacred our children are. The children who are buried in the Carlisle cemetery are also sacred. I believe many of those children did not die not from illnesses as reported by school officials. Most of the children buried at the cemetery in Carlisle died from homesickness and broken hearts. I have no doubt that our Itancan who sent their children to be educated at the boarding school so far away entertained second thoughts about their decision.
Carlisle was opened only 3 years after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. America was still angry about the defeat they suffered in Montana by the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. I question the historical accounts that state our leaders willingly sent their precious children to be educated at Carlisle.
We have always been a highly spiritual people. I have no doubt those innocent Wakanyeja prayed every single day to go home. Each one of those children had an Ina, an Ate, an Unci and a Lala, as well as an extended Tiospaye, who also prayed for their safe return home. But nearly 200 of those children did not get to make the trip home. As a result, there was never any closure for the families whose children are buried in Carlisle.
It was those prayers of ancestors that touched the minds and hearts of our Sicangu Lakota young people as they walked through that cemetery last summer. Our contemporary youth empathized with the children who were sent to that faraway place at the turn of the century. Today, many of our Lakota students can’t fathom being torn from the love of their families and ordered to attend a boarding school nearly 1,500 miles away from home.
The prayers of our ancestors have manifested through the love of our contemporary children. That is, the Department of Army has promised to financially support the disinterment and return of the remains of our children, as well as the children of other tribes, who are buried in the Carlisle cemetery. It might be a long process, but those children buried in Pennsylvania will eventually be returned to their homelands.
This is an example of why we call our children sacred. Innocence holds great power. It was the minds and hearts of the members of the Sicangu Lakota Youth Council that heard those ancestral prayers uttered over 100 years ago. Our contemporary children have shown great love for their ancestors.
Wopila to the members of our Sicangu Lakota Youth Council, today they are an example of what being a good ancestor really means. They have helped the prayers of our ancestors become reality. The children who were sent away long ago, only to die in an unfamiliar place far away from their families, are coming home.
Do not ever doubt the prayer of an innocent child.