The headstone sits 1,633 miles from home, arranged in a neat row beside those of the other children.
It’s smooth and white, the same type of military grave marker found at Gettysburg National Cemetery. This one rests in a well-kept lawn bordered by a black wrought iron fence in Carlisle, Pa.
Carved on the front is a name, Dickens, and a date, January 22, 1883.
Few who visit this cemetery know the boy buried here. Most don’t even know his real name. It was Little Chief. He was the oldest son of Chief Sharp Nose of the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Little Chief was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School by the U.S. government, just like the other 190-plus Indian children buried in this cemetery. Some were torn from their families in the late 1800s — an assimilation experiment intended to strip everything traditional from an American Indian child and replace it with European culture.
“Kill the Indian to save the man,” Richard Henry Pratt, the former cavalry officer who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879, once said of this practice.
Twenty-three federally funded Indian boarding schools around the country were modeled after Carlisle. Children learned academics and vocations.
More than 10,600 known Indian children were sent to Carlisle, where virtually every tribe in the U.S. was represented. Upon arrival, the children were forbidden to speak their native languages. Their hair was cut — a sacred act reserved for mourning in Arapaho culture — and their names were changed.
Little Chief arrived on March 11, 1881, when he was 14.
Dickens Nor died of pneumonia 22 months later.
Carlisle Indian School closed in 1918. Today, it is the United States Army War College — a place where senior military officers and civilians receive graduate-level instruction.
The main entrance of the Army War College sits on the east side of campus. Within seconds, those who enter see a small, secured grassy cemetery on the right. The lawn is trimmed. The bordering hedges are groomed. A tall, weeping cherry tree stands in the middle, watching over the tidy rows.
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Natives and non-natives often visit the cemetery. They’ll walk from grave to grave and place mementos at the foot of the headstones: tobacco ties, coins or silk flowers.
Nobody knows how or why this many children died. Records are scarce and vague. What’s even more troubling is many tribes don’t even know which of their ancestors are buried there, since the headstones don’t match the birth names.
That was the first obstacle for Yufna Soldier Wolf.
She’s the director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Riverton, Wyo. Part of her job is to repatriate Northern Arapaho remains and artifacts back to their original lands via the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
When Yufna was young, she learned about her great-uncle. His name was Little Chief. He was the oldest son of her great-grandfather, Sharp Nose, and was buried in Carlisle, far from the family’s cemetery on the Wind River Reservation.
Yufna learned all of this from her grandfather, Scott Dewey, Little Chief’s younger brother. Dewey was also sent to Carlisle. Before he left, his name was Scout’s Enemy.
Little Chief was a disciplined and strong boy, mature for his age. When Yufna was young, her grandfather repeated the same line: Don’t forget about my brother.
She never did.
That’s why the 33-year-old is attempting a task no American Indian tribe has ever achieved.
Unearth Little Chief, and bring him home.
DAN CEPEDA/For The Gazette
Yufna’s tried before.
Almost nine years ago, she sent a letter to the Army War College seeking the remains of her great-uncle. Yufna was 24 at the time. She was studying at Montana State University, where she had recently learned about NAGPRA.
She addressed the letter to Thomas Kane, then the legal officer at the Army War College. It took nearly six months for him to reply.
“It was like opening a letter that said ‘N.O.,’” Yufna recalled.
Kane laid out a nine-step process to properly request the remains. Yufna needed proof of consent on behalf of Little Chief’s family via signed affidavits, proof of relationship, compliance with the Historical Preservation Act, and above all else, approval of the installation commander in Carlisle.
But that’s not what infuriated her. It was Kane’s reasoning.
“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 began the second paragraph. “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 in the third paragraph.
He included a photo of Dickens Nor’s headstone in the neatly groomed cemetery, and ended the letter with a quote from Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux leader. “My lands are where my people lie buried.”
Yufna wanted to burn the letter immediately.
She felt Native Americans were not roadside or tourist attractions. This was a relative. How could the Army be so insensitive?
She could’ve gone through the nine-step process to once again request the remains, but she felt defeated. She needed support, and at the time, there were internal conflicts on the Wind River Reservation. Repatriating Little Chief was low on the priority list.
Yufna never wanted to see the letter again.
DAN CEPEDA/For The Gazette
Almost nine years passed. In November 2015, Yufna was helping her father with a project. They were sorting through old documents in his filing cabinet, when she stumbled upon a familiar stack of paperwork.
It was the letter.
She read it again and felt a familiar rage.
“I can’t get mad again,” she thought. “I need to do something different.”
Yufna made copies of the letter and passed it out on the reservation. She scanned it to her computer and emailed it to tribes across the nation. If she was going to do this again, she needed support.
Christine Diindiisi McCleave was among those who helped. When she learned of Yufna’s repatriation efforts, the Turtle Mountain, Ojibwe tribal member wrote a letter of support on behalf of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
“It’s very important to understand that this is a different culture,” said McCleave, 40, the group’s executive officer. “This is a culture that requires that you honor your ancestors. Even (if) you didn’t know them in life, they play a big role in the living.”
Yufna followed the nine steps, contacted the Department of Justice, contacted a lawyer, put an ad in the local newspaper and held meetings in Riverton. She planned on submitting a package to Carlisle on March 1, both electronically and via mail, demanding the remains of Little Chief. But that’s not all. She would ask for the remains of two of his friends, also Northern Arapaho, buried in the cemetery, and coordinated her request with another tribe. The Rosebud Sioux also are seeking the remains of at least 10 Lakota students buried at Carlisle.
An Army spokesman said that officials want to work with the Northern Arapaho and Rosebud Sioux, along with any other tribes, to resolve the issue.
Yufna can feel the momentum. If the Army War College says no, she plans to sue. But if they say yes, another problem will arise.
Nobody is quite sure what’s buried in the Carlisle cemetery.
Who lies there?
The tour lasts about an hour.
It focuses on the former main quad, where roughly twice a year, Barbara Landis leads a group of 20 or so non-natives through the history of the Carlisle Indian School.
This is Landis’ specialty. She’s an archivist and librarian at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle. She’s studied the Carlisle Indian Industrial School for 25 years now, and specializes in finding the original birth names of the Indians buried in the cemetery.
Landis has no Native American ties. Instead, she was captivated by the school’s troubling history.
“I bet you never went to a school where there was a cemetery,” Landis, 64, said.
The cemetery is off limits during Landis’ tour. She doesn’t feel it’s a tourist attraction, even though the Cumberland County Visitors Bureau has the cemetery listed on its website under “Things To Do.”
Sometimes, Landis visits the cemetery on her own. She watches the ceremonies, and sees the tokens left on headstones. She understands why tribes are now seeking to repatriate their lost relatives, and believes that the remains belong to the families.
But another part of her wants the cemetery to remain untouched.
“I’m so conflicted about this,” Landis said. “It’s pretty evident from the research I’ve done that the remains do not correspond to the stones.”
In 1927, almost 10 years after the school closed, the Indian cemetery was moved to a different site. According to Landis, it’s because the federal government wanted to build a new road where the original cemetery was located.
Sixteen men were tasked with digging up the bodies and reburying them at the new cemetery.
“Coffins crumbled when handled to any extent,” a 1927 newspaper article reported under the headline, “Removing Bodies of Carlisle Indians.”
In 2007, Dr. Jacqueline Fear-Segal wrote the book “White Man’s Club,” which focuses on Native American boarding schools. During her reporting, she met with William M. Ewing, part of the Ewing Brothers Funeral Home in Carlisle, a business that’s been around since 1853.
In a 2000 interview with Ewing, Fear-Segal says she learned that Richard Henry Pratt signed a contract with the funeral home to deal with deaths at the Indian School. Ewing was only a baby when the cemetery was relocated, but he later learned about some of the measures that may have been taken when the bodies were moved.
According to Fear-Segal, Ewing said the stones at the current Indian cemetery are placed too close together for an ordinary burial. He explained that a trench might have been dug for the children’s remains.
Ewing died in 2009 and the current operators of the funeral home said they don’t know anything about a trench. There is no certainty it exists. The only way to find the truth is to dig.
“I shudder to think what they would find,” Landis said. “That part of me would take comfort in the fact that the cemetery is kept and that ceremonies are (continued).
“Just think of what they might find if what we’re imagining could be the case. They might not find an intact set of remains. They might find (them) all mingled together. I mean, what would be worse? Not finding anything or finding something like that? I can’t imagine.”
Yufna is aware of all possibilities. She knows there’s a chance they’ll never find Little Chief. But what’s important to her is the act of trying.
“It’s about the symbolism, about following this process. It’s about healing and about showing that this agency is willing to say, ‘Hey, what we did was wrong, and we’re willing to give back an empty coffin if possible,’” Yufna said.
“Then at least we have closure.”
A final check
Yufna proofread her final proposal one last time just after 11:20 a.m. on March 1.
This time around, it included six support letters and multiple documents. She clicked send.
“That was pretty scary,” Yufna said, smiling. “Want to know how long I waited to do that?”
Next, she left for the post office. She wanted to mail a hard copy of the same documents. She selected express mail, and as she walked out the front doors, felt relieved.
“(Now,) I’ve just got to wait for them to say what they need to say.”
If the War College says yes, the remains will be repatriated at the family cemetery nearly 25 miles from Riverton. It’s where Yufna, too, will be buried some day. She visits the cemetery a few times a year to speak with her lost relatives. After sending the documents, she’s asked to make the 30-minute drive.
Her truck bounced as it transitioned from the smooth pavement to the lone dirt road. The cemetery rests atop a golden hill dotted with sagebrush that overlooks the snow-capped Wind River Mountain range.
A barbed-wire fence borders the grave site. Entrance is granted only to those who unhook the spiked loops that hug a thick log next to the wooden “SHARP NOSE CEMETERY” sign. On this day, the entrance was open, a frustrating site for Yufna, because wild horses have been known to break in.
There is no security at Sharp Nose Cemetery. People come and go as they please.
Yufna approached the entrance and found a slab of plywood resting on its face. She brushed dirt from the withering, hand-painted sign, and leaned it against the barbed wire fence.
“It would be immoral to forget what our Northern Arapaho leaders, elders, warriors and veterans sacrificed and literally laid down their lives in order to protect us and our interests so we can benefit from all this today,” the sign read. “Don’t take this for GRANTED! Know where you come from so you know where your (sic) going. Welcome to Sharp Nose Cemetery, Est. 1884.”
Yufna walked into the graveyard. Dead grass crunched beneath her feet as she carefully moved her boots around the rattlesnake holes. A musky, floral smell hung in the air. When visitors pray, it’s common practice to burn cedar and sage smudge. The aroma cleanses the air, and keeps away negative spirits.
There are roughly 60 graves inside the cemetery, all Yufna’s relatives. The plots are dispersed on uneven ground, some marked with a wooden cross, others with just a rock or a piece of painted plywood. Only one grave has a headstone similar to those found at the Carlisle cemetery.
“Chief Sharp Nose,” the headstone reads. The last war chief of the Northern Arapaho tribe died on June 12, 1901. He was honored with a military burial, complete with a gun salute, horses and the attendance of state politicians.
“There’s my grandpa, Scott,” Yufna said, motioning toward her grandfather a few plots away. His marker is a whitewashed wooden cross. Painted horizontally across the splintering wood is his Carlisle name, Scott Dewey. Painted vertically down the wood is his Northern Arapaho name, Scout’s Enemy.
A large stretch of unoccupied dirt runs along the east side of the barbed wire fence. This is where Yufna would like to bury Little Chief and his friends.
She often thinks about how this cemetery compares to the one in Carlisle. In Carlisle, the grass is green, the blades are trimmed and the space is secured. Sharp Nose Cemetery is nothing like that. A group cleans the gravesite once or twice a year. It’s not groomed, not trimmed, not guarded.
“I’ve (often) thought, ‘How are we bringing (Little Chief) home from there to here?’” Yufna said, staring down at the potholed dirt. “And I thought, ‘You know what, he’s coming back to be here with his family.’”
But there’s something else.
Sharp Nose Cemetery rests on the same land where Little Chief once participated in ceremonies. It’s where the wind still whistles over the wild grass, and where rattlesnakes still buzz in the relentless sun. It’s where coyotes howl under the starry skies, sage grouse strut the nearby prairies, bald eagles soar overhead and the river rushes nearby.
“It connects you,” Yufna said, her words fighting the wind. “It connects you back to wildlife. It brings you back to why (we are) buried here.”
Yufna left the cemetery to grab something from her truck. She returned with a bundle of dried pink sagebrush sticks and walked toward Sharp Nose’s headstone. She placed the bundle at the foot of the white slab, stripping one stick of its dried petals.
She knelt on her knees, cupped the sagebrush petals, kissed them, smelled them and wound them into a ball.
She closed her eyes.
“I’m trying to be strong,” Yufna said to her great-grandfather, tears coming to her eyes.
“It’s not the difficulty of what I’m doing, it’s trying to explain things and educate people,” she said. “That’s the hardest part. But like the sign says over there, you guys didn’t die in vain.”
The wind stirred, the tall grass bending with the gusts. Yufna looked ahead and noticed a herd of wild horses. She wiped away her tears as they galloped freely on the prairie.
“I finally asked for Little Chief again,” Yufna said, pausing for a deep breath. “I think we’re finally going to bring him home.”