They view the work as a sacred mission to uncover answers and bring about closure.
“Every single skeleton I look at is the remains of a human being who was loved by someone,” forensic anthropologist Elizabeth DiGangi told reporters Monday.
She is on the team of experts tasked this week with removing and processing the remains of three Northern Arapaho boys who died in the early 1880s while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Weather permitting, work could begin Tuesday morning at the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery to disinter students Little Plume (a.k.a. Hayes Vanderbilt Friday), Little Chief (a.k.a. Dickens Nor) and Horse (a.k.a. Horace Washington).
Team members briefed the media on the steps to be taken to honor the requests of three families to have the remains and personal effects transported for reburial in private cemeteries in Freemont County, Wyoming.
Three boys who became students of a social experiment to assimilate native children to the white man’s culture will be returned to their ancestral homeland after over 130 years.
“We are going to be carrying on all the duties for this disinterment, treating this situation with the utmost respect,” said Art Smith, chief of Army National Military Cemeteries.
“We’re going to do everything we can to respond to their requests,” he said of their families.
About 15 members of the Northern Arapaho tribe arrived in Carlisle Sunday evening to attend what it is expected to be a weeklong effort to first recover and then receive the remains. The delegation includes tribal elders and youths.
A tent has been set up near the cemetery to allow the tribe to conduct ceremonies honoring their dead. “It will be their space,” said Michael “Sonny” Trimble, an archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers. “We will go into it when we are invited.”
Tribal leaders will also have access to the three burial plots in what is now a fenced-in and screened-off area adjoining the main entrance to Carlisle Barracks along Claremont Road.
A tribal leader will be able to observe the day-to-day work from the removal of each 240-pound tombstone to the close of the operation when the remains are officially transferred to the custody of each family.
Heavy equipment will only be used to remove the tombstone and the 90-pound concrete collar that holds the marker in place. Each tombstone will be analyzed, archived and then properly disposed of by the federal government, Smith said. Each burial plot will be left empty.
The excavation work will be using only shovels and trowels, Trimble said. “We want to be careful and as thorough as possible.”
The soil will be transported by wheelbarrow up a ramp to two tents where each load will be sifted through a mesh screen to isolate human remains and personal effects from the soil.
Any personal effects or artifacts recovered from the burial plots will be cataloged and turned over to the tribe.
Human remains will be taken to a forensics tent where DiGangi and her staff will try to determine the age range and sex of each individual by examining teeth and bone fragments.
The age range can be determined by the growth of teeth and by how the edges of bones fuse or stitch together, DiGangi said. She said the sex depends on the onset of puberty and its effect on pelvic bones.
Dickinson College has an ongoing project where Carlisle Indian School student records stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., are scanned into a digital resource center at carlisleindian.dickinson.edu.
Little Plume, Little Chief and Horse were ages 9, 14 and 11 when they arrived at the Carlisle Indian School on March 11, 1881. Little Plume died on April 15, 1882, followed by Horse on June 12, 1882, and Little Chief on Jan. 22, 1883.
“We don’t do cause of death,” DiGangi said. “That is something we leave to forensic pathologists who can only do that from soft tissue. It is unlikely we are going to see anything that might indicate to us what might have caused the death of these children.”
She said most of the students died of diseases that don’t affect the skeleton right away.
The Army Corps of Engineers compiled archival research on the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery and the remains buried there. This research included a detailed inventory of the 229 burial plots.
This inventory mentioned a cause of death for 66 of the students, 40 of which died of some form of tuberculosis while eight died of pneumonia. There is no cause of death listed for Little Plume, Little Chief or Horse.
The same archival research has turned up evidence that suggests the bodies buried in the post cemetery may not match the names on the tombstones. Trimble was asked Monday if any descendants of the three boys offered samples of DNA. He was also asked how experts could be sure the remains disinterred this week are the remains of the Northern Arapaho boys.
“We are doing a really close forensic examination,” said Trimble, who added he didn’t think DNA from relatives was necessary. He was confident enough remains existed to at least verify the age and sex of the bodies being disinterred.
“We are doing the absolute best we can do,” Trimble said. “We are serving their needs.”
This project is estimated to cost $500,000 including the cost to transport the tribal delegation from Wyoming to Pennsylvania, Smith said. He said the government will also pay the costs of having a funeral director in Carlisle transfer the remains to a funeral director in Freemont County.
The human remains and personal effects will be kept onsite for the duration of the work and stored in a secure vault, Trimble said. He said the biggest challenge with the project site is whether the root system of a nearby tree has traveled into the burial plot of Little Plume. This work may require cutting away some of the roots to access the remains.
“We have a really robust team,” Trimble said. “We can rotate people in and out so nobody is going to be fatigued.” He expects the work to conclude by Saturday or early Sunday.
Trimble doesn’t believe rain will be a problem. “If we start to get any kind of water in the graves, we will stop and cover the hole with tarps and plywood so the grave is not disturbed,” he said.
The Army received the requests from the families in January 2016, Smith said. He said a survey of the cemetery by ground penetrating radar was “fairly inconclusive”.
“We have some idea where the grave shafts may be but we really won’t know until we open the grave sites,” Smith said.
The Army has been in consultation with other tribes interested in having remains buried at the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery disinterred, Smith said. “To my knowledge, they have not submitted formal requests, but we anticipate getting some.”