There are two sides to every story. This is especially true of Native American history in the United States.
Members of the American Indian Society, the Circle Legacy Center and the Carlisle Indian School project, among others, gathered Saturday at the Carlisle Indian School cemetery at the Carlisle Barracks to commemorate their history.
“(Our story) needs to be told,” said Dennis Zotigh, museum cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. “We as Native people understand these things: reconciliation, of seeing to our elders, of seeing to our children (and) of taking care of ceremonial aspects of life. We have to do this, because if we don’t, it will die with our generation.”
The cemetery contains 186 graves of Native American children who died while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School between 1879 and 1918. The school, which was established by General Richard Henry Pratt in 1879, was founded on the concept of “Americanizing” Native American children in efforts to achieve rapid cultural transformation. It quickly became a subject of controversy due to its forceful ideology and Pratt’s violent corporal punishment methods on students displaying Native American behavior.
The cemetery was one of four that the group visited during Memorial Day weekend. Other stops included Arlington, Quantico and Washington, D.C. This year marked the journey’s 43rd anniversary.
“The American Indian Society started going to different cemeteries in 1973 and they made Carlisle one of them,” said Carlisle Indian School Project President and Circle Legacy Board Member Sandra Cianciulli. “Three years ago, founders of the American Indian Society asked Circle Legacy to take it over.”
According to Circle Legacy President Mary Ann Robins, commemorations typically entail the cleaning and weeding of grave sites and the laying of flowers and prayer ties. But Cianciulli added that each gathering is a little bit different.
“It depends who is here,” she said. “It depends on what people want to do to express their feelings. We had a young girl one year write a poem and do a dance. We have had groups so small that we have just stood by the gate holding hands and we each speak. It is different every year because different people express things differently.”
In addition to gravesite decorating, visitors expressed their feelings through music and through discussions with others.
“It is not really an agenda item,” Robins said. “Each year it has gotten a little bigger as more Native people realize that they have relatives here.”
The ceremony came just days after the Carlisle Barracks announced its support of efforts from the Rosebud Indian Reservation to move and re-bury least 10 of the cemetery’s graves.
“This is sacred ground to us and all the remains are buried here so far away from their families, so we come to pay our respects,” Cianciulli said. “As people born and raised here, we are watching the system work as observers. We aren’t participating in (the relocation process), but we appreciate it and we are glad to see it working. But even if they moved all (the graves) we would still be here because this is a sacred place to us.”
American Indian Society Elder Advisor Mitchell Bush explained Memorial Day’s importance as a community affair for both the living and the deceased.
“In our community, (Memorial Day) is a chance for us to remember our families,” Bush said. “We come together several times a year, but this is something that we do for Carlisle. You look at these children (buried in the cemetery) who didn’t get to go home, and we are the closest thing they have to family.”
Zotigh pointed to the children present at the ceremony to illustrate the importance of keeping Native American heritage alive through future generations.
“It is good that each one of you have come out to support this and brought these little ones to witness this,” Zotigh said to the crowd. “Someday, they are going to tell their grandchildren, ‘I was at Carlisle and there was a big circle of other people and we were talking about little children that were buried there.’ And maybe that will encourage them to learn more about American history and how our people were treated, because it is a true part of American history, but it is also a tragic part.”