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A long journey home

Meskwaki welcomes Rosebud Sioux repatriation caravan

Jenna Thomas greets Vikki Eagle Bear as the Rosebud Sioux caravan arrives to the Meskwaki Settlement on July 15. The caravan brought the remains of nine children that died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School 140 years ago home to South Dakota from Pennsylvania. The Meskwaki community welcomed the group with a large meal, gifts, songs and prayers. -- Photos by Darvin Graham

On July 15 the Meskwaki Nation hosted a group from the Rosebud Sioux tribe, also known as the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, who were completing a funeral procession 140 years in the making.

In 2015, members of the Rosebud Sioux youth council traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in a conference. While they were there, they were encouraged to visit the site of the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn.

The boarding school in Carlisle was established in 1879 and, over a 39 year period, was the destination for over 7,500 Indigenous children that were forcibly removed from their homes as part of an assimilation effort by the United States government.

Over 180 children died and were buried at the Carlisle school.

In 1880, Rosebud Sioux tribal leaders wrote to the U.S. Indian Commission seeking to have the bodies of their children returned home for burial. That request was never granted and since then, the remains of the children that died at Carlisle stayed separated from their home and their people.

Tyler Lasley sings and plays in the Meskwaki Tribal Center Gym while the community waits for the arrival of the Rosebud Sioux repatriation caravan.

Following their conference experience in 2015, the young Rosebud Sioux members felt they needed to take action and began efforts to have their ancestors’ remains exhumed and relocated back to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

After years of communicating and coordinating with federal military officials, the repatriation project of the nine Rosebud Sioux children was finalized last week.

A caravan of more than a dozen Rosebud Sioux tribal members escorted the remains from Pennsylvania to South Dakota last week following a ceremony at the former Carlisle school, now a U.S. Army War College.

The caravan, pulling a grey trailer with nine 3-foot caskets lined with buffalo hide, made a stop Thursday afternoon at the Meskwaki Settlement where a last-minute gathering was organized.

A crowd of well over 100 Meskwaki community members gathered at the Tribal Center gym and waited patiently as the caravan made its way through eastern Iowa.

Rosebud Sioux caravan members were greeted with a long line of hugs and handshakes by the Meskwaki community as they arrived on the Settlement on the evening of July 15.

When the caravan arrived shortly after 6:30, the crowd poured out to the parking lot to witness the procession and to offer the visitors hugs and warm greetings.

Inside the Tribal Center, a large meal was shared with seven tables stuffed to the edges with potluck dishes and three more tables off to the side full of items that were donated by the Meskwaki community to the Rosebud Sioux group.

Meskwaki community member Tyler Lasley was the announcer for the gathering and offered songs and some brief words before and after the Rosebud Sioux group arrived.

“I want to say on behalf of the Meskwaki people that we are here for you and we support you,” Lasley said. “This is our way of showing it, with all this food and all these gifts and all the people that are here. That’s why we’re all here, to show them that our heart is with them and our thoughts are with them. Some of you put tobacco down over there too. That’s our prayers.”

Meskwaki Tribal Council Chair Judith Bender and Council Member Delonda Pushetonequa presented the caravan guests with a replica Meskwaki clay pot. The pot was made in a unique Meskwaki design dating to a time before the Meskwaki people migrated to Iowa.

Meskwaki Nation and Rosebud Sioux community members in front of the Meskwaki Tribal Center on July 15.

“It’s sad, but it’s also a good day too because they get to go home now,” Lasley said. “We have a bunch of little ones here walking around today, and that’s how old some of them were when they went off to school. So it is sad. I have a little one too, she’s only nine. But at the same time I’m happy that this is happening, that they get to go home. It’s a good thing that you guys are here, it’s helping. It’s going to help you along the way too, that’s what I believe.”

Wayne Pushetonequa delivered a prayer and some thoughts before the meal began. He spoke about how in the Meskwaki culture there is a tradition of speaking to the deceased before they pass on and how when the children died at Carlisle there was no one there to speak to them.

“I’m going to talk to them a little bit in our language,” Pushetonequa said before praying. “I’m sure they are here tonight, their spirits. And I’m sure they can understand.”

Other community members including Christina Blackcloud and Kade Brown spoke to the crowd, thanking the Rosebud Sioux members for visiting and thanking the local community for showing up to support them.

Rosebud Sioux youth council member Jessica Two Eagle was one of three from the caravan group to speak during the gathering. In the time she has been working with the youth council on the Carlisle repatriation project, she had her first child Creedence, who was traveling with the group and was among several kids bounding about the tribal gym as the adults spent time with each other.

Jolene Davenport stands with the Meskwaki community greeting the Rosebud Sioux caravan as they arrive to the Settlement on July 15.

“The last few years I’ve been a part of this project, helping with whatever they needed and helping to keep the memorial chairs for the nine children,” Two Eagle said through tears. “To see them in real life is just so overwhelming. I’m proud of the kids and I’m so happy. At the time (when we started this) I didn’t have my own child but; this is Creedence. It makes it a lot more special to me knowing that we’re all going back and we’re all going home.”

After a couple hours at the Settlement, the Rosebud Sioux caravan departed being escorted by the Meskwaki Nation Police Department and a small group of local motorcycle riders. The bodies of the nine Rosebud Sioux children were buried following ceremonies on July 17.

The efforts to identify and reinter remains from Indian boarding schools comes at a time of great difficulty and of great optimism.

Earlier this summer, over 1,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous people, mostly children, were found at former residential boarding schools in Canada.

In the U.S., the repatriation effort at Carlisle is the fourth and largest such project to occur there since 2017. Carlisle was seen as a flagship institution during it’s operation in the late 1800s and housed over 10,000 children from 140 tribes. Children attending boarding schools were forced to go through measures to assimilate them to white, Christian and Euro-American culture including changing their names, cutting their hair and forcing them to wear uniforms and speak English.

Community meal at the Meskwaki Tribal Center in honor of the Rosebud Sioux repatriation caravan that visited the Settlement on July 15.

According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, 367 boarding schools operated in 29 states, many of them run or sponsored by Christian missionaries. Cases of abuse coupled with the challenges of infectious disease in congregate settings made the conditions at many boarding schools unsafe and at times, deadly.

During this time, Tama County was home to two of the three boarding schools that organized in Iowa. The other, called White’s Iowa Manual Labor Institute, was located near West Branch.

In 1898, several years after the opening of the Carlisle school, a boarding school was organized and opened in Toledo in an area now called Toledo Heights along the city’s southwest border.

According to a 1974 Iowa State University dissertation by MacBurnie Allison, local organizers and federal agents experienced difficulty in filling the Toledo school with Meskwaki children whose families were resistant to the, at times hostile, enrollment and recruitment efforts brought by the agents.

The school averaged an enrollment of around 60 children, though in the last several years leading up to its closure in 1910, it is believed most of the children enrolled at the Toledo school were not from the Meskwaki tribe.

After the closure of the Toledo boarding school, two day schools were opened on the Settlement and were in operation well into the 1930s.

Today, the tribal-operated Meskwaki Settlement School stands in contrast to the boarding schools and Indian education of the early 19th century. The Tribe and the Settlement School work diligently toward preservation of the Meskwaki language through child and adult language courses.

One of the tenets of the Meskwaki Settlement School mission statement reads:

“(We) will preserve the Meskwaki Culture, including its language, history, and traditions; promote Meskwaki values and lifestyle; sponsor Indian cultural ceremonies and events; promote pride in one’s school, home, and community.”

As news of the unmarked graves at Indian boarding schools in North America finds a national spotlight, efforts by the U.S. Department of the Interior have begun to investigate the “loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.”

In a recent memo, United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland detailed the objectives of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.

“The primary goal will be to identify boarding school facilities and sites; the location of known and possible student burial sites located at or near school facilities; and the identities and Tribal affiliations of children interred at such locations.”

The initiative, which began in June, is scheduled to deliver a final written report to Haaland in April of 2022.

Meskwaki Tribal Council Member Delonda Pushetonequa presents Vikki Eagle Bear and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe with a gift of a replica Meskwaki clay pot. The pottery is made of a unique Meskwaki design that dates back several generations.

On short notice several members of the Meskwaki community pulled together seven tables full of food to share with a group of over 100 that came together to witness the repatriation procession of nine Rosebud Sioux children from the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School to South Dakota.

Several children were in attendance during the caravan gathering, filling the gym with laughter and youthful energy.

Tyler Lasley offers a song played with a hand drum during the Rosebud Sioux repatriation caravan gathering on the Meskwaki Settlement July 15. Lasley’s daughter Tess listens and holds the microphone for her dad.

Christopher Eagle Bear, standing next to Vikki Eagle Bear, addresses the community gathered on the Meskwaki Settlement. Eagle Bear was part of the Rosebud Sioux Youth Council that propelled the Carlisle repatriation effort forward in 2016.

Jessica Two Eagle with the Rosebud Sioux caravan speaks to the community gathered at the Meskwaki Tribal Center on July 15.

Delonda Pushetonequa holds Peyson as a song is shared to the community gathered on July 15.

Creedence, of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, stands near the trailer carrying the bodies of the nine Rosebud Sioux children back to South Dakota as the caravan prepares to depart the Meskwaki Settlement.