After a painstaking exhumation in Cumberland County, the remains of two Native American boys who died in the 1880s have been returned to their next-of kin in Wyoming.
But all did not go as planned.
Remains of a third boy were also supposed to make the journey back west, but couldn’t be uncovered due to a mismarked grave.
Little Chief, Horse, and Little Plume arrived together at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School aged fourteen, eleven, and nine.
They were part of a nationwide program to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students’ hair was cut, and they were forbidden from speaking their native languages.
Now, 130 years later, Horse and Little Chief are returning home with the Northern Arapaho tribe, who will bury them at the Wind River Reservation.
But Little Plume—the youngest—is not.
Anthropologists discovered the coffin under his headstone contained the remains of two people—neither one a nine-year-old boy.
“My assistant and I—we looked at the remains, and we just knew. We just knew,” said Dr. Elizabeth DiGangi, the anthropologist tasked with analyzing the remains. “That was really difficult, knowing that the families were 50 feet away, and I was about to have not very good news for them.”
It fell to lead archaeologist Dr. Michael Trimble to tell the tribe, in what he said was a difficult conversation.
The group sat under a tree in the cemetery, Trimble said, and talked for more than an hour.
“By the end of the conversation, they comforted me,” he said. “I was very upset that we couldn’t—with all the science we have today, and all the techniques we have, that doesn’t mean there’s always a silver bullet for everything.”
The Northern Arapaho boys were among 181 students buried at the school in Carlisle, which is now home to the US Army War College.
Representatives for the Army say they’re communicating with other tribes, and more exhumations could follow in the coming years.