What does it mean for a Native American tribe to bring home ancestral remains that have been buried in a faraway cemetery for more than a century?
For Northern Arapaho members involved in the repatriation of three boys who died in the late 1800s at a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the act came with immense significance.
“It’s that moment of closure,” said Jordan Dresser, Northern Arapaho Business Council chairman, who co-produced a new documentary about the repatriation, “Home from School: The Children of Carlisle.”
“We go through so many things mentally, physically and emotionally, that this is a way for us to have a closure that sometimes we are denied,” Dresser, who has been involved in other repatriation efforts, said.
Dresser and the film crew from Caldera Productions recently debuted “Home from School.” The first screening was a small affair for film subjects and their families. The broader Wind River Indian Reservation community was then invited to a free screening event on June 20 at Central Wyoming College in Riverton.
It was important to share the film first with the people whose stories were central to it, co-producer Sophie Barksdale said.
“It’s their story,” she said. “That felt like a promise that we needed to fulfill.”
The feature-length documentary chronicles the long and twisting journey for tribal members to bring home the remains of three Northern Arapaho boys — Little Chief, Little Plume and Horse — who were among the hundreds of Indigenous children shipped to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School during the “Indian Wars” of the late 1800s.
The goal of the school and others like it was to assimilate children into white society. Children were forced to cut their hair, convert to Christianity and stop using their language. Many died of illness and other causes.
The wounds of that familial and cultural severing and forced assimilation, Dresser said, have had lasting scars.
“Boarding school stopped that parent-child relationship,” he said. “And it caused a lot of trauma — physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually.”
The film centers on Yufna Soldier Wolf, a Northern Arapaho woman and former head of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office, who is a descendent of Little Chief’s father, Sharp Nose. Soldier Wolf helmed the repatriation effort, which entailed years of work, setbacks and complex bureaucratic hurdles.
It culminated with a contingency of advocates, elders and tribal youth traveling to Pennsylvania in an attempt to retrieve the young men’s remains.
Watching the debut with her family and community was difficult, Soldier Wolf said. It’s intensely personal. It’s also a reminder of recent losses: Several notable elders featured in the film, including her father, Mark Soldier Wolf, along with Betty Friday and Crawford White, passed away before it was finished.
But it’s important to acknowledge and grapple with what transpired in the past, she said.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand what intergenerational trauma is from boarding schools,” Soldier Wolf said. “And that’s what I’m hoping they pull from this movie — even our own community.”
It also comes amid a broad reckoning with the past of Indigenous boarding schools. Dresser hopes “Home from School” helps fill in the gaps in history, he said.
“I hope people walk away [from the film] with a greater understanding of the history of this country,” he said. “We have to learn to heal those wounds in order to move on, but first is acknowledging it happened and this is what it finally feels like is happening.”
“Home from School” will screen on July 27 at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Grand Theater in Lander. The film has been picked up by Independent Lens, a documentary series.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.