The American West Program Returns in 2021

On October 14th, the Public Lands History Center brought the American West Program back from a year-long hiatus. Featuring Northern Arapaho speaker Yufna Soldier Wolf, the hybrid event hosted attendees in person and online. Soldier Wolf’s daughter, Blue Soldier Wolf, opened the event by reading the CSU land acknowledgement. Dr. Jared Orsi introduced the speaker. As she shared her story, Yufna Soldier Wolf showcased her deep and determined research. This research was the basis for negotiating with the U.S. Army to bring her tribe’s children home.

Journeying to School

Soldier Wolf began her presentation by touching on the deeper history of the Northern Arapaho and the trauma the boarding school experience had on Native people. She also explained how three Northern Arapaho children: Little Chief, Little Plume, and Horse, came to attend school at Carlisle in the late 1800s.

In great detail, Yufna Soldier Wolf’s recreated the children’s journeys. It was a voyage that separated them both physically and symbolically from their families and cultures. She traced the children’s long journey from Colorado to school in Pennsylvania by rail, the children making the days-long trip in loud, drafty cattle cars. On arrival, children unloaded from the train into the shadow of a disused military jail, waiting to be admitted to school. The architects of the boarding school system had built it to intentionally cut students off from their traditions and cultures. White school staff forbade students from contacting their families and using Native languages. They took away the children’s traditional clothing and ritual objects. They altered the students’ appearance by cutting their hair and giving them uniforms in order to suppress students’ tribal identities. At school, staff even gave the children new names.

This, Soldier Wolf remarked, made her task of locating the children’s remains especially difficult. When students arrived at school, they were given new names, including a last name. Two siblings who arrived at school, Soldier Wolf pointed out, might not be given the same last name, making it challenging to reconstruct the family networks the schools attempted to break down. With the benefit of Yufna’s father’s collection of family history records and the oral historical memory of her tribe’s elders, she was finally able to recover the boys’ identities and begin the process of repatriating them to their relatives.

Sharing an Un(der)told Northern Arapaho Story

The history Soldier Wolf shared is still deeply painful. The cultural and personal losses are ongoing. Many tribes do not have the kinds of documentation Mark Soldier Wolf’s collection provided. Without knowledgeable people and proof, other tribes face an even more difficult road to repatriating their lost children. For the Northern Arapaho, however, reuniting these children with their families represents a kind of peace within this painful history. To learn more, view the documentary about the process, Home from School: The Children of Carlisle, available here.