Albert Mekko, 17, (seated, center) from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, died and was buried at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1881, two years after arriving at the school. More than 140 years later, Mekko's remains are set to be returned to his family and tribe in Fall 2024. In this photo, believed to have been taken in 1879, Mekko is shown with three other students who arrived with him on Oct. 27, 1879. (Historical photo via the Cumberland County Historical Society)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. In Canada, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

If not for a chance meeting between his father and Lt. Richard Pratt, Albert Mekko might not have died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Mekko’s father, Tulsey (Chief) Mekko, of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, was an itinerant Christian preacher who was on a “preaching tour” in what is now Anadarko, Oklahoma, in the late 1800s when he met Pratt, the founder and longtime superintendent of the government-run school.

Pratt convinced the elder Mekko to send his son Albert to the school. So in 1879, at age 17, Albert was sent 1,300 miles away to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He died in 1881 of a lung ailment.

“Cause of death was listed as pleurisy but that was likely associated with tuberculosis,” said Theodore Isham, former curator of the Creek Council House Museum and a descendent of Albert Mekko. Isham is a citizen of the Muscogee and Seminole nations.

Mekko had been set to return home, but never made it. He was buried in the Carlisle school cemetery among 200 other students who died at the school of tuberculosis, pneumonia and other illnesses or injuries.

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But this fall, his remains — along with those of 10 other students who died there — will finally be returned to his tribe and family, even as the Winnebago Tribe fights with the U.S. government in court to force compliance with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA.

Mekko and the others are set to be disinterred from their graves from Sept. 3 to Oct. 14 as part of a “multi-phase disinterment project” by the U.S. Office of Army Cemeteries, along with archaeological and anthropological expertise from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The return of these eleven children to their Native American families is one of the Army’s highest priorities and we hope it will bring them the long-awaited peace and closure they deserve,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries and the Office of Army Cemeteries, in a statement.

“We will continue to work with families and tribes in their courageous undertaking to return these children home.”

The other students whose remains are set to finally go home are William Norkok from the Eastern Shoshone Tribe; Almeda Heavyhair, Bishop L. Shield, and John Bull from the Gros Ventre Tribe of the Fort Belknap Indian Community; Fanny Charging Shield, James Cornman,and Samuel Flying Horse from the Oglala Sioux Tribe; Leonidas Chawa from the Pechanga Band of Indians; and Alfred Charko and Kati Rosskidwits from the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.

The students died at the school between 1880 and 1910, mostly victims of “that dread disease, consumption,” according to the terse lines published in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School newspaper at the time. Consumption was a common term for complications related to tuberculosis during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Taking the issue to court

Isham said Mekko was an unlikely student for Carlisle. The federal government didn’t do much boarding school recruitment among the so-called Five Civilized Tribes — the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole Nations in Oklahoma.

“We had our own schools; very few Seminoles went to Carlisle, although some of the Muscogee Creek Nation did attend,” Isham said, adding, “By the way, I hate that term, ‘civilized.’”

Isham noted that although other causes of death may be listed on school records, tuberculosis or complications from that disease were the most common cause of death among boarding school students. He added that as deaths increased at the school, Pratt began sending very ill children home in order to decrease the official number of boarding school deaths.

Almeda Heavyhair, of the Gros Ventre tribe, now the Nakoda and Aaniih Nations on the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana, is shown here in about 1892 at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Almeda died at age 16 on Aug. 28, 1894, of consumption, and was buried at the school. After more than 140 years, her remains are set to be returned to her tribe and family in fall 2024. (Historical photo via Cumberland County Historical Society)

Many children died either enroute or shortly after returning home, but not before infecting community and family members. Although an investigative report by the U.S. Department of the Interior found that 500 children died at boarding schools in the U.S., researchers such as Preston McBride, an assistant professor of Comanche descent at Pomona College in California, estimates the number may be as high as 40,000.

In 1879, the Carlisle Army Barracks became the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, operating as a boarding school until 1918. During its operation, more than 10,000 Native children from approximately 140 tribes attended the school. The institution’s stated mission was destruction of Native culture and language as a means to assimilate Native peoples into mainstream U.S. society and economy.

In recent years, since the passage of NAGPRA in 1990, several tribes have objected to what they describe as the restrictive policies used by the Office of Army Cemeteries for disinterring and repatriating student remains from the Carlisle cemetery.

Some tribes argue that the agency, like all federal agencies, should be subject to NAGPRA, as are museums, universities and other public institutions that have Native remains and funerary artifacts and cultural items in their collections.

The act requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funds to repatriate human remains along with other cultural items to lineal descendants.

Officials at the Office of Army Cemeteries, which oversees the Carlisle cemetery, have maintained that the children’s graves don’t constitute holdings or collections as stipulated under NAGPRA. The office, instead, follows its own policy, which requires affidavits from surviving family members as well as a sworn statement from a third party verifying the relative’s claims.

Earlier this year, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and the Native American Rights Fund, or NARF, filed a lawsuit claiming the Army is in violation of NAGPRA and ignores tribal sovereignty.

Beth Wright, Laguna Pueblo and an attorney for NARF, said the Army’s process is restrictive because it requires finding a next of kin for disinterment.

“These children died over 100 years ago; sometimes it’s difficult to locate next of kin,” Wright said.

Olivia Van Den Heuvel, public affairs specialist with the Office of Cemeteries, told ICT in an email that the Army process is easier.

“The process the Army uses has several advantages over the NAGPRA claim process,” Van Den Heuvel said. “This process only requires two straight-forward documents to be completed by the family and tribe, which the Army is prepared to provide assistance with, including sending Army personnel at Army expense to the tribe or family to assist in person. Finally, the process under Army Regulation pays for the expenses associated with the disinterment, transportation, reburial, and travel expenses for two family members and two tribal representatives to be present for the disinterment. Repatriation under NAGPRA pays for none of these expenses.”

U.S. Army officials have returned the remains of 32 children since the repatriation program began in 2017. The Army conducts disinterments once a year and currently has 11 scheduled for this year and 18 for fiscal year 2025.

‘That dread disease’

Information is scant about those who died at Carlisle, but school archives and occasionally, the school newspaper, provided some details about the students there.

Fanny (or Fannie) Charging Shield of the Oglala Sioux Tribe arrived at Carlisle on Feb. 19, 1891, at age 16, for what was expected to be a five-year stay, according to school archives. Not long after she arrived, in June 1891, she was sent out to work with a local “patron” for about six months before returning to the school on Jan. 8, 1892.

By March 7, 1892, just two months after returning to the school, she would be dead of consumption, but not before she was able to receive a visit from her father, Chief Charging Shield.

Chief Charging Shield, Oglala Sioux Tribe, seated, was photographed in 1892 with an Oglala Sioux student, Samuel Flying Horse, at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The chief had traveled to the school to visit his sick daughter, Fanny Charging Shield, who died March 7, 1892, a few weeks after his visit. Flying Horse died the following year, also from consumption. The remains of Fanny Charging Shield and Flying Horse are set to be returned to their tribes and family in the fall of 2024. (Historic photo via Cumberland County Historical Society)

The school newspaper, The Indian Helper, wrote that her father had been able to visit her In the weeks before her death at age 17, and included a notice of her death.

“In last week’s Helper, we noted the fact of the coming of Chief Charging Shield, Sioux, to see his daughter, Fanny, who was ill. This week we are compelled to give the sad news of her death which occurred Tuesday.”

A photo of the chief was taken at the school, apparently during the visit, with another Oglala Sioux student, Samuel Flying Horse (Tasunke Kinyela), in 1892. Flying Horse is among those whose remains will also be returned this fall.

Flying Horse arrived at Carlisle on June 24, 1891, at age 18, and “after a lingering illness, died on Wednesday May 31, 1893, of consumption,” according to the Helper.

The other students whose remains will be repatriated this fall include:

  • James Cornman, also Oglala Sioux, who died of consumption on April 21, 1891, at about age 25. He arrived at Carlisle on Aug. 12, 1887, at age 22, and spent more than two years working for a nearby “patron” in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, starting in 1888 before returning to the school in January 1991. By April 1991, he, too, was dead of consumption. Cornman was a member of the White Bird Band.
  • William (Willie or Billy) Norkok, of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes in Idaho, who died on May 23, 1892, at about 19 years old, of consumption. He had arrived at Carlisle on March 11, 1881, at age 8. During his 11 years at the school, he was farmed out to two separate “patrons,” a family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from 1886 to 1888, and again in April 1990 to a family in Trenton, New Jersey. “In the death of Billy Norkok, the school lost another good and faithful boy,” the newspaper reported.
  • Almeda Heavyhair (or Heavy Hair on side of head), of the Gros Ventre tribe, now the Nakoda and Aaniih Nations on the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana, who died at age 16 of consumption. She arrived at the school at age 12 on April 13, 1890, for what was expected to be a five-year stay. She and another girl died on the same day, Aug. 28, 1894. “Again death has entered the school taken from among us two of our girls, Minnie Topi, Pawnee, aged twenty and Alameda Heavy Hair aged 16,” the school newspaper reported. Topi had been under treatment at Methodist Hospital in Philadelphia for several months, “but all efforts to save her life proved unavailing and death put an end to her sufferings at six o’clock on Tuesday morning,” according to the report. The newspaper reported that Heavyhair “was a victim of that dread disease, consumption, and to her the end came Tuesday evening at six o’clock.” The newspaper noted that “the double funeral, the second in the history of the school, took place at four o’clock Wednesday afternoon. Rev. Dr. Frysinger of the Methodist Church of town conducted the services.”
  • Bishop L. Shield (Sleeps Above), also of the Gros Ventre tribe, now the Nakoda and Aaniih Nations on the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana, who died on July 30, 1890, from pneumonia at age 17. He arrived at Carlisle on April 13, 1890, at age 17, and died three months later of pneumonia.
  • Leonidas Chawa of the Mission Tribe in San Luiseño, California, now the Pechanga Band of Indians, who died on June 24, 1899, at age 15 due to hemorrhaging of the lungs. She had arrived at Carlisle on March 7, 1899, just a few months earlier.
  • Alfred Charko of the Wichita Tribe, now the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, who died on Dec. 16, 1882, at age 15, just four months after he arrived at the school on Aug. 31, 1882. The School News wrote about Charko’s death, “A Wichita boy, Alfred, died on 16th December … He was in hospital ever since he came.”
  • Kate Rosskidwits (Ross) of Kiowa, Comanche and Wichita tribes, now the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, who died on Jan. 10, 1882, at age 18. She arrived on Oct. 27, 1879, at age 15. The cause of death could not be found among the school archives, but the school newspaper reported a notice under the heading, “Died.” It noted, “At Carlisle Barracks, Monday the 9th [differing from the school records] Kate Ross, a Wichita girl. She has been one of our most quiet and unassuming pupils, was patient in sickness, smiled sweetly at the thought of being called home to the Father’s House, and sent messages to the friends at home telling them to give God their hearts and pray to Him always.”

ICT reached out to tribal leaders, but did not get a response.

Healing the wounds

The students will be returned to the six tribes and communities after a private disinterment at Carlisle with family and tribal leaders.

Isham said he believes the Army hopes to eventually return all the students who are buried there.

“The Army’s plan is to evaporate that cemetery, get rid of it,” Isham said.

Isham said the homecoming will be an important step for his family and tribe.

“If only Albert had made that last train trip home before he passed away like so many others,” Isham said, adding, “But it’s probably a good thing he didn’t bring that disease back home to us then. …

“At least now we get a chance to have closure by bringing Albert home where he belongs,” Isham said. “It helps heal a wound that has been placed on us as descendants.”

Mary Annette Pember is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today. She is an award-winning journalist whose writing and photography have appeared in numerous publications, including The...

Stewart Huntington is an ICT producer/reporter based in central Colorado.