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Three Oneida girls return home from Carlisle

Kali photo/Dawn Walschinski

Clockwise from left: Pallbearers OBC Councilman Kirby Metoxen, Ryan Funeral Home Managing Director James Wolfe, OBC Councilman Daniel Guzman-King, Wayne Cornelius, and Mason Laster carry the remains of Ophelia Powless into Holy Apostles Church.

Over 100 years ago, three teen girls died at a boarding school where they had been sent to forget their language and culture. On Sunday, June 28, their families and community welcomed them home with hymns sang in the Oneida language.

Jemima Metoxen, age 16, Ophelia Powless, age 16, and Sophia Caulon age 18 were dis-interred from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Burial Grounds in Pennsylvania the week of June 15-22 and a funeral service was held June 28 at Holy Apostles Church. Oneida Business Committee Councilman Kirby Metoxen traveled to Pennsylvania with relatives of the deceased to witness the dis-internment.

“I went out there three years ago and walked up on the cemetery and there’s 180 headstones – 180,” said Kirby. “When I was walking through there, I’m realizing these are all kids. And I’m just thinking this is a long way from home … and you feel you’re getting sick and you’re not going to make it and you got nobody there for you, it was overwhelming comprehending these children dying at a boarding school.”

Many Native Americans were either sent by families or forced to go to military-style boarding schools in an era of assimilation in the late 1800’s. More than 10,000 Indigenous children attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School between 1879 and 1918. Jemima died of meningitis, Ophelia died from pneumonia, and Sophia passed from tuberculosis.

The school grounds are now a military base. Tribes are starting to work with the United States Army National Military Cemeteries and the US Army Corps of Engineers to have the remains of students who died at school to be returned to their communities. The Army National Military Cemeteries are paying the expenses for nine individuals who made the trip from Oneida to bring their ancestors home for burial.

“I think it’s a great thing to have our children come home,” said Helen Huff whose mother’s sister was Jemima.

After extensive research done by the Oneida Cultural Heritage and the Oneida Enrollments Departments, 109 community members were identified as descendants of Oneida tribal members who passed away while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania over one hundred years ago.

“They do an incredible job at doing family trees, so they were able to track down their … closest living relatives,” said Kirby.

Holy Apostles Vicar Rodger Patience also made the trip to Carlisle to witness the dis-interment.

“The process was a very measured and disciplined process of disinterment of each child one day at a time, and then forensic analysis of the remains, and then a report to each individual family as to what they found,” he said. “Then they conducted on Friday a beautiful wrapping ceremony. Essentially to wrap the remains in new muslin cloth, place them in a new box to be transported back home to Wisconsin. I was just impressed with the graciousness of the anthropologists and archeologists.”

At first, Kirby thought he didn’t want to witness the full process.

“I wasn’t intending to look at it. I was going to say that’s all right, let’s just get it in the casket and get it home. But that voice that got me moving in this direction in the first place was thinking of those kids. Nobody was there for them when the passed, and I thought I will be with you 100 percent.”

After the funeral, Jemima and Sophia were buried at the Oneida Sacred Burial Grounds, and Ophelia was buried at Holy Apostles Cemetery. Two more Oneida student’s remains will be returned next year and families of 10 other Oneida students have been contacted to see what their wishes are. The families must make the request explained Kirby.