The U.S. government is continuing efforts to move the remains of Native American students who died at government-backed boarding schools dating back to the 1800s. Many of these schools had Christian administrations running them and were active across the United States as part of an effort to force assimilation.
Kirby Metoxen, a councilman of the Oneida Nation, spoke at this year’s Winter Talk, which is a gathering of Native American church leaders and is tied to the Episcopal Church. There, based on an article from episcopalnewsservice.org, he presented his experience in 2017 where he walked through the cemetery at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania:
Some of the cemetery’s headstones indicated the deceased were Oneida. “I came across the name Jemima Metoxen, and that’s my last name,” he said in his Winter Talk presentation. “It kind of took me aback a little bit.” The name on another headstone was Sophia Coulon, a common Oneida last name. Further along was the grave of Ophelia Powless. “My grandmother is a Powless,” Metoxen said.
Overcome with emotion, Metoxen struggled to continue his presentation. “I think it affected me, walking through that cemetery, that this is our own,” he said. “These children didn’t ask to be here. How come nobody came to get these kids? It’s forever changed me.”
Ophelia Powless died in 1891 of pneumonia, and Jemima Metoxen died in 1904 of meningitis, according to school records. Both were 16. Sophia Coulon, 18, died in 1893 of tuberculosis. In 2019, all three finally were returned home. Their remains were disinterred from Pennsylvania and brought to the Oneida Reservation as part of an ongoing federal repatriation effort.
A funeral service for the three girls was held in June 2019 at Holy Apostles. Powless is now buried at the church’s cemetery, while Oneida tribal burial grounds hold the graves of the other two girls.
“It was done right for our children, here at Oneida,” Metoxen said.
Last June, the U.S. Department of Interior launched a review of boarding school policies going as far back as 1819 that have affected Native Americans like those in the Oneida Nation and others including the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Some boarding schools, though no longer operating with federal policies of the past, remain operational today.