A documentary premiering Tuesday on Wyoming PBS tells the story of Native American boarding schools and their long-lasting impact on a local tribe, through the eyes of the very people affected.
“It was a lot of work, and very emotional,” said Jordan Dresser, chair of the Northern Arapaho Business Council and one of the film’s producers. “But it was needed. We felt like it was important for us to tell our story in our voices.”
“Home From School: The Children of Carlisle,” directed by Geoffrey O’Gara, follows the Northern Arapaho’s efforts to repatriate the remains of three children from the tribe who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the 1880s.
It also offers an overview on the boarding school system as a whole, which took indigenous children from their families in an effort to isolate them and assimilate them into white American culture.
The hour-long documentary will be shown at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Wyoming PBS channels, and will also be available to stream online after its premiere.
It took nearly a decade of work to pinpoint where the children’s remains were on the school’s campus. Then, in 2016, the tribe sent a delegation that included young members in high school and college to the site in Pennsylvania to retrieve the remains of Horse, Little Chief and Little Plume.
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“It’s very eerie, especially being at the cemetery,” Dresser said. “You wonder how they all died, what it was like for them.”
Earlier this year, more than 700 graves were uncovered at a former boarding school site in Saskatchewan, Canada, sparking an international conversation about the schools and their legacy. That has brought American boarding schools into the spotlight as well in recent months.
“It’s a dark side of American history,” Dresser said, “that’s not told in history books… But you also see parallels with things happening today, especially last year what we were seeing going on at the southern border, the same idea of separating children from their parents.”
The trauma inflicted on the children at Carlisle stays with their descendants to this day, Dresser said. The film features several Northern Arapaho members whose relatives were sent to boarding schools
The film has already been screened on the Wind River Indian Reservation and at a handful of festivals around the region.
The reaction so far, Dresser said, has been highly emotional especially among indigenous audiences. Most white people who’ve seen it, who aren’t as familiar with its subject, are shocked and outraged.
“It’s a tough story to take in,” Dresser said. “But it’s important, and I hope people learn from it. It speaks to the power of healing, of closing the dark chapters and moving on to new ones.”
Follow city and crime reporter Ellen Gerst on Twitter at @ellengerst.