The winds there blow sweet with the scent of pine and blue sage. The trout grow fat in the stream down below, and elk hide among the trees in the meadow.
It is a place George Ell once called home. He spent his childhood there, grew older, almost became a man. On June 30, George Ell returned home for the first time in 128 years.
“This is the happiest event that could be, to bring him home,” said George Ell’s closest surviving relative, Dale Ell, 79. “It makes everybody feel good.”
George Ell was one among the many lost generations of young Indian men and women who were forcibly removed from their homes and stripped of their cultural identities in a misguided attempt by the federal government to “Americanize” the country’s tribal peoples. In 1890, when George was just 16 years old, he was taken from his parents’ home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, placed aboard a train and transported more than 2,000 miles to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in eastern Pennsylvania.
George died there a little more than a year later. His parents, Louie and Mary Ell, were not told of their son’s death until a year after he’d been buried. The federal government refused to return his remains to Montana.
The Ell family has carried the knowledge of what happened to George with them since 1892. The story of his uncle’s abduction and death was told to Dale Ell by his mother when he was still a child.
“My mother told me that the tribal police went out to my grandfather’s and grandmother’s home out on Livermore Creek,” Dale Ell recalled. “They went through the home, and they told them ‘We’ve come out to get your son. We’re going to take him and send him to a new Indian school down in Pennsylvania called Carlisle.”
“They went through the home, and they told them ‘We’ve come out to get your son. We’re going to take him and send him to a new Indian school down in Pennsylvania called Carlisle.’ Nowadays, that would be called kidnapping.”
“Nowadays, that would be called kidnapping,” Ell added.
There was little George’s parents could do to prevent their oldest son from being taken.
“Who could you go to for help?” Dale asked. “The U.S. government was the one who wanted these kids put in school, so they told the tribal police to go get the kids. My grandparents didn’t even know where Carlisle was. Our Indian people had no idea where it was at.”
The Boarding School era of American Indian history extended in one form or another across nearly 90 years, only ending when the tribes regained full control over their education systems in 1970. According to archives assembled by the U.S. Army, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first of its kind, and served as a model for the 26 off-reservation Indian boarding schools that were eventually established in the United States.
During the 39 years in which it operated, more than 10,500 Native American students attended Carlisle. The school’s founder and first superintendent, Richard Henry Pratt, was famed for distilling his philosophy of forced Indian assimilation down to the phrase “Kill the Indian: Save the Man” through any means necessary.
Children as young as 6 years old were forcibly taken from their homes and brought to Carlisle, sometimes from as far away as Alaska. The school was established at a century old U.S. Army barracks that once served as an ordnance center for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. During the American Civil War, the Carlisle post was operated as a cavalry recruiting and supply center by the Union Army, and was briefly occupied by Confederate troops under Gen. Robert E. Lee just prior to the battle at Gettysburg.
The Carlisle Garrison was closed in 1871 but reopened under Pratt’s guidance as an Indian school in 1879.
“Soon after arriving, students were photographed before being divested of their traditional clothing,” an Army history of the school states. “While female students were allowed to keep their long hair in braids, boys were forced to have their hair trimmed short. Traditional clothing was taken away from the students and replaced with uniforms and clothes in contemporary styles of white Americans. Students were either assigned non-Indian names or were allowed to choose names from an approved list.”
The students were expected to remain at Carlisle for five years. English was the only language permitted on campus. No two students from the same tribe were permitted to room together, and students discovered speaking their native language or participating in traditional cultural or religious ceremonies risked corporal punishment.
“Students were formed into companies or groups structured by military rank and hierarchy, and a strict schedule was maintained,” Army records state. “Half of the day was spent in the classroom. Once English was mastered, more advanced subjects such as chemistry, biology and mathematics were introduced. The other half of the day was spent in learning a vocational trade. Boys were introduced to carpentry, blacksmithing and wagon-making, among other trades. Girls learned house-keeping, child care and sewing. There was a dairy and farm on school property and students produced a portion of their own food as well as learning farming and animal husbandry skills. Students were also encouraged to participate in the school’s well-known band and sports teams.”
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School ultimately closed in 1918, when the facility was transformed into a General Hospital for wounded soldiers returning from World War I.
While the school’s history is well documented, George Ell’s time at the Carlisle School is not. School records note that he arrived at the school on March 26, 1890. A photograph of him with short cut hair and wearing an American style suit was probably taken shortly after his enrollment.
The circumstances of George’s death in particular are murky. Hundreds of students died while attending school at Carlisle, many from tuberculosis and influenza; however George’s death is much more puzzling. A brief article from the school’s newspaper notes the teenager’s passing.
“George Ell Murphy, one of the Piegan boys from the Blackfeet Agency, Montana, while jumping some three weeks ago burst a blood vessel in the lungs and died on Tuesday from the effects,” the story states. “All was done for the dear boy as he lay on his bed of sickness that human agency could contrive, but in spite of every effort of skill and patience, although at times there was a shadow of hope, the flow of life blood continued until he peacibly passed away.”
His date of death is listed as April 7, 1891, only a few weeks more than a year after he arrived. It is unclear how “jumping” could have caused a blood vessel to burst in the lungs of a healthy young man. No further explanation is offered.
In her research for the Carlisle Indian School Project, historian Linda F. Witmer states that the bodies of most of the students who died at Carlisle were returned to their families, except for those who died of tuberculosis because of the fear of contagion. It’s possible that George’s real cause of death was infectious disease. In any case, the Ell family was not notified of their son’s death for more than a year.
“My mother said all they got was a notification,” Dale Ell said. “It must have been in the mail, a letter of some type. It must have been quite a shock to my grandfather. All that time he thought his son was alive and doing well, but he already had died and was buried.”
The quest to return George to his family was made all the more complicated when the entire Carlisle Indian School Cemetery was moved. In a 1927 memo to the Quartermaster General, the Surgeon General at the Carlisle Army Hospital noted “the present site of the cemetery is unsatisfactory located as it is in the backyard of the post, in the rear of the garage, blacksmith shop and other utilities, and next to the refuse dump. Moreover, future development of the post will require the site now use for the interment of the Indian dead.”
All 180 graves at the Carlisle cemetery were disinterred, with the human remains then reburied at an adjacent site several hundred yards away. By then many of the burial records had either been lost or destroyed. Dozens of graves are now simply marked “Unknown.”
George Ell escaped that fate, but during the move his original headstone, which had been paid for and installed by his friends at the school, was destroyed. It was replaced by a plain stone marker engraved with his name.
George was the oldest child from a large family. Louie and Mary Ell continued to have children after George’s death. Many of his siblings had no personal memory of George, including Dale Ell’s father, Sam. Yet the story of George remained an important part of the Ell family’s oral history.
“When I was a little girl, I heard the story, all through my younger years until I became an adult,” said Rhonda Boggs, Dale Ell’s daughter and a grand-niece to George. “We all heard that story about having an uncle over there. It was generated throughout the family.”
While the Ell family always knew George was buried at Carlisle, it wasn’t until the 1990s that a family member was able to locate his grave.
“My older brother was going to Penn State University to get his graduate degree, and he went over there just to kind of look around,” said Leon Chief Elk, a cousin of Dale Ell’s from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. “He came upon George’s headstone. That was 20-plus years ago.”
Chief Elk took up the cause of bringing George home, but for decades received little cooperation from federal authorities.
“We were told by the U.S. government that once a person is buried in U.S. government property, he can’t be taken out of the ground and moved someplace else,” Dale Ell explained.
However, federal policy on repatriating the students’ remains made a dramatic change last summer when teams from the Army’s National Military Cemeteries unit returned 27 students’ bodies to the Sioux and Arapaho nations. Chief Elk saw his opportunity and enlisted the help of Blackfeet Tribe’s Historical Preservation Office to help bring George Ell home.
In May, the Ell family received the news they had been waiting for more than a century.
“About six weeks ago we got notice that they agreed to release his body,” Dale Ell said. “That was a happy day for us. We are bringing him home. It’s been way too long, but finally we are bringing him home.”
Last week both Chief Elk and Rhonda Boggs traveled to Carlisle to receive the body of their long absent ancestor. A forensic examination of the remains confirmed them to be of a young man who was approximately 17 when he died. Along with the bones, the Army’s National Military Cemeteries unit presented the family with several photographs of George. It was the first time any of George Ell’s descendants had caught a glimpse of what their ancestor looked like.
“My first night here, I slept maybe two broken hours because I kept getting up and looking at my grandpa,” Chief Elk told a reporter from the Pennsylvania Real-Time News. “I mean, you can’t make stuff like that up.”
While the emotional impact of George Ell’s return is especially poignant for his family, it has meaning for Blackfeet Tribe as a whole as well. The tribe’s historical preservation officer, John Murray, notes that the legacy of the boarding school era has left a lot of bitter feelings among Blackfeet tribal members.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before on the Blackfeet Reservation,” Murray said of George Ell’s return. “There’s a lot of hidden anger — ancestral anger, and this may give closure to some of that.”
“The army was very cordial, they were very responsible and professional,” Murray added. “The Lt. Col that was in charge was very good to work with. It may not bring closure to everybody, but they’ll be a lot people who do receive some measure of closure. I think it’s a significant event.”
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