Binghamton University anthropologist helps identify American Indian remains

Scientist works on Carlisle Indian Industrial School project

A group of Northern Arapaho and Shoshone children arrive at Carlisle on March 11, 1881. Image Credit: Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.
A group of Northern Arapaho and Shoshone children arrive at Carlisle on March 11, 1881.
A group of Northern Arapaho and Shoshone children arrive at Carlisle on March 11, 1881. Photography: Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.

Elizabeth DiGangi’s work draws on her passion for anthropology and a deep dedication to social justice. The Binghamton assistant professor’s research has taken her to Colombia, Peru, Chile and France, but in summer 2017, DiGangi had an opportunity to participate in a significant project closer to home. The forensic anthropologist joined a team that worked to identify the remains of several children who died while attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, a little over three hours from Binghamton.

“We were able to do something really concrete for those families,” says DiGangi, who met with members of the Northern Arapaho tribe who had traveled from Wyoming to bring home the remains for burial. “We were able to help them on the path to healing when there had been no possibility of healing before. Their kids were far, far away.

“This was a trauma that was just festering,” she says. “The entire team was able to help begin to heal that wound, put some salve on that wound. … That was immensely rewarding for me personally. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to help with that in some small way.”

More than 10,000 children from nearly 150 American Indian tribes attended the boarding school between 1879 and 1918, according to the Carlisle Indian School Project. The school, run by Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, stripped its students of their languages and customs. Children were given European names, subjected to military-style discipline and required to convert to Christianity.

Disease and harsh conditions are believed to have contributed to the deaths of more than 180 students who were buried at the site, which is now home to the Army War College.

Families wait for news

DiGangi spent about a week at a mobile lab set up in Carlisle. She was part of a team that exhumed three graves, searching for the remains of three boys who died at the school. Little Chief, then 14, and his friends, Horse, 11, and Little Plume, 9, arrived at Carlisle in March 1881. All three boys died within two years.

The school’s cemetery was moved in 1927, and so there were many questions as the team began its work in August 2017. “We didn’t even know if there would be any human bones left,” DiGangi says. “Over time, bones may completely decay away. We weren’t sure.”

The team uncovered four sets of remains. DiGangi’s job was to analyze the bones and make an estimate of the person’s age at death. She found bones that matched Little Chief and Horse. The third grave, however, contained bones from two different children, both of whom were too old to be Little Plume.

“It was really difficult,” DiGangi says. “We had families who were there. They had traveled all the way from Wyoming. This was a trauma that had been bestowed upon them for over 100 years. They were there to bring Little Plume home, and we had to tell them, ‘Little Plume isn’t here.’

“Even though I’m a scientist and everything I do is objective, or supposed to be objective, obviously I’m a human being. We try not to insert our biases and emotions into the work we’re doing. I knew immediately, as soon as I saw the bones, it couldn’t be Little Plume, based on the size of the bones. I had to carry out my analysis, which I did, and my assistant and I discovered that there were two people represented. And knowing that the family is 100 feet away, that was a really emotional day.”

A small measure of justice

The case was an unusual one for DiGangi, for a number of reasons. There was pressure to complete the analysis relatively quickly, for one thing. And she knew the Northern Arapaho families were close by, waiting eagerly for her findings.

Analyzing children’s remains is a straightforward process in some respects, DiGangi says.

“For kids, the major thing we’re able to do is estimate age at death,” she explains. “We’re able to do that pretty accurately in children because children are going through growth. Growth processes are timed and they’re regular, and they’re basically the same for all human populations around the world.”

If she has a complete skeleton to assess, DiGangi says, she can get a very accurate estimate of a child’s age, sometimes within a few months or at most a couple of years.

She says she completed the work in Carlisle feeling grateful for her colleagues as well as the Northern Arapaho. “We were able to establish a rapport, a transparent and trusting environment,” DiGangi says. “That was personally meaningful to me.”

DiGangi returned to the site in June 2018 and helped identify the remains of three more people, including Little Plume. Some 50 tribes have children buried at Carlisle, and they can request that the remains be returned.

Work like this, DiGangi says, can provide documentation to support our understanding of historical events and offer a measure of justice for families and for society.

“We don’t always have the sense that perpetrators are being brought to justice or brought to account for what they did,” she notes. “In many situations, what we do is more humanitarian. For a variety of sociopolitical reasons, justice may never be served. But if we can tell the families, yes, this was your son — and this is what happened to your son or your daughter or your wife — that’s a noble thing to be able to do.”

DiGangi, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University at Buffalo, holds a doctorate in biological anthropology from the University of Tennessee. She joined Binghamton’s faculty in 2013.

Her research and teaching are intertwined. She says her ability to think on her feet as well as her deep knowledge of the material serve her well, whether she’s in front of a classroom, members of the media or a district attorney.

She enjoys bringing her life experiences to the teaching and mentorship of her students: “What else are we here for if not to share our experiences with other people?”

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