Doug Meigs
Robert O’Brien, 85, was a guest of honor for the Jim Thorpe Sports Days at the U.S. Army War College – once known as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Upon his visit to the barracks and grounds, O’Brien used his time to trace his Native roots. O’Brien is seen during the closing ceremonies of the annual athletic event held in April.

Alone Without a Tribe; Native Vet Traces His Roots at Carlisle Indian School

Doug Meigs

The U.S. Army War College recently honored a Native American veteran at the Jim Thorpe Sports Days, an annual athletic event for students at the nation’s elite war colleges on April 21-23.

Robert O'Brien was the guest of honor. The 85-year-old O’Brien was recognized for his military service, his career achievements, and his lineage – his father graduated from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

O’Brien explored the history of his father’s time at Carlisle while the Army, Air, Marine, National and Eisenhower War Colleges’ students competed against in various sports: running, cycling, soccer, and more.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in 1879 at the Carlisle Barracks in central Pennsylvania. The school became the flagship campus for off-reservation, BIA-run boarding schools nationwide. More than 10,000 students attended Carlisle, until the Indian School closed in 1918. The Carlisle Barracks now belongs to the U.S. Army War College.

Estimates vary as to how many students died at the Carlisle Indian School. Native scholar Preston McBride estimates that roughly 500 students died or fell ill and were sent home to die. Gravestones memorialize 186 buried in a tidy cemetery on the edge of the military base.

The cemetery is now at the center of a repatriation controversy as the Northern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, and Rosebud Sioux tribes seek the return of children buried their. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition launched an online petition calling for repatriation, and the Army has since expressed willingness to consult with the tribes.

O’Brien went to the cemetery to pay his respects before the opening ceremony. He walked quietly between the graves looking for mention of his tribal affiliation, the Three Affiliated Tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.

Information about the cemetery appears on a plaque affixed to a large stone near the entrance to the cemetery. The plaque reads: “Buried here are the Indians who died while attending the Carlisle Indian School (1879-1918). The original Indian cemetery was located to the rear of the grandstand on Indian Field. In 1931, the graves were transferred to this site.”

Before the games began, O’Brien had the opportunity to walk upon Indian Field, where Jim Thorpe competed; he visited the bandstand where his father performed nightly with the acclaimed Carlisle Indian Band. He slept in the Jim Thorpe room of the recently renovated Washington Hall, the same room where Thorpe had stayed while playing for Pop Warner.

Col. Dominic Wibe escorted O’Brien around the barracks in a golf cart during his three-day stay. Generals and other high-ranking officers frequently approached to shake O’Brien’s hand.

“Being invited here to Carlisle is a great honor,” O’Brien said. “To have a full colonel taking care of my every need, the equivalent of a base commander in the Air Force or the skipper of a battleship in the Navy, wheeling around a tech sergeant like me is big stuff.”

Discovering his tribe

Native Americans serve in the United States military in greater proportion compared to other ethnic segments of the U.S. population.

RELATED: A Brief History of American Indian Military History

O’Brien and his siblings embody the trend. Five out of nine brothers and sisters enlisted, but O’Brien was unaware of their existence until he was 62, because he grew up in an orphanage in St. Paul, Minnesota. His military career spanned the Navy (from 1948 to 1957) and Air Force (from 1957 to 1968), including deployment to Korea, Japan and France. Afterwards, he was employed by the City of Omaha and Douglas County in Nebraska.

O’Brien was the Director of Civil Defense for Douglas County from 1978-1993, and he was elected the president of the Nebraska Civil Defense Directors’ Association for two terms.

While living in the Omaha area, O’Brien finally became acquainted with other Native people. He served in various capacities as president or board chairman of several urban Indian organizations. He was instrumental in establishing the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition, but because he lacked tribal enrollment, O’Brien had to leave the board. After gaining enrollment, he returned as board chairman and held the position from 1993 until retiring from the board in 2005.

He never thought of searching for his tribe until a schoolteacher friend invited him to give a career talk at her school in Elkhorn, Nebraska. The children were shocked to learn that he had never tried to find his parents. “That got me thinking,” he said.


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