USDA desecrates 123 graves at Fort Reno

Destruction ramps up in Canadian County

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Located in the Fort Reno Cemetery in Canadian County, the headstone of the Indian Scout White Elk was power-washed. The freshly dug dirt, around the base of the stone, indicates the stone was dug up and reset. (Photo by Carol Mowdy Bond)

By Carol Mowdy Bond
Contributing Writer

EL RENO – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s damage to Fort Reno, located near El Reno in Canadian County, continues.

More questions abound concerning the bulldozing of buildings and the irreparable damage to graves. During August and September, the USDA hired one or more companies to work in the fort’s cemetery. As a result, the USDA desecrated at least 123 of the approximate 200 historic graves. Of those desecrated, the crews dug up the headstones of about 32 to 34 and reset them. As well, several headstones were broken into pieces.

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe continues to seek transparency from the USDA about their actions, especially since the USDA is accountable to Congress. He has repeatedly asked the USDA to cease demolition and destruction. Dr. Patrick Starks is the USDA’s current interim director of the USDA research lab located at the fort.

The USDA gained ownership of the fort in the 1940s, and established the Agricultural Research Service Grazinglands Research Laboratory on the property. Since March of this year, the USDA has bulldozed eight or nine historic buildings, and desecrated the fort’s historic cemetery graves, during the closures from COVID-19. The USDA has plans to bulldoze more buildings. Several of the fort’s buildings, usually open to visitors, remain closed including the museum and the visitor’s center.

Sitting on historic Route 66, the fort normally hosts thousands of tourists annually. As well, the Historic Fort Reno Board Inc. hosts numerous events and tours to inform the public of the importance of the fort and its place in our history. The board also maintains the museum and visitor’s center.

There are about 200 graves in the fort cemetery, with the earliest marked 1874. Those buried in the cemetery are caucasian, Native American, at least one person of Chinese ethnicity, and possibly people of African American ethnicity. Most of the bodies were interred during the late 1800s. Thus the headstones were old, but beautiful and historic in appearance. However, that is no longer the case for most of the headstones.

Initially, the USDA hired a lawn crew to mow the cemetery in August. The lawn crew rammed their equipment against many headstones. As a result, many headstones sustained damage such as chipping and scratches and black marks on the stones.

During September, the USDA hired a company to power wash, also known as pressure wash, the historic headstones. This type cleaning of surfaces uses high-pressure water spray.

The intense power of the power washing removed the protective and original patina, and the historic color, of the headstones. The power also caused some of the headstones to loosen from the ground. And the power caused some of the headstones to break into pieces.

The crew then dug 32 to 34 of the headstones out of the ground, presumably loosened by the power washing, in order to reset them in the ground. The company also put the broken headstones back together in some manner. But some headstones are still cracked such that their integrity appears in peril. And some of the headstones now wobble.

Of those graves desecrated, at the very least, nine are graves of Native Americans. The names of those desecrated include, but are not limited to, the following who are Cheyenne: Anny Clark, Henry Clark, Johnny Clark, Julia Clark, Mary Clark, and Thomas Otterby.

Thomas Otterby’s mother was Cheyenne. His ancestry can be traced back to Bent’s Fort. Now known as Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, the 1833 fort is located in Colorado. The Bent brothers built the fort to trade with trappers, and also members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.

The grave of the well-known Arapaho Indian Scout, Chalk, was also desecrated. The headstone was power washed, and now wobbles. There are several cracks on the stone. Chalk was brought to Fort Reno on horseback after he was wounded in action during the Dull Knife Campaign. He died in the Fort Reno hospital on May 13, 1881.

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One headstone, marked as Young Old Crow Infant, has not yet been power washed. But the headstone is chipped and has black marks on it. The infant’s Native American tribe is unknown.

The headstone of the Indian Scout White Elk was power-washed. A photograph taken, while the USDA-hired crew was working in the cemetery, shows a worker sitting on the grave, holding a shovel, and a large mound of dirt near the grave.

Another stone, labeled as Wee Can Wah, Chinaman, has not yet been power-washed. But it has been marred by a large black mark.

Because the power-washing has removed the headstones’ protective patinas, the stones are now vulnerable to fast deterioration, especially with the onset of fall and winter weather.

There is a protocol for cleaning and repairing historic headstones in order to maintain the integrity of the stones. Power-washing is not the method used. Professionals periodically come into our state, at the request of state agencies, to teach the proper method, which includes the least aggressive approach. That approach usually involves the very gentle use of clean water, a soft brush, and a plastic scraper.

Federal law requires the USDA to go through a process when doing anything that impacts Fort Reno, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Part of this involves the Section 106 Process and Memorandums of Agreement. As well, the National American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a federal law that addresses providing protection for Native American burial sites.

Created on 10,000 acres of land given to the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes by the U.S., the fort’s origins began in 1874 or 1875, with the first structures built in 1876. Early on, the fort was home to the 9th and 10th Cavalry, who were Buffalo Soldiers, and they built the structures that were constructed by 1891.

By 1930, the fort included more than 100 buildings, accommodating more than 800 horses, more than 100 military personnel, and 30 civilian employees.