White Earth group has been quietly rewriting wrongs, correcting Native veterans headstones

Four men stand by a headstone
Tim "Pete" Fairbanks, Fr. Benny Lipalata, OMI, Bruce Engebretson and Jack Heisler stand by a headstone.
Courtesy of Budd Parker

Families visiting cemeteries on the White Earth reservation to honor and remember loved ones this Veterans Day might notice 12 new headstones.

They were updated this summer because the names on the old ones were wrong. And this was a common problem for many serving in the Civil War who couldn't read or write — Native Americans, as well as non-native Americans.

Many had to take anglicized names to enlist, and sometimes even those names were recorded with errors. Budd Parker and other volunteers from Calvary Cemetery & St. Benedict's Catholic Church have been working for more than 30 years to correct those mistakes.

For the full conversation, click play on the audio player above or read the transcript below. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Can you give us an example or two of some of the errors that you found on headstones and how they came to be that way?

A lot of times they were full blood or mixed blood, Chippewa and French or just full blood Chippewa. They didn’t speak English. So when they would try to say their names to the people doing the enlistment … they weren’t familiar how to do this.

Once we were able to document it with the VA to prove that these were their real names, they allowed us to put up new gravestones up with their actual names. We also put the “also known as” so that in the future, if somebody was trying to find out their military record, they wouldn’t find it under their real name, they’d have to know this false name.

You mentioned working with the VA, what kind of research goes into this?

It takes a lot of research, a lot of time. I traveled out to Washington, D.C., 20 some odd years ago, to get all of their pension records, if they had them and their military records and then go through church records.

The Catholic Church has very good records from White Earth. I had to go through allotment records, sometimes probate records, newspapers — so all of these have taken years and years of research.

How many veterans have you done this for?

Well, I’ve done research and then my husband Bruce, and my cousin Pete Fairbanks and Kibby Sullivan, there’s been about five of us. My cousin’s wife, Bobby calls us the Grim Reapers that put these headstones up, and so they’re all over.

We put up over 56, just for the Civil War soldiers on White Earth. We’ve also done two on our reservation that served in the Mexican War in the 1840s.

Why is this work so important to you?

My grandparents raised me, and they were both from White Earth. They’re mixed bloods. My grandpa was born 1885, my grandma 1901. So they were adults when a lot of these Civil War soldiers were still living, and told me stories about them.

A man stands next to a headstone
Budd Parker stands by a headstone that he and other restored.
Courtesy of Budd Parker

They were very important people and then it got to the point where as older folks were passing on, I would tell people about them and they’re like, ‘Oh, I never heard of this person or never.’ And it's like, well, ‘It’s your great grandpa.’

When I’d come back home on leave from the Navy my uncle Him-Him and I would go up to the Catholic cemetery on White Earth and straighten some of these old stones up or clean them up. Then I got the idea and I was like well, I want people to remember these people.

What conversations pop up about military service in the Native community? How do people talk about it?

I’m not sure, it depends. I mean, every group is different. In my family and my friends, they tell these stories, I mean some of these amazing stories that we have just on our reservation.

I’m sure every reservation, every community, reservation or not, has the same amazing stories and that’s why it’s so important for them to be remembered — the truth about them, the good and the bad. And the mundane, the boring. It’s all part of our fabric.

Do you ever get reaction from families of the veterans you’ve researched that say, ‘Wow, we didn’t even know about this.’ What is that like?

It’s rewarding to know that. It’s like wow, okay, so now maybe this story will be passed on to their family. One of these instances was a stone we put up this summer, his grave had been unmarked for 101 years.

He was a World War I soldier and he had no wife or kids. We did a big article and it ran in the tribal paper and now I've heard so many people talking about John Turpin this and John Turpin that. Finally, his name is being spoken again.

Two headstones by each other
Two of the headstones that Budd Parker and others corrected at a White Earth cemetery.
Courtesy of Budd Parker