Carlisle Indian School

This is a story about Carlisle, Pennsylvania. To some Native Americans Carlisle is a cursed place, and with good reason. For years I lived there, never aware of much more than the moment. Sure, I found the remains of WWII interrogation camps in the woods, walked through the historical society museum, even found some of the iron furnaces—now grown over with weeds—that had manufactured cannon balls for the Revolutionary War. What I didn’t find out was who Jim Thorpe actually was—I knew he was an Indian athlete who possible set the course for American football, but the question of how an Indian becomes an athlete never crossed my mind.

Zitkala-Sa, from The School Days of an Indian Girl makes this statement: “From some of my playmates I heard that two paleface missionaries were in our village. They were from that class of white men who wore big hats and carried large hearts, they said. Running direct to my mother, I began to question why these two strangers were among us. She told me, after I had teased much, that they had come to take away Indian boys and girls to the East. My mother did not want me to talk about them…”

The Carlisle Indian School was started in 1879 when the federal government authorized Richard Pratt to start the school. “Pratt saw his education program with the Native Americans as analogous to his domestication of wild turkeys.” (Fear-Segal, Jacqueline. “Nineteenth-Century Indian Education: Universalism Versus Evolutionism,” in Journal of American Studies, 33(1999), p. 329) Students were recruited by representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs who persuaded families to send their children to Carlisle by telling them that the reason they were losing so much land to the white man was because they were uneducated. Some students went because they were promised a train ride. At the eastern school the Indians were given English names and beaten into submission, even though they could not understand the English language. Many died of tuberculosis and other diseases. “The boys and girls at Carlisle Indian School were trained to be cannon fodder in American wars, to serve as domestics and farm hands, and to leave off all ideas or beliefs that came to them from their Native communities, including and particularly their belief that they were entitled to land, life, liberty, and dignity….separated from all that is familiar; stripped, shorn, robbed of their very self; renamed.” (Multiple authors, Essay Review of Ann Rinaldi, My Heart Is on the Ground) Education at this school was commonly viewed as a “tardy justice” offered by the white man to repay their large debt for stolen lands in the West.

This school taught music, math, English, history, drawing, and composition. There was a band that performed locally, and different sports teams. Jim Thorpe was one of these athletic students who played college and professional level football, in addition to baseball, basketball, track and field, lacrosse, and ballroom dancing. Such an assortment of professional sports played by one player is unheard of today. He also won gold medals in the Olympic Games for the decathlon and pentathlon.

After the Indians returned from this school “they were no more young braves in blankets and eagle plumes, nor Indian maids with prettily painted cheeks. They had gone three years to the school in the East, and had become civilized. The young men wore the white man’s coat and trousers, with bright neckties. The girls wore tight muslin dresses, with ribbons at neck and waist” (Zitkala-Sa). The school continued until 1918, when the United States Army used it for barracks to treat those wounded in WWI. Later it was turned into the War College, still in operation today.

I think this is a fascinating story of one tiny facet of the little known ‘dark side’ of American civilization. Too often we ignore history and focus entirely on ‘houses and acres and land.’ So the next time you’re walking around Carlisle admiring all the old stone buildings, drop into the Historical Society on Pitt Street where there are some exhibits of the Indian School. It’s a sobering reminder of the consequences of pride and prejudice. Studying about Indians makes me sad to be a European, sad that we are so narrow-minded, even sad to be a Christian in the sense that the perpetrators of so much cultural genocide claimed to be.