As a sports-besotted boy, I knew that Jim Thorpe had a good claim to be the world’s greatest athlete: All-American and professional football player, a major league baseball player, a professional basketball player, an Olympic gold-medal winner of the pentathlon and the decathlon. I also knew that he was an Indian, had attended and played football for the Carlisle Indian School, and had to return the gold medals because he had played a few weeks of semi-professional baseball destroying his amateur status, which was then required for the Olympics. I knew little more about Thorpe and the school and was eager to go to the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on our return trip from Fallingwater to learn more.
And, of course, the CCHS had a room on the Carlisle Indian School that had a picture of Thorpe, but, disappointingly, little more on him. (I was not the only one with the feeling. A chalkboard allowed visitors to comment on the museum. One person, who gave his address as a Minnesota Indian Reservation, wrote, “More on Thorpe.”) The display covered other aspects of the school. A pair of photographs indicated that the school did not just try to educate, but it also sought to strip its students of their heritage—their Indianness. A photograph showed three children, perhaps siblings, when they arrived. All of them had long hair and dressed in what looked like some sort of informal, relaxed attire. A picture of them a few years into their schooling showed them with short hair, standing stiffly in “civilized” clothing, and looking stern. They seemed almost as if they were in the American military; they did not look Indian. And none looked happy.
Another haunting photograph was a picture taken in March 1892 showing one hundred, maybe two hundred, or more students, presumably the entire student body at the time. It is meticulously composed. With one or two exceptions, every face is visible. All are dressed in monotones. No decoration—necklace, bracelet, ribbon, scarf, tie, bead, or feather—is worn. No smiling face or any attempts at hijinks for a class picture can be spotted. This is a somber picture; there is no joy, and I could not imagine from this picture that there was any joy in any of their lives. Only the hands of those in the front row are visible, and two girls, perhaps sisters, are holding hands as if they have made a vow to protect each other. This picture made me pause: Who attended the school? What were the goals of the school? What were the long-term effects of the school? How many other schools were there like this? I learned that the school, which started in the 1879, closed in 1918, but I wanted to know more, and in the museum gift shop I bought two books: Jacqueline Fear-Segal’s White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation. (2007) and Sally Jenkins, The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation (2007). Both have taught me more about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Richard Henry Pratt, a soldier who fought in the Civil War and then served in the West pursuing, fighting, and negotiating with Indians, was the primary force behind the school. Pratt believed that Indians were deserving of a place in American society and that racial differences were not innate but the product of environmental factors. He believed that Indians could–and should– integrate into mainstream white society, but this was possible only if they abandoned their tribal communities. The school’s goals were not only to accomplish that but also to show whites that the Indian transformation was both desirable and possible.
Pratt’s theories required a school away from the native lands. The Carlisle Barracks were an old twenty-seven acre army installation, but they had been damaged in the Civil War and then abandoned. Pratt talked the Army into allowing him to set up the school in the sixteen barracks buildings that needed renovations. Almost immediately, Pratt constructed a seven-foot fence around the property as both a screen against sightseers—the townsfolk were curious about the young Indians—and to control the students.
The school separated both boy and girl students from their language. They were only to speak English, uttering a native language was punished, and students from the same tribes were scattered among separate dormitories.
They were also separated from their names, partly because the white teachers could not pronounce Indian names, but also to remove another aspect of their Indianness. As Sally Jenkins put it, when they had new, Americanized names, another “piece of their Indian selves had been taken away.”
The males were separated from their hair and that, too, separated them from their heritage. Jenkins reports that braids were a symbol of maturity for Lakotas, who only cut their hair when in deep mourning.
And they were separated from their traditional clothing, often colorful and distinctive. Instead, as the school picture showed, they all had to dress in gray, and became “an indistinguishable gray mass with no discernible outward differences.”
The photograph like the ones I saw in the museum of arriving students paired with one of them a few years later was part of a routine practice at the school. The before and after pictures were taken by a local photographer, J.N. Choate, and were widely disseminated to whites to show how Indians were being transformed. Fear-Segal says that Choate even used skillful lighting to make subjects in after pictures appear to have lighter skin.
The very nature of the school itself, however, separated the students from a fundamental aspect of their heritage. Indian tribes had varied cultural difference, Fear-Segal reports, but in no Indian community was education a discrete endeavor conducted in a separate institution or by “teachers.” Education was woven into everyday patterns of living and took place informally in daily interactions.
The school taught subjects whose successful completion was supposed to be equal to an eighth-grade education, but the students were also taught trades and agriculture. To further this training, the Carlisle school had an “outing” program where students were sent to work and board with local families. Students were thus to be introduced to American society and taught to be wage earners. As with much at the Carlisle Indian school, the outing program had mixed consequences. Many of the white families treated the students well and lifelong bonds were often formed. Other families, however, merely saw a source of low-wage labor.
Although the students were separated from the reservations where their families lived, whites had a similar goal in both places. Out west, the shared lands were broken up into parcels of private ownership, and at Carlisle the Indians were pushed to enter a wage economy. Jenkins notes that the U.S. government did not believe in sharing or communalism; it believed in private property. An Indian needed to be taught out West and at Carlisle “so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours.’”
The influence of the Carlisle school began to wane in the early twentieth century for two reasons. First, sentiment against off-reservation schools began to build. Moreover, Richard Henry Pratt, who apparently found it difficult to act diplomatically with his superiors in Washington, was removed as head of the school in 1904. He was followed by administrators with little ability. The school was finally shuttered in August 1918 and converted to a hospital for wounded soldiers returning from World War I.
The school’s legacy is mixed. Many who passed through its gates praised it; many condemned it. Although the students were encouraged to remain in the East after leaving the school, the vast majority returned to the reservations, many of whom went back “to the blanket.” Jenkins suggests that as an educational school, Carlisle was not a success. Of the 8500 students who passed through Carlisle, only 741 received degrees. However, many others also went on to graduate from public school, which Pratt counted as successes. From its inception, Pratt thought that the school should only be temporary and wanted Indians integrated into white society and enrolled in public schools. Jenkins, however, also concludes that the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was successful as a training institution: “the federal Indian agencies were full of Carlisle graduates working as teachers, clerks, interpreters, police, lawyers, blacksmiths, farmers, bakers, and tailors.”
Overall, however, the school has increasingly been seen as a well-meant mistake. “Like so many other federal experiments regarding the Indians, what in 1879 was seen as a creative solution had come to seem wrongheaded. Humanitarians argued that removing children from their homes was cruel and counterproductive. Still others believed that Carlisle created false expectations and that it ill-equipped students for the grim realities of life back home. The school took an undeniable personal toll on students: it razed their personal histories, sundered families, and obliterated their languages, faiths, and traditions.”
A few days before his death in 1924, Richard Henry Pratt told of his despair because Indians still had not obtained American citizenship. His pallbearers were all Indians.
Later in 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act, which for the first time allowed Native Americans to become American, became law.
(to be continued)