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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Bringing Them into the Mainstream

Students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1882. The man in the center is identified as American Horse with his daughter Maggie Stands Looking, probably the young woman behind and to his left.

“Carlisle [Indian Industrial School] fills young Indians with the spirit of loyalty to the stars and stripes, and then moves them out into our communities to show by their conduct and ability that the Indian is no different from the white or the colored, that he has the inalienable right to liberty and opportunity that the white and the negro have. . .” From a speech given by Col. Richard Henry Pratt, as part of the Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction in 1892.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the United States government was faced with a daunting situation — what to do with the “Indian problem.” There were reformers, generally affluent Easterners, fellows such as Herbert Welsh and Henry Pancoast, and women, Helen Hunt Jackson, among others. They recognized the appalling methods the federal government, the Army, and private citizens had used against the native peoples — broken promises and treaties, massacres of entire villages, and the forced relocation to designated reservations.

Welsh, Pancoast, and Jackson, whether individually or along with their associations, hoped to end the ill treatment and bring natives “into the mainstream.” While the reformers had great sympathy for the tribes and were well-meaning, we of the 21st century would view their 19th century ideas as rather misguided. The belief was that Indian people needed to become civilized, meaning a complete desertion of their own customs, dress, and languages, and adoption of white people’s culture.

How could this goal be accomplished? The reformer associations recognized the difficulty of transforming adults who were set in their ways, so attentions were placed on children who were still pliable. Attempts were made by starting day schools on the reservations, as parents were more inclined to send their children to these nearby establishments. But the drawbacks to reservation schools soon became apparent. Student attendance was hit and miss. Given the slightest chance, children ran off. Little learning was actually achieved and students certainly were not becoming civilized, at least not to the government’s definition.

The next idea was to send native children away from the reservations, away from their families, to boarding schools that were at a great distance. The plan was for students to live in an environment devoid of Indian ways.

In 1879, the previously mentioned Col. Richard Henry Pratt established one of the earliest boarding schools, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was headmaster there for 25 years.

By the mid-1880s, over 60 native boarding schools were operating in the U.S., all in Western states except for Carlisle. A few were run by the federal government, but most were in the hands of various church organizations, whether Methodist, Quaker Society of Friends, or Catholic.

Most native parents on reservations resisted sending their children to these schools, due to the far distance. To combat this, Indian Agents would put on pressure by withholding rations and even threatening bodily harm. Agency police were told to seize children and spirit them away, virtually kidnapping them. Other times, missionaries would talk to groups of parents, describing schools in glowing terms. This approach was sometimes successful in convincing a few about the benefits a good education would bring. A date of departure would be provided and children would leave with the missionaries, going to parts unknown.

When the unsuspecting children arrived at their schools, the routine was first, to rid them of all native appearance. Boys’ long braids were cut off, their heads shorn. Now and then, even girls were subjected to shorter haircuts. Their native clothing was taken away and replaced by white people’s attire. English names were given, including surnames. Meals consisted of European/American-style food and standard manners were taught, the use of forks, spoons, table knives, and napkins. Most importantly, students were forbidden to speak their native languages, even when talking between themselves.

Among the many educational institutions, Carlisle was considered to be first-rate. Students sat in classes and were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, science, history, and Christianity. They also learned the concepts of democracy and the structure of the U.S. government. European/American concepts about individualism and private ownership were stressed, directly opposite to native culture that focused on what is best for the tribe and communal ownership — the land belongs to all people.

The teaching of various work skills complemented the academics . Boys gained proficiency in such trades as blacksmithing, shoe-making, and farming. Girls learned to cook, clean, do laundry, and sew.

Another of Carlisle’s techniques was called “placing out." Each summer, students were assigned to local families in the community. There, work skills gained at the school could be put to use. Keeping the students nearby was seen as an extra benefit. They were given no opportunity to go back to the reservations and perhaps return to native life.

To the outside world, most schools presented themselves as model institutions. Carlisle even supported a football team and a band. But discipline was usually strong. When students broke rules, they were confined in closets, deprived of privileges and meals, and sometimes suffered corporal punishment. (To be fair, discipline of children in the 19th century was often harsh when compared to today’s standards.)

By 1900, more than 350 Indian boarding schools were in operation, having at least 25,000 students between them. With so many children living in close quarters and occasional unsanitary conditions, most schools were a breeding ground for disease. Rampant were tuberculosis, traechoma (an eye infection that leads to blindness), measles, and chicken pox. Without natural immunity to European/American illnesses, boarding schools experienced very high numbers of sick children. When they succumbed, the dead were buried anonymously, often on school grounds. Generally, these children were not accounted for and their families were never told of their fates.

It is important to note that not all Indian boarding schools treated their students badly. A number of former attendees reported good memories and made life-long friends at their schools. One Navajo student wrote, When I entered school. . . there was plenty to eat there, more food than I used to get at home. . .The clothing I got there gave me joy. I was proud to look at the clothes and the shoes and to walk around in them.

A former Carlisle student was working in Kansas as a plumber. He wrote, I do most heartily thank the Indian Training School at Carlisle, for giving me an education and a trade that I can work at. I see now it comes in handy.

The last Indian boarding school closed in 1996.

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