Cultural Genocide and Education: The Story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

November 14, 2008 at 6:19 pm 7 comments

This is the second in our “History of Schools” Series. This is also an attempt that requires some editing.


After the famous battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, the surrender of Geronimo in 1886, and the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the so-called “Indian Wars” came to an end (Adams, 1997), (Marshall III, 2007). According to historian Howard Zinn, these events solidified nearly four-hundred years of European and Euro-American conquest and genocide against the original inhabitants of the North American continent (Zinn, 2005). Many Native Americans now faced a harsh and unknown way of living. For them, the reservation system was a new and almost completely controlled existence. Lakota Indian historian Joseph M. Marshall III writes that a “loss of dignity came on the heels of [the] loss of freedom” (Marshall III, 2007, page 140). For the Lakota, living on vast plains became an extinguished reality, and instead they were reduced to miniscule agencies where they were trapped and confined (Marshall III, 2007). All the while, the United States government continued to take lands from the natives and attempted to destroy their cultures, societies, and identities. This was the process of assimilation.

One of the most powerful tools for cultural genocide that the United States had in its arsenal was the school. Both on reservation schools and boarding schools served assimilation goals by targeting native children and attempting to turn them into, what Euro-Americans identified as, “civilized.” The school that started this all was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, begun by Captain Richard Henry Pratt of the U.S. military. Supporters referred to this movement and its schools as a “noble experiment” to turn native children into mirrored images of the “white man.” This, they contested, was the only way that American Indians would be able to survive the “progress” of white expansion. They would either have to perish in its path or become assimilated into its borders (Adams, 1997).

This discussion will center on Carlisle and the role it played in founding the movement. We will also look in depth at both the history and philosophy of Pratt. Carlisle was his brainchild, and thus both the school itself and the movement it gave life to are intricately related to his actions and words. However, this dialogue will not center on a few topics that are sometimes discussed about Carlisle – including its football fame and celebrated athlete, Jim Thorpe. Instead, the intention here is to explore the use of education as a means of cultural destruction and replacement, and as a process of securing domination over American Indians. Nevertheless, as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Research Pages expresses, “[i]t is our purpose to respectfully honor those students and their descendants who lived the experiment, to celebrate with those who prospered from it, and to grieve with those whose lives were diminished by it” (Landis, 1996). As we shall explore shortly, the legacy of Carlisle is a complex and intimidating one to comprehend. Yet, it is one we must attempt to familiarize ourselves with in order to understand the powerful role education has and can play as an instrument of oppression.

A School Born From a Prison

On May 21st, 1875, a train pulled into St. Augustine, Florida. There had originally been seventy-two captured warriors on board, but one attempted suicide while another had been fatally shot while escaping. These warriors were American Indians, captured in what is known as the Red River War, and were now sent to serve an indefinite amount of time in prison for their convictions. Ft. Marion, a former Spanish fort turned into a prison, was in an environment unfamiliar and hostile to these American Indians. The prisoners – who were comprised of Comanche, Caddo, Southern Cheyenne, and Kiowa – were not prepared for the extremely hot and humid environment of Florida (Anderson, 2000), (Adams, 1997). Captain Richard Henry Pratt was assigned the task of overseeing the prison and its captors. His instructions were vague and detailed little about his responsibilities, but Pratt’s ambitions were large.

Pratt, born in 1840, began his military career by enlisting in the Union Army in 1861, just as the Civil War was getting underway. Afterwards, he served as a relatively young cavalry officer, commanding an African-American regiment of the infamous Buffalo soldiers, whom fought alongside American Indian scouts. Known as “Indian fighters,” they were used for the purpose of expanding the post-war borders of the United States further into Native American territory. Throughout this time, Pratt interacted constantly with American Indian scouts, Native Americans that opposed the United States, and those that had been forced onto the agencies (later known as reservations) (Atleo, 2008). During this time, Pratt came to the conclusion that the only solution for the indigenous peoples – to protect them from complete annihilation as a result of the “progress” of white expansion – would be to assimilate them into “white society.” Pratt had been convinced by the “humanitarian gentlemen” philosophy that native people should not be exterminated, but that they should instead be siphoned off into the advancement of white society (Adams, 1997).

Pratt was a determined and ambitious army officer, and he was not the type to sit idly by. His assignment at Ft. Marion, which he had requested, gave him the opportunity to implement the philosophies he had developed. Moving swiftly, Pratt ordered for the captives to have their hair cut off, dressed them in military uniforms, organized them into systems of hierarchy that mirrored his military experience, forced them to learn English, and more (Atleo, 2008). Soon, teachers poured into the prison from the surrounding community of St. Augustine (Adams, 1997). Most were local women who volunteered their time, but some also traded their involvement for such things as archery lessons (Landis, 1996). In large part, these women were the foot soldiers in the assimilation process at Ft. Marion. They lectured the prisoners on various subjects ranging from the English language, to Christianity, and all other factors that formed the “white man’s civilization.” Every evening, Pratt met with the captured natives and lectured them on what they needed to do in order to survive: the adoption of white society. Both physically and mentally traumatized by their prison experience, some captives began to listen. Pratt thus happily played the role of the benevolent father, lifting his children from “savagery.” Pratt’s dream, to transform the “prison into a school for teaching civilization to the Indians” (Adams, 1997, page 39), was being realized. The Ft. Marion program continued to expand, contracting labor for the prisoners, teaching them how to save money, and sending them out into the town of St. Augustine to work jobs and spend their money. This concept of putting his prisoners into the community as a form of assimilation and visibility stuck with Pratt (Adams, 1997).

St. Augustine was also the vacation spot of choice for many New Englanders, and a large number of these came to inspect Pratt’s strange experiment. As a direct result, Pratt made contact with a substantial donor and benefactor base. The majority of these potential backers were Quakers or reformers who were uncomfortable with extermination policies, and who had already been intensively discussing the prospect of an alternative. Pratt’s methods greatly appealed to them. These potential benefactors had become concerned for the welfare of the natives who were “beginning to resemble white men” (Landis, 1996).

While factually incorrect, most white residents of the United States believed that the “primitive” American Indian societies entirely lacked (or had only undeveloped resemblances of) any structures of “civilization.” This included organized religion, codes of law, forms of governance, and any form of education. However, there were different explanations for this belief: some argued that it was a result of racial inferiority, while others contested that it was a consequence of cultural and historical circumstances. Pratt belonged to the latter group, known as reformers, and he argued feverishly that Native Americans could be good “American citizens” if they were only provided equal access to education and vocational opportunities (Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006).

Pratt was also known for his famous slogan “kill the Indian, save the man.” This slogan was based off his intense passion to witness the transformation of natives into a replication of the white society in the United States. As Pratt would later write in a letter to a magazine,

It is this nature in our red brother that is better dead than alive, and when we agree with the oft-repeated sentiment that the only good Indian is a dead one, we mean this characteristic of the Indian. Carlisle’s mission is to kill THIS Indian, as we build up the better man. We give the rising Indian something nobler and higher to think about and do, and he comes out a young man with the ambitions and aspirations of his more favored white brother.

(Landis, 1996)

Eventually Pratt convinced the federal government that his methods had worked so well that any further incarceration of the Native Americans would do no good, and they were released. However, Pratt was also able to convince seventeen of his prisoners to seek out further education – and after considerable effort, he persuaded the Hampton Institute to accept them. Hampton was a controversial school for African-Americans that focused on making “racial progress” under the “benevolent tutelage” of whites. At this institute, African-Americans worked on manual training and also training for “cultural uplift.” At Hampton, Pratt served as the director of the American Indian students, and the ideals and structure of the school greatly solidified his philosophy on education for American Indian assimilation. However, Pratt had larger aspirations and was not fond of being anything other than in charge. After lobbying for financial support from funders and the government, Pratt was ready to start a school – based off of the models of the prison and the Hampton Institute. Pratt, however, realized that in order to efficiently assimilate natives, he would have to begin when they were younger. Those who had witnessed or heard about his success at Ft. Marion were only too happy to oblige his calls for support. After a short investigation of where to house his new school, Pratt chose – appropriately enough – a former military barracks in the countryside of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. What is important to recognize here is that the school Pratt was about to begin became the example that was replicated all across the country in an effort to mass assimilate the Native American peoples. For 25 years, Pratt remained the headmaster of the school he founded in Carlisle, and his opinions and actions drastically shaped the relationships between American Indians, whites, and the United States (Adams, 1997).

The Leaders, the Parents, and the Students

Before the new school could be opened, it required students. Pratt, who had spent much of his time with the Buffalo Soldiers, returned to the west to recruit native children. His first targets were two Lakota reservations: Pine Ridge and Rosebud (in what is now South Dakota). Meanwhile, two of his pupils from Ft. Marion and Hampton traveled southwest to recruit Kiowa and Cheyenne (Anderson, 2000).

Two notable parents and chiefs that allowed for several of their children and grandchildren to be taken to Carlisle, and who advocated for others to do the same, were Spotted Tail of the Sicangu Lakota and Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota. Spotted Tail had long contested that the continued incursion of whites was inevitable, and that the Lakota people would have to drastically change their ways in order to survive (Marshall III, 2007). Pratt convinced Spotted Tail, Red Cloud, and some of their followers to send their children to Carlisle by arguing that if their people had understood English, they could have prevented white encroachment and held the United States to the treaties it signed – or at least understood what was ultimately to come. Although Spotted Tail and Red Cloud were not entirely convinced that Pratt’s intentions were of good faith, they believed that white encroachment would not end (Anderson, 2000). Luther Standing Bear, son of Spotted Tail and a famous Native American writer, actor, and activist, agreed to go to Carlisle with Pratt. He, however, was not convinced that Pratt wanted to educate the children, and recalled the memory of the Captain’s visit to the reservation:

One day some white people came among us and called a meeting with the parents… They had come after some boys and girls and wanted to take them a long way off to a place about which we knew nothing. I consented at once, though I could think of nothing else but that these white people wanted to take us far away and kill us… To me it meant death, but bravery was part of my blood, so I did not hesitate.

(Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006, page 16)

The first students arrived at Carlisle in 1879, three years after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Eighty-two children, mostly Lakota, pulled into town in a train late at night. Throngs of towns-folk craned their necks to get a better glimpse of these “exotic” and “wild” children. From this point on, American Indian children would be a familiar site in Carlisle. For 39 years, 1879 to 1918, approximately 12,000 native children were sent to Carlisle – some by choice, others by force. While some survived, others did not. The children who attended Carlisle came from every section of the United States and its empire, some as far as Puerto Rico and the Philippines. However, the vast majority of the children who were sent to Carlisle came from one of the 140 American Indian tribes or nations that’s children populated the school (Anderson, 2000).

Pratt had a long running feud with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and on the night of the first students’ arrival, he discovered that the Bureau had thwarted him: it had failed to send any food, bedding, or any other provisions. The native children were forced to sleep on the hard floor while cold and hungry, with nothing more than the personal blankets they might have brought with them. However, the next morning, Pratt left right away to collect the Cheyenne and Kiowa children. Meanwhile, Mrs. Pratt and the other teachers took over the operation (Anderson, 2000). On this first day, the native children were forced to sit in the barbershop, for what Joseph M. Marshall III called the “first lesson about their new identity” (Marshall III, 2007). Every young male’s hair was chopped off. As with many American Indian cultures, and especially for the Lakota, hair was a vitally important aspect to one’s identity. To cut this off was to instantly redefine them. The new arrivals were confused, isolated, and homesick; and they cried as their hair was cut and fell to the ground (Anderson, 2000). As Sterling Hollow Horn, a Lakota of Pine Ridge said:

In our culture, the only time we cut hair is when we are in mourning or when someone has died in the immediate family. We do this to show we are mourning the loss of a loved one.

(Anderson, 2000)

This act of chopping off the children’s hair was the first step of many in Carlisle’s overall goal of total assimilation; and the assimilation’s purpose was to destroy native culture by preventing its development and expansion in the children (Marshall III, 2007). This process served as a two-pronged attack on the native children: to tear away their identity and physical relation to native life, and then to restructure it with an identity that mirrored “civilized” life (Adams, 1997). This method was promoted by the belief of many whites that the indigenous peoples faced no other alternative than to become, essentially, white – or face annihilation. As Judge Elmer Dundy wrote in his 1879 decision in Standing Bear v. Crook:

On one side we have the remnants of a once numerous and powerful, but now weak, insignificant, unlettered, and generally despised race. On the other, we have the representatives of one of the most powerful, most enlightened, and most Christianized nations of modern times…

(Marshall III, 2007, page 145)

Spotted Tail, however, had an alternative take on the issue. He realized that times had changed, and that the rules of survival were now different. Spotted Tail and Red Cloud had witnessed the cities of the United States and had seen the masses that populated them. They were both awed by the sheer numbers of people. Ultimately, they wanted survival for the Lakota children, and they believed that the education that was promised to their people by Pratt would make it eventually easier to live in this new world. It was necessary, Spotted Tail argued, to adjust to a new lifestyle. Nevertheless, neither of them believed that this would require their children to have their core identities obliterated. “To both of them,” Marshall III wrote, “living like whites did not mean becoming whites” (Marshall III, 2007, page 145).

This is why, while on a trip to Carlisle, Spotted Tail became enraged by what he witnessed and by the methodology of the institution. He had not anticipated the destruction of the Lakota identity: the cutting off of hair for boys, the forced military uniforms, the tight shoes that replaced the moccasins; or how the children were made to stand and march in line as if they were a military regiment, and the physical punishment for speaking their native language (Marshall III, 2007). Spotted Tail took his children, grandchildren, and other family members home over the objections of Pratt. The family left under the armed guard of the other American Indians who had accompanied Spotted Tail on the trip (Atleo, 2008). Thousands of others, however, would have to endure the fate of years away from their families under the strict and regimented lifestyles enforced by the school – as the “[administrators], teachers, and dormitory matrons carried out the policy and the process of assimilation with impunity” (Marshall III, 2007, page 144).

While the reservation system was a process of containment, the boarding school movement – inspired by the Carlisle Indian Industrial School – was a method of assimilating the contained peoples. Pratt, however, was unhappy with the reservation system itself, believing that it would do more harm than good. The so-called “Indian problem” could only be solved, he alleged, through active and aggressive assimilation measures and policies (Anderson, 2000). In 1890, Pratt wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs:

If millions of black savages can become so transformed and assimilated, and if, annually, hundreds of thousands of emigrants from all lands can also become Anglicized, Americanized, assimilated and absorbed through association, there is but one plain duty resting upon us with regard to the Indians, and that is to relieve them of their savagery and other alien qualities by the same methods used to relieve the others.

(Anderson, 2000)

Assimilation also functioned as a way to deny differences amongst American Indians, to create homogeneity where there were differences, and to label them all as “uncivilized” and “savages.” Barbara Landis, a Carlisle Indian School biographer, writes, “[t]here were kids who were Lakota, and there were kids who were Wampanoag. At Carlisle, they became Indian” (Anderson, 2000). Stephanie Anderson, author of “On Sacred Ground,” emphasizes this point:

The erosion of Native-American sovereignty was swift and unrelenting. Propelled by a hunger for land, gold, power and control, it swallowed up everything in its path, including communities, languages and religions. No matter the Nez Perce were distinct from the Navajo, the Seneca from the Seminole, the Coeur D’Alene from the Crow. They were one in their difference.

(Anderson, 2000)

Carlisle’s assimilation of Native Americans also served two other purposes: preparing Native people to surrender tribally controlled lands and accept individual land allotments, while also reading them to enter the lower positions of the domestic and manual labor markets. As we will see shortly, the training at Carlisle and the other boarding schools prevented the native children from directly competing economically with the higher ranks of the United States workforce. Post-Carlisle jobs were extremely limited. This was often protested by Native Americans, but policy-makers ignored or didn’t take their concerns too seriously. In fact, American Indians were not even allowed to become teachers for members of their own tribes – out of the fear that such a possibility was too dangerous. The laundry room was a much safer job for them to have than the classroom (Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006). One alternative job prospect, however, was to get involved with one of the many churches. Carlisle received a large portion of its finances from the U.S. government, but it realized that there was a large monetary burden in order to “civilize” so many native children. Churches were more than happy to fill this void and to answer the temptation to convert so many souls to Christianity (Marshall III, 2007).

Funds also poured in from some other sources, including the Quaker reformers, Christian Missionaries (Marshall III, 2007), former abolitionists, and Pratt’s supporters from the early days of Ft. Marion. One such tool for fundraising was subscriptions to Carlisle’s newspaper, the Red Man, which was also an avenue for Pratt to espouse his arguments and views. One notable early supporter of Pratt’s was none-other than Senator Henry Dawes, author of the General Allotment Act – which resulted in the loss of over 40% of remaining tribal lands. Senator Dawes considered Pratt’s school, strategy of education, and methods of assimilation as strong compliments to his allotment approach, and he believed the two methods would come together to form a general solution for the “Indian problem” (Landis, 1996).

On September 30th, 1896, the United States government, in a decision known as the Browning Ruling, declared that Native American parents did not have the right to decide if their children would go to school – or even where they would attend school. This decision was a continuation of the racist belief that Native American parents were themselves mentally and physically almost the same as children, and thus children of the state (Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006).  The commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas Jefferson Morgan, described his favorite tactic for forcibly taking children or coercing their parents into letting their children go:

I would…use the Indian police if necessary. I would withhold from [the Indian adults] rations and supplies…and when every other means was exhausted…I would send a troop of United States soldiers, not to seize them, but simply to be present as an expression of the power of the government. Then I would say to these people, “Put your children in school; and they would do it.”

(Alteo, 2008)

Congress also authorized other methods of coercion and compulsion, including the use of “[w]ithholding rations, clothing, and other annuities from Indian parents or guardians who refuse or neglect to send and keep their children… in some school…” (Adams, 1997, page 64). However, some parents did find ways to avoid having their children be taken: one American Indian mother recalls a popular tactic of playing a game similar to hide and seek, so that their children would disappear for a time (Atleo, 2008).

The massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, in which over three-hundred Lakota were killed by U.S. troops, only demonstrated just how far the U.S. government was willing to go in order to subjugate the indigenous peoples to its will (Marshall III, 2007). And by the late 1800’s, the off-reservation boarding schools had become regarded as the best tool and place for “Americanizing” natives (Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006). With Carlisle leading the way in methods and in its example, both reservation schools and boarding schools were making great efforts to “civilize” the indigenous peoples. “This,” Marshall III argues, “was simply a continuation of the colonialist mindset” (Marshall III, 2007, page 171). With all of this information in hand, we can see an attack on native peoples using three techniques: with boarding schools serving the purpose of constructing “productive” and “Americanized” citizens out of natives, missionaries and churches concerning themselves with their spirituality and religious devotions, and the U.S. government busy with their lands (Anderson, 2000).

The Classroom and Beyond

Once at Carlisle, the native students were continually reminded of the surveillance and scrutiny that they were kept under. At the school, Pratt was known infamously as “the man on the bandstand,” because of the circular bandstand that was located in the center of campus where his office was placed. This allowed him a view of the entire campus. As Stephanie Anderson points out,

But more than a pseudonym for Pratt, the constant reminder that “the man on the bandstand” was watching represented the all-encompassing, paternalistic way in which Pratt and the teachers, ministers and matrons viewed themselves as the “saviors” of the Indian children. The phrase was meant to make the children feel secure and cared for. It also reminded them that they were under constant surveillance.

(Anderson, 2000)

In fact, the entire identity of Carlisle was shaped and molded by Pratt’s military history. Boys were made to dress in military uniforms, while girls had to wear Victorian-style dresses. Students were given military-style ranks – and were thus made to march and to drill in military fashion (Anderson, 2000). In the school, (children) officers were in command over lesser-rank children, and a court system was organized in a hierarchal and strict structure that mirrored that of the military’s. Discipline was strictly enforced (Landis, 1996). In addition to this military influence, Pratt wanted his students to be trained in trades and academics. Thus, half of the children’s day was spent working while the other half was spent studying. Each day, one portion of the school would study while the other portion worked, and then the two would switch (Anderson, 2000).

Indigenous children were certainly taught the “three R’s,” as was the method of the common schools in the United States at the time. Yet, before this could be accomplished, students first had to be taught to not be themselves. This principle manifested itself in several ways. One particular example of this is that from the moment children arrived to Carlisle, English was their new – and only – language. In fact, their native languages were never to be spoken again (Marshall III, 2007). Pratt’s stated goal, in the drive for assimilation, was the destruction of all Native languages. This objective was feverishly and harshly sought after. If students were caught speaking their native language, even in private, they were certain to receive a callous punishment: the most notorious penalty was a severe beating. While this method did not always outright destroy the children’s use of native languages, many of them decided never to teach or speak their language to their children because of their experience at Carlisle (Anderson, 2000). Hollow Horn informs us about the lasting impact this cruel practice left:

They didn’t let [the students] speak in the old language… They set a dangerous precedent. I’m fluent in the Sioux language. Most people my age don’t speak the language. It’s dying out. The whole spirituality and way of thinking is intertwined with the language. That’s all being lost. Carlisle was the starting point for this.

(Anderson, 2000)

K.T. Lomawaima and L. M. Teresa, authors of To Remain an Indian, strengthen his point:

The causes of language loss are as complex as the history of colonization and are ultimately traceable to the policies of containment, dislocation, and genocide that characterized four centuries of Anglo European imperialism. Within this historical context, federal boarding schools…were instrumental in eradicating Indigenous languages. As Krauss points out, one does not simply “get over” the federally sanctioned abuse inflicted on children for speaking their tribal languages in school.

(Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006, page 135)

This statement extends through today, with the story of one Hualapi Native American who recalls that his father refused to teach him or his siblings their native language. This father constantly recalled the pain and hardships his friends went through as a result of knowing their own languages instead of English, and he didn’t want his children to have to endure the same pain (Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006). It is also important to understand that for many native children, learning the English language was not simply learning a new language – but instead, it was also the forced adoption of a completely new way of looking at the world (Adams, 1997).

Native children were also systematically renamed; their identities stripped from them and replaced with new, “white” ones. To understand the significance of such an act, one must understand the importance of names in many American Indian tribes, nations, and societies. One Native American author puts it into context:

Traditionally, Indian children did not have their names spoken often. When someone was referred to, it was usually either by relationship or by a nickname. But the children knew who they were: they belonged to the name, and the name belonged to them, and to no other. Naming and self-naming was a fluid, ongoing process which changed throughout a person’s life according to circumstance, personal experience, loss, triumph, foolishness, or social commentary. So a person could have (at least) a birth name, a baby name, several nicknames, a child name, a “young adult” name, an adult name, and an elder name. In addition, there might be a “secret” or ceremonial name, known only by the individual and the holy person who gave that name.

(Atleo, 2008)

Thus, the process of renaming students almost the instant they arrived at Carlisle was a significant part of the forced assimilation process. Luther Standing Bear recalled his experience, where on the first full day at Carlisle, the students were sat in front of a board with names on it and where given no explanation regarding their meanings. In front of them stood a teacher with a pointer, who instructed the children that they would now have to select a name (or that she would “help” them choose one). Once a name was chosen by the child, it was wiped from the board and written on a piece of long tape, which was then sewn to the back of the child’s shirt. The same author once again puts this act into context:

Once the children’s naming in this random way became enforced, they were denied the ability to express their life stories in name, an act of independent, autonomous identity central to Native ways of being in the world. It was a small, but important, step in “killing the Indian.”

(Alteo, 2008)

Yet, there were more tools in Pratt’s arsenal for assimilation and cultural genocide: song and theatre. Through portrayals of Native Americans in stereotypical forms, as “savages,” “uncivilized,” and so forth – Carlisle was able to brainwash many students into rejecting and hating their peoples and cultures. One such example comes in the form of the annual Thanksgiving play put on at the school, in which the native children dressed up as both Pilgrims and “Indians.” The students acted out the mythologized encounters between the two groups, and portrayed the stereotypes of American Indians. Through the course of both acting this out, and for the other students who witnessed the plays, they were led to accept these stereotypes of “savages” and the belief that American Indians were “bad.” They were also indoctrinated into the tale of the heroic Europeans, and the evil Native Americans (or the good ones that helped out the Europeans). One former student recalls the following:

They told us that Indian ways were bad. They said we must get civilized. I remember that word, too. It means ‘be like the white man.’ I am willing to be like the white man, but I did not believe Indian ways were wrong. But they kept teaching us for seven years. And the books told how bad the Indians had been to the white men-burning their towns and killing their women and children. But I had seen white men do that to Indians. We all wore white man’s clothes and ate white man’s food and went to white man’s churches and spoke white man’s talk. And so after a while we also began to say Indians were bad. We laughed at our own people and their blankets and cooking pots and sacred societies and dances…

(Atleo, 2008)

In fact, in 1892, at the direction of the Indian Office, the Native American boarding schools began to celebrate none other than Columbus Day. These celebrations were supposed to serve the purpose of instilling enthusiasm in the students and to develop in their minds a legacy for Columbus as a “beneficent development in their own race’s fortunes” (Adams, 1997). For the students at Carlisle, it was taken a step further. Native students were sent to both Chicago and New York to march in the gigantic Columbus Day celebrations and parades that marked the 400th year anniversary of Columbus’s first landing in the Americas. Several prominent newspapers fawned at the displays, citing the children as examples of the success of Columbus’s “dream” of spreading Christianity and civilization to all of the “savages” (Adams, 1997).

Carlisle was so successful in its endeavors that schools (both on reservation and off) became the most effective tools for the government’s push for assimilation and absorption. In fact, even all on reservation schools were essentially imitations of Carlisle. The school’s accomplishments were seen as the best example for spreading mainstream education to thousands of indigenous children. There was, however, another side to this. As Marshall III explains:

But Carlisle’s success, of course, meant nothing less than confusion, humiliation, trauma, and heartache for the children who were touted as success stories. Most of them were not there of their own, or their parent’s, free will, and most were separated from their families and homes for years. While a few Lakota leaders and parents realized that a formal education would be necessary for their children to be able to survive and function within the new order, they could not have foreseen the hardships their children would have to endure. The cemetery for students who died while at Carlisle is mute testimony that many children, from several different tribes, were casualties of the process.”

(Marshall III, 2007, page 171)

Another example of Carlisle astounding ability to assimilate and forcibly transform children can be followed in one of its humanities classes and activities: drawing. When first arriving to Carlisle, student’s sketch books contained images they recalled from their previous life. Some of the earlier Lakota children, for instance, might draw buffalo hunts and warriors on horseback (although, of course, the Lakota were not representative of all American Indian cultures and societies that were present). In time, however, their drawings transformed into pictures depicting their new lives, which included farms, children with short hair, and European-style clothes (Anderson, 2000). The Outing system was another important aspect of Carlisle’s techniques, and it is said to have been Pratt’s favorite. Through outing, native children would spend anywhere from a summer to a year with a white family, generally in agricultural households. Pratt considered this a method of immersion, and the best and most effective way to make native children “white.” Children were not stationed in families near each other and were rarely near urban areas, out of the fear that this might strengthen their chances of successfully running away. While some children did enjoy the experience, there were also wide spread reports by others of abuse and contempt by the white families. When the outing system was replicated by other boarding schools, especially those that were further west, it was found that the native children were generally put into work gangs and used essentially as slave labor (Adams, 1997).

Over its 39 year lifespan, the initial 82 native children who went to Carlisle grew into almost 1,000 annually – with a total of 12,000 students by the time it closed its doors. In the end, most students returned to their reservations, while others became basic laborers, teachers, missionaries, and some worked in Indian Affair offices, while a few others joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows (which Pratt disapproved of). However, because of the school’s swell in size, it required more room. Students therefore built administrative buildings, a gymnasium, a chapel, and shops for different industrial training. They also had to build a cemetery (Landis, 1996).

The Cemetery and the Resistance

Little is known about who Lucy Pretty Eagle was. However, what is known is that she arrived in 1884 at Carlisle when she was ten years old, her name in Lakota was Take the Trail, and that she was the daughter of Pretty Eagle. We also know that the first gravestone in Carlisle’s cemetery belongs to her (Atleo, 2008). Today, over 180 tombstones populate the cemetery (Anderson, 2000). The very fact that the school had its own cemetery speaks volumes, but it should be understood that all the tombstones at Carlisle do not represent the amount of students who perished while at the school. These were simply the number of students who, for one reason or another, couldn’t be sent back home (Landis, 1996). It was reported that in 1881 alone, of the forty-nine students collected by Pratt three years earlier, ten had died. The death rate at Carlisle, and all of the boarding schools that it inspired, was alarming (Adams, 1997).

Some of the children died from running away, some died from diseases, while others died of climate change, separation anxiety, lack of immunity, physical abuse, and more. Those who succumbed to tuberculosis were buried right away, out of a fear of contamination (Atleo, 2008). Both tuberculosis and small pox were two of the more common and deadlier diseases amongst students, especially after they had contact with Euro-Americans (Landis, 1996). On top of this, while children were beaten for not understanding English, native children were also punished for a host of other reasons, including: slight infractions of military rule, for attempting to run away, for speaking their own languages, and also sometimes for grieving. This led to the death of many children as a result of abuse, malnutrition, illness, and other imposed social anxieties (Atleo, 2008).

Running away was a universal and not uncommon trend across Carlisle and other native boarding schools (Atleo, 2008). These children preferred to take their chances in the surrounding unknown, rather than enduring the brutalities they were made to face at the school (Anderson, 2000). It is remarkable to think that such a large number of students ran away rather than accepting their captivity, as this is a task that required extreme courage with the knowledge of what penalties awaited them if they were caught – and the lack of knowledge of the surroundings they were about to enter. For those who did not successfully run away or die trying, a special building awaited them at Carlisle. While it was originally constructed in 1777 as a place for gunpowder storage, it served as a sort of prison for the school: children were locked up in one of the four cells for up to a week for a variety of indiscretions, including the act of running away (Anderson, 2000).

It is necessary to also realize that the exact “success” of Carlisle’s assimilation efforts, according to Pratt and his supporters, should be put into perspective of the resounding rejection it received from the native students. David Wallace Adams, author of Education for Extinction, reports that the actual number of students completing Carlisle’s program was outstandingly low. Pratt was not able to present the first fourteen diplomas to students for completing Carlisle’s grammar school program until 1889 – ten years after the first students arrived! By the year 1899, roughly 3,800 native children were students of Carlisle. Of these, only 209 graduated (Adams, 1997). In fact, of the roughly 12,000 students that attended the school, a total of only 758 graduated. This is less than ten percent. More students actually ran away than graduated; there are an entire 1,758 reported cases of runaways. However, students also found other ways to resist and rebel. Much of this resistance manifested itself within intellectual, physical, or spiritual forms (Atleo, 2008). Children also tried to burn down Carlisle buildings, including two girls who attempted to burn down the same building twice in one day (Adams, 1997). Others refused to speak English, and there were more who undermined the matrons’ and teachers’ wills in any way that they could (Atleo, 2008). So, while not every student ran away, the vast majority of them found another way to reject Carlisle’s ultimate assimilation. However, as we will discuss now, the students’ rejection of the system should not be confused with their ability to go unscarred by it.

The End of Carlisle and the Remaining Legacy

Pratt eventually fell out of favor with the reformists and made enough enemies at the Bureau of Indian Affairs that he was fired, and only a couple of years later, Carlisle closed its doors in 1918. With Pratt gone, the school lost its appeal to many remaining funders, and the new headmaster entrenched the school in a series of scandals. The school, which had for so long been a flagship for the reformers and the assimilation efforts, became a burden and embarrassment to their aims, and it quietly shut down (Adams, 1997).

Of the over two million Native Americans that currently live in this country, the majority have some form of connection to Carlisle or the boarding school movement that it spawned. A great number of feelings surround this legacy, and many of these are internal-conflicts. Some do fully condemn the schools, while others cannot. It is, however, widely recognized that Carlisle’s practices of cultural genocide were ones rooted in the blatantly racist and paternalistic beliefs of the United States. As one Native American author argues,

The legacy of Carlisle and the other Indian boarding schools-this “future”-is a legacy of hopelessness and despair, of alcoholism and other substance abuse, suicide, dysfunctional parenting; an open, gaping century-long wound that will take many more years for the Indian communities all over the U.S. and Canada to heal.

(Atleo, 2008)

Today, it is easy to deem Pratt as a bigot. But roughly 100 years ago, he was considered a reformer amongst Euro-Americans. While Pratt wanted to “kill the Indian” to “save the man,” many Euro-Americans were unconcerned about the eventual survival of American Indians (Anderson, 2000). This does not excuse Pratt’s actions nor make him a hero, but instead remind us about the history of racism and the genocidal beliefs that are entrenched in United States history. We have also seen here how schools were used to further the oppression and cultural extinction of entire peoples. This movement, sprung to life by Pratt, used schools as the ultimate weapons for the dominance and subordination of Native Americans. Luther Standing Bear, who wrote intensively on the topic of Carlisle, can serve as an excellent reminder of the internal struggle that this external war forced upon native children:

Outwardly I lived the life of the white man, yet all the while I kept in direct contact with tribal life. While I had learned all that I could of the white man’s culture, I never forgot that of my people. I kept the language, tribal manners and usages, sang the songs and danced the dances. I still listened to and respected the advice of the older people of the tribe.

(Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006, page 40)

However, he would not admit defeat, and stated defiantly:

So if I today had a young mind to direct, to star on the journey of life, and I was faced with the duty of choosing between the natural way of my forefathers and that of the white man’s present way of civilization, I would, for its welfare, unhesitatingly set that child’s feet in the path of my forefathers. I would raise him to be an Indian!

(Lomawaima & Teresa, 2006, Pages 41-42)


Adams, David W. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. New York: University P of Kansas, 1997.

Anderson, Stephanie. “On Sacred Ground: Commemorating Survival and Loss at the Carlisle Indian School.” Words as Weapons. May, 2000.  <;.

Atleo, Marlene. “Books to Avoid: My Heart Is On the Ground.” Oyate. Oyate. 7 Sept. 2008 <;.

Landis, Barbara, ed. Carlisle Indian Industrial School Research Pages. 1996. <;.

Lomawaima, K. T., and L. M. Teresa. To Remain an Indian: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education. New York: Teachers College P, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2006.

Marshall III, Joseph M. The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: A Lakota History. New York: Viking Adult, 2007.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States : 1492 to Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Entry filed under: History of Schools Series, Other Thoughts, Related To Free Schooling. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

The Education of Mondragón A Call For Teaching Guides On Workplace Democracy, Worker Cooperatives, and Collectives

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Liza  |  April 24, 2009 at 11:02 am

    My friend on Orkut shared this link with me and I’m not dissapointed at all that I came here.

  • 2. Lyn  |  May 10, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Am looking for the Lakota roles as my Grandmother was there, as was my Grandfather who was Lenni Lenape.

  • 3. Fixing  |  July 11, 2013 at 8:58 am

    When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several
    emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service?

    Thank you!

  • 4. リンク  |  May 4, 2014 at 4:12 am

    市営住宅できたら治安悪くなりそうで嫌 普通のコンタクトでもきちんと使用できる人じゃないと10年で医者に止められるで
    維新・東国原 「徴兵制があってしかるべき、若者は自衛隊に入らなくてはいけない」 BBAでもすらりと伸びた生足を見せつけられると見てしまうし カラコンつけてると失明の恐れがあると以前テレビで言っていたわ

  • 5. 最佳網頁設計  |  October 31, 2014 at 5:28 pm

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  • 6. Isuruvimana.Net  |  October 6, 2015 at 6:46 pm


    Cultural Genocide and Education: The Story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School | Adventures in Free Schooling

  • […] of those lost to the “noble experiment” of forced assimilation. As the U.S. government waged its turn-of-the-century cultural genocide – taking native lands, corralling native survivors […]


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