College Staff Visit Grounds of Carlisle Indian Industrial School
By Suzanne Wayne (June 2010)
On Wednesday, May 26, nearly 40 College of Education staff members boarded a bus to travel to Carlisle, Pa., to visit the grounds of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The trip was sponsored by the College’s Diversity and Community Enhancement Committee to provide staff with a professional development and diversity awareness opportunity. As the day progressed, we were touched on many levels, as parents, as U.S. citizens, and as members of the College of Education community.
While riding the bus to Carlisle, we watched “In the White Man’s Image,” an episode of PBS’s American Experience, and learned about a time in our nation’s history in which it was government policy to take American Indian children away from their families and enroll them in boarding schools.
In 1875, Army Lieutenant Richard Pratt was assigned to take 74 Indian prisoners from the plains to St. Augustine, Fl., for a three-year prison sentence after they were arrested for various crimes against the United States. Pratt used this opportunity to attempt to “assimilate” these prisoners. He cut their hair, dressed them in military uniform, and set up a regimented schedule for them to follow. He began the process of formal education, hoping to teach them to become model American citizens.
From this early experience with adult prisoners, Pratt developed the idea of a boarding school for younger American Indians, hoping that, with children, he could be more successful at assimilation. He set up a boarding school in Carlisle, Pa., on an abandoned Army fort. He then recruited children by convincing parents and tribal leaders that having their children educated in the White Man’s language and ways would help them negotiate better treaties with the U.S. government.
Following the video, we visited the Cumberland County Historical Society when we arrived in Carlisle. Barbara Landis, an expert on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, reviewed the history of the school, described what we would see on our tour, and helped us understand the modern heritage of the Carlisle school.
The legacy of the school is a very complex issue. For Pratt and his supporters, many of whom were former abolitionists, they saw this as a humane solution to the “Indian problem,” especially if contrasted with others, such as U.S. Army General William Sherman, who wanted to exterminate as many American Indians as he could.
But the boarding school proponents were blind to the harsh realities of their plan. Families were torn apart, as children were removed from their homes and families. Native languages were forbidden and cultural identity was often lost. With their names changed, many students grew up to exist in a cultural limbo. They were not accepted in White society, but could never really fit back into Indian society, where they were often not accepted as one of the tribe.
The school constantly dealt with rampant disease. Many of the students quickly contracted disease and died, as evidenced by the graveyard that sits prominently at the entry to the grounds. Furthermore, the militaristic lifestyle was foreign and harsh to the children, some of whom were as young as 6 years old. Pratt was a military officer turned educator, and he used military uniforms, routine, and drills to maintain order.
On the other hand, a great-grandparent’s experience at Carlisle may have provided a heritage of education in some American Indian families. Landis described to us how some descendents of Carlisle students have attained college degrees and other educational goals partly because of the value placed on education by their ancestors. Other students embraced their boarding school experience as an escape from the hardship they faced at home. Athlete Jim Thorpe, for example, often referred to Carlisle as a haven where he experienced great success.
There are also some examples where the students were shown preference over other Carlisle residents. In the later years of the school, administrators would flood two lower meadows in the winter to create ice rinks. On one side, the ice was smooth and solid. On the lower side, it froze less evenly. It often had bumps and ridges throughout, and often floated on a layer of water. The local townspeople called it “the rubber ice.” Amazingly, only the Indian students were allowed to skate on the good ice, while the townfolk had to skate on the “rubber ice.” After the students retired in the evening, the townspeople would cross over to the good ice to skate.
At the turn of the century, government policy and public sentiment turned away from the idea of “assimilation.” Pratt was removed from his post as superintendent in 1904, and in 1918, the Carlisle school was closed when the U.S. Army requested to have the grounds back to build a hospital for soldiers returning from World War I.
While on the tour, we visited Thorpe Hall, which was named after Jim Thorpe. The building was built by private donations to provide a means for the physical education of the students. The gymnasium has been restored to look much like it originally did, and is still used as a gym.
At the cemetery, our Native American guide gave us each a colorful piece of cloth with a bit of tobacco tied up in it to place on tombstones as an offering in the Native American tradition. She shared with us the fact that there are still boarding schools for American Indian children today. Some of them are privately owned and operated. The majority are funded and operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Education and tribes.
Near the end of the tour, we learned that there is actually a connection between the Carlisle school and the American Indian Leadership Program (AILP) in the college. In the late 60’s there was a government inquiry into the affects of the government boarding school programs, which resulted in the report: “Indian Education: A National Tragedy, a National Challenge.” It was determined that the boarding schools created more challenges for Native Americans to overcome and caused problems that generations were still dealing with.
This awareness of the injustices of the boarding school programs led to a push for greater autonomy in Native American education. So in 1970, four University programs were established with federal funds to provide greater access to education graduate programs for American Indians. Penn State’s AILP was one of these programs.
So now, just like a century ago, we have American Indians and Alaska Natives leaving homes, family, and tribal connections behind and traveling to Pennsylvania. However, they now come to pursue graduate degrees. The AILP is designed to help them attain these degrees while preserving their own cultural heritage and recognizing the unique challenges to American Indian education in the United States.
As leaders and educators, many of our AILP alumni leave the program and return to their communities to improve the educational opportunities for Native American children, so they can gain the education they need to succeed. Others serve at the national and state levels.