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About the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

Barbara Landis

Note: I use the term "Indian" throughout this article to identify the peoples of the various autochthonous nations within the U.S. borders, who were affected by and recruited for the Indian School experiment, in keeping with the written accounts of the historic period during the school's existence.


The story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School begins with a brief introduction to its founder. Richard Henry Pratt spent eight years (1867-1875) in Indian Territory as an officer of the 10th Cavalry, commanding a unit of African-American "Buffalo Soldiers" and Indian Scouts. During this time, he was stationed at Ft. Sill, OK, 60 miles east of the site of the Battle of the Washita where Black Kettle (Cheyenne) was killed in 1867.

Pratt came into contact with Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho who had been placed on reservations in the area of the Red River near what is now the Texas and Oklahoma borders. He, his scouts and freed-slave soldiers, participated in the many campaigns to keep the Indians on the reservations and away from the encroaching settlers. But many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors continued with their raiding parties in search of game and buffalo. Scant provisions and lack of supplies on the reservations made it impossible for the Indian people to thrive, forcing such raids.

Constant complaints about inadequate government rations brought no relief. After filing numerous reports describing rancid beef, inferior and diseased livestock, poor grains and lack of provisions, Pratt developed a distrust and loathing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) which endured throughout his military service. This deep hostility began while he was administering supplies on the reservations and eventually led to his resignation as the superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School in 1904.

Frustrated by unsuccessful attempts to 'bring in' the most recalcitrant of the 'hostiles', the government instituted a plan to incarcerate them. In April, 1875, seventy-two warriors from the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche and Caddo Nations, were rounded up for exile to St. Augustine, Florida. There they would be held hostage in exchange for the ransom of the good behavior of their kinfolk with Richard Henry Pratt as their jailer. These men were shackled and transported by rail to Ft. Marion Prison far from their homelands to a hot, humid climate unfamiliar to them.

Shortly after their arrival, Pratt removed the prisoners' shackles, cut their hair and issued them military uniforms. The Indians were expected to polish their buttons and shoes and clean and press their trousers. After a time, they were organized into companies and given instruction in military drill. Eventually, their military guards were dismissed and several of the most trusted Indian prisoners were chosen to serve as guards.

Local women, curious about these prisoners, volunteered to teach them to read in exchange for archery lessons. The Indians were given art supplies to illustrate on paper, their early days as buffalo hunters. With colored pencils, they drew many beautiful pictographic ledger drawings, over a thousand of which survive today. They collected, polished, and sold sea beans as trinkets. They were eventually given the freedom to leave the fort and some found employment as laborers in the neighboring communities.

St. Augustine in the 1870's was the vacation spot of choice for New Englanders traveling by steamboat down the East Coast. Here Pratt came in contact with several benefactors who expressed an interest in the welfare of the Indians who were beginning to resemble white men. During this era, Pratt's philosophy of Indian education began to take shape.

The Indian Reformers who were predominantly Quakers and missionaries began to explore ways to 'civilize' the Indians. They were uncomfortable with extermination policies and began to formulate ideas of assimilation. This school of thought appealed to Pratt, who was already experimenting with his Indians at Ft. Marion. He agreed that to 'civilize' the Indian would be to turn him into a copy of his God-fearing, soil-tilling, white brother. By the end of their term of incarceration (1878), Pratt had convinced 17 prisoners to further their education by enrolling in the Hampton Institute in Virginia.

Hampton had been founded in 1868 by Samuel Chapman Armstrong. It was a boarding school for Negroes designed to educate by training "the head, the hand, and the heart". Its goal was to train and return them to their communities to become leaders and professionals among their people. This fit Pratt's developing philosophies about assimilation, with the exception of returning to community. He began to formulate a model similar to Hampton - but exclusively for Indians.

In an address to a convention of Baptist ministers in 1883 Pratt wrote: "In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked."
So Pratt began his aggressive and relentless quest for a school of his own to begin his work. He lobbied Washington; he contacted his wealthy supporters in the East and convinced the powers that be that his experiment would be a success. He would take Indian children from the reservations, remove them to a school far away from tribal influences, and transform them into white people.


By mid-1879, Pratt had secured the permission of the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz, and Secretary of the War Department McCrary to use a deserted military base as the site of his school. Carlisle Barracks in central Pennsylvania was chosen. It was a former cavalry post that had been closed after a petitioning campaign by the local community found the Sunday parades disruptive to their church going activities. Sensing potential trouble from the townspeople, Pratt approached the town fathers of Carlisle for approval for his school and was able to get the support of the community which provided him with favorable petitions.

In September 1879 - Pratt, accompanied by Miss Mather, a former teacher and interpreter from St. Augustine, headed to Dakota Territory to recruit the students he had been instructed to enroll in his new Carlisle school. These were to be children from Spotted Tail's Rosebud reservation and Red Cloud's Pine Ridge Agency. Pratt's instructions were to recruit 36 students from each reservation.

He arrived at Rosebud first to meet with Spotted Tail, Milk, Two Strike and White Thunder. Spotted Tail was skeptical. He was reluctant to send his and others' children to be trained in the ways of the men who had violated their treaties and trespassed in their Black Hills. But Pratt was persistent and urged Spotted Tail to reconsider, using the argument that had his people been able to read the white man's words, the treaties would have been better understood and such violations might not have occurred.

Pratt illustrated the problem of communicating such important decisions by insisting they could not speak in confidence, just the two of them - owing to Spotted Tail's inability to speak the white man's language. It was necessary for an interpreter to translate the words spoken, and perhaps the interpreter was not truly conveying the real meaning of their words. It seems not to have occurred to Pratt that had he been able to speak the language of Spotted Tail, greater understanding might have taken place.

Pratt also predicted that no matter what happened, the white man would keep coming and coming and that Spotted Tail's people must "be able to meet him face to face and take care of themselves and their property without the help of either an interpreter or an Indian agent." Spotted Tail consulted with his tribal headmen and after a long time, returned with his consent. "It is all right. We are going to give you all the children you want. I am going to send five, Milk will send his boy and girl, and the others are going to send the rest."

After persuading Spotted Tail, Pratt headed west for Pine Ridge. There he met with Red Cloud, American Horse, Young-Man- Afraid-of-His-Horses and other leaders. He told them of Spotted Tail's consent and got the approval of the Pine Ridge head men. Red Cloud had no children to send, but sent a grandson. American Horse sent three children. All in all, 82 children from both agencies were sent to Carlisle after medical examinations determined their fitness.

While Pratt was securing the children from Dakota, two of his former prisoners were recruiting potential students from their nations. Both Etadleuh (Kiowa) and Okahaton (Cheyenne) agreed to find more children to send to the first off-reservation boarding school for Indian children.

Luther Standing Bear was among the first wave of students to travel to Carlisle. He described the journey east in his book, "My People, the Sioux". He talked of traveling on a moving house - his first experience on a railroad car. As they pulled into stations along the way, crowds of curious people peered into the trains, anxious for a look at these 'wild' children. Pratt had telegraphed Chicago of their stopover and the newspapers had publicized the journey. This was only three years since the Battle of the Greasy Grass in which Custer had been killed.

The group arrived at Carlisle in the middle of the night, October 6, 1879. They stepped off the platform to be greeted by hundreds of townspeople, welcoming them and accompanying them to the army post. But when Pratt, Miss Mather and the children arrived at the empty military post, tired and hungry, there were no provisions awaiting them. No bedding, no food, no clothing - none of the requested necessities. Once again, Pratt had been thwarted by the BIA. The children slept on the floor in their blankets.


Teachers were waiting at the school to begin their work. Pratt had hired a full complement of staff, both for academic and industrial instruction. They had been carefully selected and were ready to begin as soon as the children arrived. Pratt left immediately to collect the second wave of students - the Cheyenne and Kiowa recruited by his former prisoners. During his absence, Mrs. Pratt and several teachers took charge of the children to begin the process of assimilation. One of their first responsibilities was to hire a barber to cut the children's long hair. For the Lakota, the cutting of hair was symbolic of mourning and there was much wailing and lamenting which lasted into the night.

Upon arrival of the second wave of Cheyenne and Kiowa children, the requested provisions had still not arrived but for the least important item - an organ. The children were housed in dormitories and classes began immediately. The school was structured with academics for half day and trades, the other half. Half the group learned reading, writing and arithmetic in the mornings, and carpentry, tinsmithing, blacksmithing for the boys, or cooking, sewing, laundry, baking, and other domestic arts for the girls in the afternoons. The other half learned their trades in the mornings and academics in the afternoons.

School life was modeled after military life. Uniforms were issued for the boys, the girls dressed in Victorian-style dresses. Shoes were required, as no moccasins were allowed. The boys and girls were organized into companies with officers who took charge of drill. The children marched to and from their classes, and to the dining hall for meals. No one was allowed to speak their native tongue.

Discipline was strictly enforced - military style. There was regular drill practice and the children were ranked, with the officers in command. A court system was implemented in the hierarchal style of a military justice system, with students determining the consequences for offences. The most severe punishment was to be confined to the guardhouse. The old guardhouse, built by Hessian prisoners during the Revolutionary War, still stands.

An ambitious printing program was developed at the school and the school newspapers were popular among the local folk, available at the post office (at a small cost) and by subscription throughout the country. This became a small source of income to supplement funding by the government which was always inadequate. The publications also provided Pratt with a platform from which to publicize his experiment and perpetuate his views on education.

Funding was also secured from the benefactors who had tracked Pratt's activities since his days at Ft. Marion. Among his supporters were former abolitionists and Quakers who were eager to be involved in his success and who often visited the school. They were treated to special programs - concerts and dramas, written and performed by the students. Brochures for these programs were printed at the school and publicity for special programs were spread via the school newspapers.


Zitkala Sa (Dakota) wrote about her early experiences after arriving at a boarding school (not Carlisle) describing the trauma of having to wear hard, tight-fitting shoes and confining dress instead of moccasins and loose shift. She tells about hiding under her bed trying to escape the strict matron's domination and how the matron and the other girls tried to find her. It took her some time to adjust to her new school life. But she did, became an accomplished writer and the darling of the New England literary circle in the late 1800's. She taught at the Carlisle school for a few years, but didn't see eye to eye with Pratt. After some of her works were published, Pratt used the school newspapers to publicly criticize her for her story, "The Soft-Hearted Sioux", in which a young man returns to his reservation unable to effectively participate in tribal life after his exposure to the boarding school experience.

The earliest newspapers featured letters from the students written to their families.   In September 1882, "THE SCHOOL NEWS" printed the following letter from Harry Shirley to his father:

"A HAPPY LITTLE CADDO BOY WHO CAME LAST MONTH, WRITES HIS FIRST LETTER HOME. My Dear Father: - I thought I would write you a few lines and I like the place very much and there was one Negro boy got killed on the railroad and we have a very nice farm and cold water to drink and would send my Bow and arrows and how is my little pony getting along I would like to know how are you getting and would please send me some money and we have a great many boy and is great many girls and the boys have a small house I wish they play the band and I have a bed to myself. And I am coming home in two years from now if Capt. Pratt will let me and how are you getting along with the big house and will you tell me in your letter when you write and we got at Carlisle on Thursday and when we got here I did not like the place but since I have being here two or three days I have got used to the place and I like it very well but when we got I felt very home sick and be sure and send my bow and some spike arrows. And we go to church every Sunday. And I have a blue suit to where and there was one Shyenne boy shot himself with a pistol and how is Mrs.Cornet folks getting along Mr. and Mrs. Blankshiy folksgetting and the boys have a nice green lawn in which play Kicking a football and how are you getting along with your stock."

Pratt also lobbied politicians to keep the school going. He often visited Washington or entertained dignitaries at Carlisle. One of his ardent supporters was Senator Henry Dawes, author of the General Allotment Act, the US government policy which resulted in the loss of more than 40% of tribal lands. Pratt's assimilationist policies for education for Indians coupled with Dawes' checkerboarding allotment legislation formed the solution for the "Indian Problem" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In addition to the academic and industrial programs, music and art classes were taught at Carlisle. When the first students were given paper and pencils, they pulled their blankets over their heads and began to draw pictographic images depicting their lives as they remembered from their days on the plains. These drawings represent the imagery of buffalo hunting, courting ceremonies, special ceremonies and everyday village scenes.

There are three Harry Shirley drawings among these drawings. This is the same Harry Shirley (Caddo) who wrote the letter home asking about his little pony.

About 50 of these drawings may be seen in the collection of the Cumberland County Historical Society. The later drawings found in the collection show the progress of assimilation. One finds pictures of cows, carpenter's tools, floral arrangements, still life. Gone are the buffalo and warriors on horseback drawings. It was not until after Pratt left Carlisle that students were again encouraged to pursue their native culture through art.

Music was also an important part of the Carlisle curriculum. Every student took music classes and many received private instruction. A band leader was hired, and the Carlisle Indian School band became a popular parade addition. The band performed at football games and travelled to expositions and competitions. It was featured at every Presidential Inaugural Parade during the life of the school. Dennison Wheelock (Oneida) became the first Indian band leader and after his tenure, his brother James took up the baton.

Choral music was also encouraged and soon the school had several choirs. Programs were held at the school and outside the school. Visitors were often treated to musical performances and some old-timers still recall the Indian School concerts.

In 1900, Richard Pratt surveyed his teachers and asked them to compare their Indian students to the white students they had taught before coming to Carlisle. Their comments were published in the February 1900 issue of "The Red Man"(school paper). Among these comments:

"...they have been systematically taught self-repression. They are also close observers and render nature with truth; Miss S. commends the Indian's 'true eye', also regards them as 'more patient and painstaking than white children.' She was struck at first with the marked stillness, the 'reposeful feeling' in a room full of Indian pupils. In the natural sciences, and in civil government - a favorite study - they are more at home. Miss W., teacher of the Juniors, declares that her pupils show superior ability in solving for themselves problems in physics and physical geography. She thinks that, 'with sufficient training, some will be found to have special gifts for original research.' Discipline is universally admitted to be easier than in white schools.. This may be explained partially by the fact that here the children are under continuous discipline, from which there is no appeal. The problems quite different in a reservation day school. The easier control was attributed by some, however, to the Indians' 'patience' and 'lack of nervous irritability,' while others thought 'they are more in earnest than the average white child - they really want to learn.' It was Prof. B's opinion that while we found here many unevenly developed characters and strong idiosyncrasies, owing to a lack of systematic home training, yet 'he had seen more genuine beauty of character among these Indian children than among any others he had ever known'. 'They seem', he said, 'to be remarkable keen judges of human nature. I believe that we have lost some things by civilization - among them this native unconscious keenness. I do not suppose they formulate it to themselves at all, but instinctively, as it were, these children seem to size you up with wonderful quickness and accuracy'. 'If they possess one quality', he added, 'that is all but universal, among them and in which they are our superiors, it is that of personal dignity'.

Several of the teachers found that the older girls were self-conscious and embarrassed by the presence of the boys. It was on that account, said one, that the boys excelled in recitation, while the girls usually did better written work. It is hard work to persuade an Indian girl, in school for the first time, to stand up and recite at all in a class with boys. It is contrary to all their ideas of modesty and propriety. Miss S., who teaches vocal music, says that 'the Indians have a strong sense of rhythm, but are deficient in ear. The male voices are rather better than the female, and there is an unusually large proportion of tenors, owing, perhaps to the habit of singing in unison, with the men singing falsetto, in tribal music.'"

Maggie, a Sioux girl, dictated this letter to an interpreter and a teacher wrote it down: "Carlisle Barracks, PA, Jan. 24,1881.

My dear father: AMERICAN HORSE:- I want to tell you something, and it makes me feel very glad. You tell me that my brother is married and that makes me feel very glad. My cousins, and brothers, and I are all very well, at this Carlisle School. We would like to see you again. I am always happy here, but lately I sometimes feel bad, because you tell me that my grandfather is getting very old. Tell me how my brothers are. I would like to see my brother's wife's picture. Tell my brother Two-Dogs to write to me again. Miss Hyde's father died two weeks ago, and I am very sorry. I remember all of my friends. If you don't answer my letter soon, I'll feel bad. I don't always answer your letter soon, but it is because I can not write. As soon as I get so that I can write myself, I will write as often as I can. Tell Brave Bull that Dora (Her Pipe) has been a little sick, but is most well now. Tell if my grandfather is well. If he gets sick tell me. You wrote to my cousin Robert and told him that you had a house to live in, and lots of pigs and cows and such things, and I was very glad. You've got a white man's house to live in now and I am anxious to learn all that I can, so that I can come home by and by and live with you. I hear that they have a big school out there and it makes me very glad. If you can, come again, and tell me if you can come again, when. I want to tell you that some more girls and boys came here. Twenty-five. Fifteen of them are girls. There are a great many of us here now, and Capt. Pratt is very kind to us. That is all I want to say now. Give my love to all of my friends. Your daughter, Maggie Stands-Looking."

Maggie Stands Looking was among the first wave of children brought from Rosebud. She was the daughter of American Horse. According to Pratt in his book, "Battlefield and Classroom," Maggie had difficulty adjusting to the demands of her new lifestyle at Carlisle . She once slapped Miss Hyde, the matron, when Hyde insisted that Maggie make her bed every day and keep her room clean. Instead of retaliating, Miss Hyde stood her ground and Maggie acquiesced.


Like most of the Carlisle students, Maggie was enrolled in the Outing Program. . . . . Instead of returning the Indian children to their families during the summer months, the detribalizing process was continued by placing them for hire with non-Indian families. After her arrival to her country home, Maggie wrote this letter to the Superintendent:

"Dear Captain Pratt: What shall I do? I have been here two weeks and I have not bathe. These folks have no bath place. Your school daughter, MAGGIE STANDS LOOKING"

Pratt advised her to do as he had done on the frontier...[after] filling a wash basin with water and "rubbing myself well, have had a bath that made me feel as good as jumping into a river." He signed his letter - "Your friend and school father," R.H. Pratt.

Pratt often referred to himself as the school father. He wrote in the June 16, 1893 Indian Helper: "George Kirochuma writes that he has a very nice country home and that the 'folks are all kind to me all the time.' Mr. R. with whom George lives says he cannot spare him to go home, and George feeling that he is in a place where he is wanted says he does not want to go. This is the secret of the solution of the Indian question, and there is no other."

For the farmer, businessman, or craftsman, the Outing System provided a source of cheap labor in the home and on the farm. Some children remained with families year-round and went to the local public schools with their non-Indian siblings. This, to Pratt, was the ultimate assimilator.


Pratt (one of several administrators often referred to as "the man-on-the-bandstand") was driven by his strong desire to see the Indian become an imitation of the white man. This article from the March 18, 1898 school newspaper, the "Indian Helper" embodies Pratt's assimilationist philosophy. This is his response to a letter asking for Indian stories:

WANTS INDIAN STORIES "'I am inclined to say that the 'HELPER' is a good little paper, but I would think it would interest its readers more if at least one of the inside pages contained some interesting stories or would describe the Indian a little better by telling how he is tamed and brought up,' writes one of our Eastern subscribers. We thank our friend for his interest and kindly suggestion. The author of the letter evidently has the idea of Indians that Buffalo Bill and other showmen keep alive, by hiring the reservation wild man to dress in his most hideous costume of feathers, paint, moccasins, blanket, leggins, and scalp-lock, and to display his savagery, by hair lifting war-whoops make those who pay to see him, think he is a blood-thirsty creature ready to devour people alive. 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. We do not like to keep alive the stories of his past, hence deal more with his present and his future."

Pratt is often quoted as saying "Kill the Indian, save the man".

Of the 12,000 Indian children who attended the Carlisle school over its 39 year life span, most returned to the reservation. Some of the returned students, much to Pratt's dismay, joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Pratt disliked the Buffalo Bill show and was upset that he was forced to share exhibition space with Cody at the Columbian Exposition in 1891. Proud of the fine displays recognizing the stellar accomplishments of his Indian students, Pratt railed against the exploitation of Indians for show.

Enrollment at the Indian School began to swell as more and more nations' children were recruited. The original group of 82 grew to yearly averages of 1,000 students, necessitating more living and classroom space. The students built an administration building, a gymnasium for athletics, shops for the industrial training, and a chapel for worship on the grounds.

A cemetery was also needed.

At the Carlisle school, as on the reservation the health of many Indian people was in peril as a result of contact with Euro- Americans. Some students were stricken with tuberculosis or smallpox. Others could not cope with the severe stress of separation from family and tribe. Most of the children who became ill were sent back home to their families, but some did pass away at the school and were buried there. Of all the children buried in this graveyard, the Apache represent the greatest number.

When Geronimo was sent to Ft. Pickens, Florida, the Chiricahua Apache women and children were sent to St. Augustine to the Ft. Marion prison. Conditions there were unspeakable. Food was scarce, disease rampant, and there was terrible overcrowding.

In 1886, Pratt traveled to the fort and chose 62 of the older Apache children to be removed to Carlisle. Many of these children were sent to Pennsylvania against the wishes of their grieving parents, who protested their departure, trying to hide them. Asa Daklugie was among this group along with the sons of Chatto, the scout who had helped General Crook convince Geronimo to surrender. Geronimo's son, Chappo was also sent with these children. One-fourth of the graves in the Carlisle Indian School cemetery hold the remains of these Apache children. Chatto's son Horace is among them.

Geronimo visited Carlisle en route to Washington for the inaugural parade of Teddy Roosevelt in 1905. He and head men representing several nations - American Horse and Hollow Horn Bear (Lakota), Little Plume (Blackfoot), Buckskin Charlie (Ute), and Quanah Parker (Comanche) rode on horseback through the streets of Carlisle in their regalia. These six men addressed the students of the school, with Geronimo speaking the following words recorded in the "Carlisle Arrow", March 9, 1905:

"My friends: I am going to talk to you a few minutes, listen well to what I say. You are all just the same as my children to me, just the same as if my children are going to school when I look at you all here. You are here to study, to learn the ways of white men, do it well. You have a father here and a mother also. Your father is here, do as he tells you. Obey him as you would your own father. Although he is not your father he is a father to you now.

The Lord made my heart good, I feel good wherever I go, I feel very good now as I stand before you. Obey all orders, do as you are told all the time and you won't get hungry. He who owns you holds you in His hands like that and He carries you around like a baby. That is all I have to say to you." 

Copyright 1996 by Barbara Landis. Online Source

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