The Carlisle Boarding School

In 1871, the United States governmental policies toward American Indians changed from dealing with tribes as nations to focusing on the assimilation of individual Indians. Assimilation was, and still is, based on a viewpoint that sees immigrants coming to the United States and then becoming “good” Americans by learning English and adopting American customs. If others could do this, the assimilationists argued–and still argue–then American Indians should be required to do the same.  

In the language of nineteenth century assimilation, Indians were viewed as “barbaric” and the goal of assimilation was to “civilize” them. The ideal model of “civilization” was, of course, mainstream American society. One important “civilizing” force in assimilation was education. Schools, according to this viewpoint, could mold American Indian youth into Americans in which the values of thrift, discipline, individuality, and Christianity would more closely reflect those of mainstream America.

Writing in 1893 about the goals of Indian education, Father Palladino states:

“A plain, common English education, embracing spelling, reading and writing, with the rudiments of arithmetic, is book-learning sufficient for our Indians. Anything beyond that for the present at least, in our candid opinion, would prove detrimental, rather than beneficial; since it might serve to encourage their natural indolence at the expense of what they need most, industrial education.”

In explaining the need for boarding schools, Father Palladino writes:

“How can you civilize these savage beings, except you withdraw them from the blighting influences that encompass them on every side?”

The model for American Indian boarding schools was the Carlisle Indian School. Founded in 1879 in an abandoned army post in Pennsylvania, the goal of Carlisle was to strip all vestiges of Indian culture from the Indian students: they were to speak only English, they were to dress in the American style, they were to eat American foods, they were to worship the Christian gods, and they were to live in American-style houses.

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By locating the school far away from any reservation, it was felt that the children could be removed from the evil pagan influences of Indian life and Indian families.

The school was headed by Captain Richard H. Pratt, the former commandant of the Fort Marion Prison in Florida, which served as an Indian prison. While Pratt liked individual Indians, he had no use for Indian cultures and felt that these cultures would have to be destroyed if Indian people were to survive. Like many other Americans, Pratt felt that Indian ways were inferior in all respects to those of non-Indians. Thus the slogan for Carlisle was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

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When the students first arrived at the school, they were given Anglo-Saxon Christian names (names such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson soon became common among the Indian students), their hair would be cut, and their clothes replaced with European-style dress (their old clothes were usually burned).  To reinforce the superiority of English, they would also be forbidden to speak any Indian language.  A military model was used to instill discipline and conformity. The students wore military-style uniforms and marched to their classes.

The United States government policies viewed agriculture as the only appropriate form of economic development on Indian reservations. Therefore, education in the boarding schools was oriented toward agricultural education. Since men were supposed to do the farming, boys were given an agricultural education while the girls were trained in housekeeping skills. Girls were taught all of the skills-cooking, sewing, cleaning, laundry-that a housewife or a servant would need to know. The emphasis was on the skills necessary for a mythological family farm, not the reality of commercial agriculture as it existed in the late nineteenth century.

Students would spend half of the day in classes where the curriculum emphasized the English language, practical skills, and Christianity. The boys would then spend half a day working on the school farm where they raised most of the food for the school. The girls would work in the laundry where they would not only wash all of the clothes for the school, they would also do all of the mending and other “household” chores. The goal of their education was to train the boys to be farm workers and the girls to become servants.

Since the federal government, and perhaps the American people, didn’t want to spend very much money for Indian education, the boarding schools were expected to be relatively self-sufficient. The students, often under the guise of “industrial education”, served as an unpaid labor pool to provide cleaning, cooking, sewing, farming, dairying, and other services.

Speaking English was an important part of not only the school curriculum, but also school life. Students who were caught speaking any Indian language were severely punished. This punishment included beatings, incarcerations (the school had its own jail), and applying lye to the tongue.

Another important part of the curriculum at Carlisle was sports. The school had sports programs that included track, baseball, football, and the newly created basketball. Carlisle sports teams often competed against college and university teams and its football team had a national reputation. Among the Carlisle Indian athletes was Jim Thorpe (Sauk and Fox) who won the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world,” Sweden’s King Gustav V told him. President William H. Taft said “Your victory will serve as an incentive to all to improve those qualities which characterize the best type of American citizenship.”

When students had completed their education, they were indentured to an Anglo family for three years. The government paid the family $50 per year for the stu¬dent’s medical care and clothing.

While the U.S. government touted the Carlisle Indian School as the ideal form of education for American Indians, there were some who were not happy with the school. In 1880, Sioux chiefs Spotted Tail and Red Cloud visited the Carlisle Indian School. Spotted Tail was enraged at the treatment his children had been given. He removed his children from the school and returned them to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. The eastern press portrayed him as violent and savage. School officials complained that both Red Cloud and Spotted Tail made speeches which were offensive and prejudicial to the discipline of the school.  

Stiya: A Carlisle Indian Girl at Home, written in 1891 by a non-Indian teacher at Carlisle, purported to be a realistic depiction of the transition from life at a boarding school to life on the reservation. Written from an assimilationist point of view, the book stressed a rejection of Indian identity. Students at Indian boarding schools were encouraged to read the book which showed that success comes to those who avoided a return to Indian culture.

While the Carlisle Indian School was considered to be the premier boarding school in the United States, its success in actually educating Indian students and assimilating them into mainstream American culture may have been less successful. By 1899, Carlisle Indian School had graduated only 209 of its 3,800 students.

The students at the Carlisle Indian School were told in 1893:

“you are a race thrown by the Providence of God in the pathway of a mighty and resistless tide of civilization, flowing Westward around you. So mighty is the flood, that resistance is fruitless, and the only choice is between submission and destruction on the one hand, or joining the flood and floating with it, on the other.”

Back on the reservations, many of the Indian agents were not enamored with the off-reservation boarding schools. In 1897, the Indian agent for the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana reported that boys returning from off-reservation boarding schools such as Carlisle Indian School can play baseball pretty well, but don’t seem to be interested in work. With regard to the women who returned from the boarding schools, he wrote:

“Their whole life is made abortive and the money spent on their education wasted, by allowing them to return…In many instances the practical results of returning them to the reservation is to furnish a better class of prostitutes for the same; yes, and made prostitutes by the so-called educated young Indian men, not camp Indians, though they naturally drift to becoming their wives.”

Captain Richard Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian School, told a New York Ministers Conference in 1904 regarding the Indian Bureau:

“I believe that nothing better could happen to the Indians than the complete destruction of the Bureau”  and “Better for the Indians had there never been a Bureau.”

A few weeks later, Pratt was told that his services were no longer required. However, he continued to be an outspoken critic of the Indian Bureau and federal Indian policies.

The success of Carlisle’s ability to assimilate Indian students into American culture can be seen in the 1912 address to the graduating class by one of its students who will later be known as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, a Lumbee from North Carolina:  

“When we have gone through, for the last time as students, the brick portals of this institution, into the great world of competition, we do not wish to be designated as Cherokees, Sioux, or Pawnees, but we wish to be known as Carlisle Indians, belonging to that great universal tribe of North American Indians, speaking the same language and having the same chief — the great White Father at Washington.”

Ultimately, boarding schools such as the Carlisle Indian School were intended to destroy American Indian tribal identity. In its place, the students were to gain racial awareness. American society is racist and Indians are viewed as a single racial group rather than several hundred distinct tribal or cultural entities. Boarding school students began to view themselves as Indians, a racial group, rather than as tribal members.

In 1918, the Carlisle Indian School was closed. Officially, the school was closed because the Secretary of War requested the property for a hospital for soldiers returning from Europe. Unofficially, it was felt that the school’s administration had angered too many people in the Bureau of Indian Affairs with his criticisms of federal Indian policies.

Renaming Indians

American government policies regarding American Indians, particularly during the nineteenth century, were primarily focused on “civilizing” the Indians.  This meant that Indians were to change their language (they were to speak only English), their religion (they were to become Christians, preferably Protestants), their houses, their clothes, their history (they were to embrace European history as their own), and, finally, they were to change their names. Changing Indian names into something which sounded more “American” would show that they had become truly assimilated into the American mainstream.  

Traditionally, American Indians had neither surnames nor Christian first names. In many Indian nations, such as those of the Great Plains, a person would be given several names during the course of their life. Shortly after birth they would often be given a baby name. As they grew older and their personality had begun to emerge, they would be given a child’s name. Finally, as a mark of becoming an adult, they would be given an adult name. Later an individual might acquire another new name reflecting some deed they had done or in honor of some new status. Europeans found Indian names confusing and, because they rarely spoke any Indian languages, difficult to pronounce.

American Indians have often noted that non-Indians have an obsession with private property. Government concerns with Indian surnames stems from this concern. The concern for private property goes beyond the individual accumulation of property and includes the ability to pass this property on to the property owner’s descendents, thus helping to create family fortunes.  Family lineages are an important part of private property.

In 1887, the Congress passed the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) with the intent of assimilating Indians by making them land-owning farmers. The idea of the Dawes Act is to break up the reservations by giving each Indian family an allotment of land, similar to the homesteads given to non-Indian settlers.

In breaking the reservations up into individually owned allotments, the first step was to put together a tribal roll. Regarding Indian names on these tribal rolls, Sioux physician Charles Eastman wrote:

“Originally, the Indians had no family names, and confusion has been worse confounded by the admission to the official rolls of vulgar nicknames, incorrect translations, and English cognomens injudiciously bestowed upon children in the various schools.”  

Government concern for Indian names, particularly surnames, was directly connected with allotments. The allotments came under territory and state inheritance laws. All of these laws were based on Euro-American family relationships and therefore the result was confusion if an allottee died intestate and local officials had to determine the heirs.

In 1890, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered Indian names on the reservations to be changed so that each Indian would be given an English Christian name and retain the surname. Surnames were to be translated to English and shortened if they were too long. Care was to be taken to avoid translations of Indian names that might be offensive to non-Indians. The new names were to be explained to the Indians.

One of the ways of creating the new Indian surnames was to use the name of the father as the family name. This also meant that the Indian agents had to attempt to stop the traditional practice of assigning Indian names. This practice ignored the fact that many Indian nations were matrilineal, that is, a person belonged to the mother’s clan or family.

On some reservations, the Indian agent changed names such as Lone Bear to Lon Brown, Night Horse to Henry Lee Tyler, and Yellow Calf to George Caldwell. On some reservations, Indians were given names such as “Cornelius Vanderbilt” and “William Shakespeare.” Presidential names were also popular and so a number of Indians were named George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and others.

On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Indian agent reported that:

“Now every family has a name. Every father, mother; every husband and wife and children bears the last names of these people; now property goes to his descendant.”

He also reported:

“During my administration I took a census of over two thousand names and had them all change, though it took over two years to accomplish the task.”

In noting that Indians often change names in response to events in their lives, Frank Terry, the Superintendent of the Crow Boarding School wrote in 1897:

“Hence it will be seen that the Indian names are nothing, a delusion, and a snare, and the practice of converting them into English appears eminently unwise.”

He also noted that the requirement to give Indians American-style names had not been uniformly carried out:

“While some have made earnest efforts to carry out the wishes of the Department in this particular, others have treated the matter as one of little or no concern. In many cases no attempt seems ever to have been made to systematize the names of the Indians, and in many others where such attempt was made the correct names for want of attention on the part of officers in charge, have been forgotten or permitted to fall into disuse.”

In addition to having the Indian agents give Indians more “civilized” names, the government also assigned new names to Indian students in both their boarding schools and in their day schools.

In 1890, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs published a detailed set of rules for Indian schools. Schools were to give Indian students surnames so that as they could become property owners it would be easier to fix lines of inheritance. Since most teachers could not pronounce or memorize names in native languages, and they did not understand these names when translated into English, it was not uncommon to give English surnames as well as English first names to the students.

In the school established for the Quileute on the Coast of Washington, the schoolmaster gave the students names from the Bible and from American history.

Many Indian families today have stories about how their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents got their surnames. While the government intent was to eradicate the traditional names and naming procedures, what has instead resulted in many cases is a naming duality: the formal names with surnames that the government requires, and traditional names still given in the traditional ways.