And, Dear Reader, I feel some ambivalence about it. If you follow the news from Indigenous America at all, you likely heard about the report. It received widespread attention. Dr. Holly Kathryn Norton, the Colorado State Archaeologist, wrote the report for History Colorado, part of a state-mandated investigation of boarding school history in the state. Norton was assisted by a team of researchers. Norton and her colleagues focused most closely upon the Grand Junction Indian School, also known as the Teller Institute mostly in the state, and the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School. The first was an off-reservation federal boarding school. The latter stood much closer to the reservation community it wished to serve.
Much of the coverage of the History Colorado report was written by people, I suspect, who did not read the report in its entirety. Had they done so, they might share my desire that Dr. Norton had been more thorough, energetic, and creative in the execution of this important work.
What the investigators did find will not surprise historians familiar with the long history of federal Indian boarding schools. The founders of the Teller Institute, for instance, had trouble finding qualified faculty, staff, and administration. The school’s first doctor was known for his “bad character,” even if Norton provided no specific examples demonstrating precisely how. The school’s first superintendent “used unethical methods of recruiting students, even by the standards of the day,” but, again, no evidence is provided for the reader to see precisely what he did.
Families described poor food, substandard buildings, filth and cold. The 600 students who attended the Teller Institute over the course of its twenty-five year existence, and their parents, found the school wanting in many ways. Norton points out that the Teller Institute was “plagued with runaways,” though those students stories are not told in the detail they deserve. Students at the Teller Institute did hard labor. They dug the cesspool that stood near the school, and they lived under the supervision of parsimonious administrators seemingly far more interested in the health of the institution than its students. In one particularly revealing story, a federal agent at Fort Defiance asked the Teller Institute superintendent to return Navajo students to their home. Their parents wanted them back. The superintendent reluctantly gave in, but provided the students with train fare that got them only as far as Durango. According to Norton, they had to ride bicycles to get them the final 150 miles home. Norton’s report would be so much more valuable with more stories of this sort. I want to learn about awful administrators, but also about the students and their families.
The Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School received students from its opening in 1892 until 1909. In total, nearly 1100 students passed through its doors, drawn from twenty different Indigenous communities and nations. Like the Teller Institute, it faced significant turnover in its administration. The superintendent who served the longest was the school’s most notorious. Dr. Thomas Breen oversaw Fort Lewis from 1894 to 1903. A serial abuser of women and girls, according to contemporary reporting in Denver newspapers, his tenure was one prolonged scandal. According to Norton, “the story of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School under Breen and the failure of the federal government to protect Native children is a microcosm of the deep neglect that was visited on the children by the government throughout the entirety of the school system”(67).
Again, this point is asserted rather than demonstrated. Throughout, the Colorado report is cursory in its coverage. The author makes reference to archival collections, but because she does not quote from them, her arguments are not well-supported and powerfully presented. We learn little about the tuberculosis outbreak at Fort Lewis, or the damage done there by infections of trachoma, even if we know, thanks to the fantastic work of Professor Michaela Morgan Adams, that parents forcefully resisted the boarding schools, advocated powerfully for their children, and served as powerful and compelling critics of institutions that failed to care for students.
Similarly truncated is the chapter that covers the “children who did not return home.” Ever since the discover of 200 unmarked graves outside a residential school in Canada, this has been viewed as the most important driver of new interest in the history of boarding schools, and efforts to uncover truth in the name of state’s achieving reconciliation. Thirty-one children died at the Fort Lewis school during the 18 years it was open, thirty-seven at the Teller Institute, a figure which included the daughter of the school’s carpenter, a teacher, and a former student.
Norton mentions that the surviving records for the schools are in poor condition. They are, presumably, difficult to read and work with. Nonetheless, I wish the History Colorado team had done more. Boarding schools were institutions, and the institutional component is the easiest part of their histories to research. Schools were bureaucracies, and they generated paper: records historians can use to reconstruct precisely how they worked. But they were also the site of dramatic moments in Indigenous peoples’ lives. Students who went to boarding school list among their most powerful memories seeing their parents crying, even though at the time they did not understand the source of those tears. Students unquestionably suffered from home sickness, loneliness, privation and abuse. The consequences of the treatment they received may continue to plague their families, a problem scholars now refer to as “intergenerational trauma.” But neither students, nor their families, stood by idly. They engaged these institutions, insisted that their children receive just treatment, and called for their return when they felt things were not going well. In our efforts to recount the history of boarding and residential schools we must make sure we place front and center the Indigenous peoples who survived those institutions the federal government dedicated to their destruction. We make choices about the stories we tell, and as scholars we need to own that. And because we want to persuade the millions of Americans who know nothing about these institutions to understand the injustices that happened there, and the ambivalent feelings many Indigenous peoples express about the boarding school experience, we need to tell these stories effectively and powerfully. We should not shy away from the darkness, and not hesitate to tell the stories of resistance and accommodation to these institutions in all their wondrous complexity.
At Geneseo, we do not offer the US and Western Civ surveys. Instead of focusing on coverage, we emphasize and teach the analytical, writing, and research skills of the discipline. All majors are required to take two sophomore seminars. The first is in research methods, the other historiography. The courses are taught by all the department faculty in an area of their specialty. This coming semester, I will be offering the research methods course on the history of American Indian boarding schools. The syllabus follows.
David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928, revised edition, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020).
Genevieve Bell, “Telling Stories Out of School: Remembering the Carlisle Indian Industrial Schook, 1879-1918,” Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1998 (Available on Brightspace).
Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 10th Edition, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020).
Course Description: This section of the history department’s required course in research methods will focus on American Indian boarding schools, part of a systematic assault launched on Indigenous identity beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. There are Boarding Schools still open today. The heyday of the Boarding School Era ran from 1879 until 1918, the years when the Carlisle Indian Industrial School operated in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of young Native Americans passed through these institutions, and they played a highly significant role in shaping Native American identity today. Over the course of the semester, you will read about these institutions, learn and apply your research skills to studying them, and produce a significant work of original, primary source research based upon the sources you will read. Because of the availability of sources, we will focus on Carlisle, the largest of the federally-run schools.
By the end of the semester, I would like you to have improved and developed substantially in the following areas:
* Your ability to write clearly, correctly, and persuasively in English * Your ability to identify, locate, and analyze secondary sources related to your research question.
* Your ability to construct and advance an argument supported by primary source research.
* Your ability to debate complicated historical topics verbally in a seminar setting.
Participation: I want to emphasize the importance of participation. I view my courses fundamentally as conversations and these conversations can only succeed when each person pulls his or her share of the load. This seminar relies on your contributions, and our conversations will depend on your thoughtful inquiry and respectful exchange. We are all here to learn, and I encourage you to join in the discussion with this in mind. Participation is more than attendance. As you will see from the attached grading agreement, after four missed classes you will not be able to earn any grade higher than a D for the course.
28 August Introduction to the Course Reading: Rampolla, Chapter 1; Adams, Preface, Prologue; Oberg, “Just Kids.”
6 September What Can We Know About Federal Indian Boarding Schools? Reading: Rampolla, Chapter 2; Adams, Part One; Images of the Carlisle Boarding School
11 September What Can We Know About Federal Indian Boarding Schools? (continued). Reading: Adams, Part Two; Carlisle Publications (Under the “Indian School Titles” tab, click on “Carlisle Arrow, The (1908-1917)” and then click “Apply.” Read, cover to cover, any two editions of The Carlisle Arrow. Poke around through other publications as well so that you arrive at some familiarity for the sorts of public documents Carlisle produced.
13 September What Can We Know about Federal Indian Boarding Schools? (continued). Reading, Adams, Part Three; Carlisle’s bureaucracy and record-keeping.
18 September What Can We Know about Federal Indian Boarding Schools? (continued). Reading: Adams, Part 4 and Conclusion; Carlisle Student Records (Pick any Nation from that drop-down menu. Read at least 5 student files and be prepared to talk about what you learned. Make sure you choose student records from different years). Please provide me with a list of the students whose files you read by Sunday at noon.
20 September Mandatory Individual Conferences Reading: Rampolla, Chapters 4-6.
25 September Topic Statements and Preliminary Bibliography Due! Reading: Rampolla, Chapter 7; Brenda J. Child, “The Boarding School as Metaphor,” Journal of American Indian Education, 57 (Spring 2018), 37-57. This article is available through JSTOR. Please download a copy, read it, and have it with you in class. Child provides the perspectives of an Indigenous historian writing about residential schools.
27 September Research Updates: What have you learned, what have you added to your bibliography, and how has your research progressed? You will be prepared to speak for at least five minutes, and to field questions from your classmates. Reading: Frank Vitale IV, “Counting Carlisle’s Casualties: Defining Student Death at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1879-1918,” American Indian Quarterly, 44 (Fall 2020), 383-414.
2 October Mandatory Individual Conferences
4 October Setting Things Right: Discussion of Apologies, Acknowledgments and Reparations Reading: Oberg, “Your Territorial Acknowledgment is Not Enough;” Elizabeth Ellis and Rose Stremlau, “Land Acknowledgments: Helpful, Harmful, Hopeful,” Perspectives on History, 60 (November 2022), 24-26 (on Brightspace); Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape, (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Chapter 4 (Brightspace)
11 October Progress Reports: What have you learned, what have you added to our bibliography, and how has your research progressed? You will be prepared to speak for at least five minutes, and to field questions from your classmates. Reading: Mikaëla M. Adams, “`A Very Serious and Perplexing Epidemic of Grippe’: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 at the Haskell Institute,” American Indian Quarterly, 44 (Winter 2020), 1-35. (available on America: History and Life).
18 October Child Removal in Comparative Perspective Reading: Margaret Jacobs, A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), Excerpts, on Brightspace.
23 October Progress Reports: What have you learned, what have you added to your bibliography, and how has your research progressed? You will be prepared to speak for at least five minutes, and to field questions from your classmates Revised Bibliography Due
25 October Mandatory Individual Conferences
30 October Opening Paragraphs Due. Please bring enough copies for everybody in the class.
1 November Mandatory Individual Conferences
6 November Outlines Due.
8 November Mandatory Individual Conferences
13 November Progress Reports: What have you learned, what have you added to your bibliography, and how has your research progressed? You will be prepared to speak for at least five minutes, and to field questions from your classmates
15 November Mandatory Individual Conferences.
20 November Outings Reading: Kevin Whalen, “Indian School, Company Town: Outing Workers from Sherman Institute at Fontana Farms Company,” Pacific Historical Review, 86 (May 2017), 290-321.
27 November Discussion Drafts
29 November Discussion Drafts
4 December Discussion Drafts
6 December Discussion Drafts
11 December Final Papers Due
13 December Meetings: Discussion of Final Grades
Topic Statement and Initial Bibliography Due: In a solid paragraph, describe the topic on which you would like to conduct research this semester, and a construct a preliminary bibliography in proper format listing the primary and secondary sources you will need to answer the questions you are asking. You can not have a thesis yet: you have not done the research necessary for that. But you can have a sense of the question, or questions, which you would like to try to answer. Due 25 September.
Revised Bibliography Due: You should demonstrate that you have competently used JSTOR, America: History and Life, and the citations and bibliographies in the scholarly sources you have read to expand your bibliography. Due 23 October.
Opening Paragraphs: Please bring a draft of an opening paragraph. I assume you will likely make changes to this as you move forward and complete your project, but I do want you to bring something so that we can discuss writing and how to engage your readers most effectively. Due 30 October.
Outlines Due. Bring copies for everyone in class. The more detailed your outline, the better. Due 6 November.
Discussion Drafts: A complete draft of your paper with footnotes accurately cited. You will submit it on a Google Doc that will go on a shared drive accessible to your classmates. We will read each draft closely, make suggestions, and work to improve your paper.
Final Draft: This should require no elaboration. Your final draft, formatted properly, is due on 11 December. Because of the narrow span of time between our last meeting and the final exam period, I cannot allow any extensions for the final draft.
Susie Porter and Annie Dibo stayed at Mrs. Jacobs’ place from April 30 until August 27, 1909. The stayed at Mrs. Jacobs’ “delightful home” in Oak Lane until June, and then they made her way to the cottage in Ocean City, near the beach where Nora Printup died.
Both students’ files are pretty thin. Annie arrived at Carlisle from the Mohawk Akwesasne reservation in September of 1906 and stayed until June of 1911 when she graduated. She seems to have returned for one more year of training in nursing later that year, as a twenty-year old. We know little about her home life, though her file does contain her Mohawk name, rendered phonetically by one of the school’s clerks as “ha-nau-ka-rou-to-ra-ta.” Likewise, we know little of her life after she left Carlisle. She may have been the same “Annie Diabo” who, in 1947, received word that her son, a World War II veteran and a high steel worker in California’s Bay Area, was struck by a car while he crossed Highway 1 after a night of drinking. Diabo is a common Mohawk name, and Mohawks are known for their work in high steel.
Susie Porter came to Carlisle from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She was 17 years old when she arrived in 1907. She married shortly after her return home in 1912. She was described during her stay at Mrs. Jacobs’ place as “a good trust-worthy girl, neat about her work, a good waitress, very satisfactory.”
One way to get at the experiences of these young women while they were at Carlisle is to search for their names in the school newspaper, The Arrow. Both girls were active in the Mercers and both were members of the YWCA. Annie gave a number of “Recitations,” on various subjects, while Susie seems to have loved to debate. She took the affirmative position in a debate on the proposition “that iron is more beneficial to man than gold” and the negative position on the proposition “that foreign immigration to the United States should be restricted.” Susie was a far more visible student than Annie. In the art room, Susie made “the most handsome blanket,” following a Pueblo design. “The soft colors, so carefully blended, for a color plan that is both pleasant and restful to the eye.” I wish I could see what it looked like.
There is a story in The Arrow that gives us our only glimpse into the life of the girls who stayed at Mrs. Jacobs’ place in Ocean City. It is easy to imagine that Nora Printup loved it there. Her life could not have been that different from Susie and Annie, who arrived four years after her death. Katherine Wolf, a Cherokee, was placed for her outing at a home in Ocean City not far from Mrs. Jacobs. Katherine found Susie and Annie, and the girls became friends. Susie, Annie and Katherine “went bathing almost every afternoon” and, “in the evening,” Katherine wrote, “we generally took a walk along the beach.”
Annie kept in touch with Carlisle after she left, but it is impossible to tell how much and to what extent. Susie left Carlisle, first for Wisconsin to keep house for her father, and then to Minnesota. She married, and continued to write to the school. She returned for graduation in 1912, and she sent letters asking for sheet music from the Carlisle song book that she wished to play at church. She was a devoted Christian, and a devoted Carlisle alum.
Julia Peña was part of the ensemble cast of The Captain of Plymouth. Like Ethel Daniels, she played one of the “squaws” in the 1909 Carlisle Graduation pageant.
Julia, a “Mission Indian” from Southern California, had a lot of experience with boarding schools. At the age of 8, she began attending the St. Boniface Indian School in Banning. She was there from 1900 until 1907. She spent one year at the day school in Pala, California, before traveling across North America to begin attending Carlisle in 1909. It was a family affair. Julia’s older brother Nicholas had attended Carlisle from 1895 until 1905. Years later, in 1913, he was known as the “best Indian farmer in Pala.”
Julia’s story is similar to that of the other young women who attended Carlisle, and who passed through Mrs. Jacobs’ house. She was active in student organization at Carlisle, playing a leading role in the Girls Holy Names Society. She performed in school plays, and attended sporting events from her outing placements when she had the time. The year before she arrived at Mrs. Jacobs’ house, Julia wrote to one of her teachers, Miss Georgenson, to announce “that she has a very pleasant home near the Susquehanna,” and that “everything is so pleasant that a person just can’t help enjoying life.”
Some of her patrons were satisfied with Julia, and others were disappointed. She stayed with the Engles family in Moorestown, New Jersey, from September 1909 until the end of August in 1910. To Mrs. Engles, Julia was “not satisfactory.” At times she did good work, but “at other times, careless, rude and impertinent, not honest.” Julia had apparently stolen some things from the Engles. Because she apologized, the patron would keep her through August but no longer. Another patron, one year later, though that Julia “is willing and tries.” She was a good worker, but her vision was so poor that she needed glasses badly. Once fitted, she wore her glasses all the time and performed much better work. We don’t know what Mrs. Jacobs thought of her.
Julia, like most of Mrs. Jacobs’ girls, missed Carlisle once she left. On her way home she sent postcards from the places she passed through to her former classmates and teachers. When she moved from Pala to San Diego, she continued to send postcards to her friends in Pennsylvania. She sent to Carlisle a dollar so that she could join the Carlisle Alumni Association. In April of 1915, now married and back in Pala, she wrote that “I am getting along very well at my new home. I used to live in San Diego, but I like it better here, as I am living on a farm. I am always glad to hear about the progress Carlisle is making, and I hope it will continue. I will close with best wishes for success to the Alumni Association, not forgetting all my classmates.”
Another student who left Carlisle, stayed in touch, and continued to support the school’s programs. Carlisle, as it did for Ethel Daniels and Esther Reed, made a huge difference in Julia Peña’s life.
Ethel Daniels was Esther Reed‘s roommate at Mrs. Jacobs’ house between April and August of 1908. Ethel, a Ute from White Rock, had arrived at Carlisle in 1904 when she was twelve years old. She graduated in 1909 and immediately returned home. Mrs. Jacobs’ house was her last outing placement.
Ethel started sending postcards to friends at Carlisle on her way home. She missed the school as soon as she left it. As soon as she got home she reported that she “is enjoying western life” and that her brother Albert “is now a proud father of a cute little boy.”
Why share these details of her personal life? Ethel wrote to the school’s superintendent, Moses Friedman, and he would place excerpts of her letters in the Carlisle Arrow, the school’s weekly student newspaper. The Arrow was filled with small pieces of news like this from her and from many other students. At one level these updates served as propaganda–Carlisle graduates were succeeding when they returned home–but it seems to me that this is an explanation that is incomplete and ultimately unsatisfying. Students who returned home wrote back to Carlisle in numbers that at first surprised me, letting people back in Pennsylvania know what they had been up to. Ethel quite clearly loved her time at Carlisle. She said it time and again. So did so many other former students. She was proud, she wrote Friedman, to think that she had been the first president at Carlisle of the “Mercers Literary Society.” In that capacity she practiced her oratory. She was a student in the school’s art department, and was skilled enough as an artist that an Albany businessman purchased a rug that she made. She participated in a musical pageant, “The Captain of Plymouth,” in which she played one of a number of unnamed “Squaws.” Carlisle was an important part of her life.
By August of 1910, Ethel was engaged, living on a ranch with her mother, with “forty acres of land, one team, two riding ponies,” and “eleven head of cattle.” She asked that the staff at Carlisle continue to send her copies of The Arrow. She updated students at Carlisle on her family life. She married Donald Cobbs, and soon gave birth to sons named Loyde and Manferd. In 1914, she was living at Fort Duschesne in Utah, and let Superintendent Friedman know that she and the family were well, and that she was “always anxious for the dear Arrow to read the news of dear Old Carlisle.”
She reported in a letter to Friedman that she, Daniel, and the boys were preparing to move to a new allotment. “We have taken another allotment up away from the River bottom,” she wrote. They had bought a new team, after the old team died. “We felt lost with out a team but we just kept courage up, and now we have another team I am glad to say.” Her kids were cute, and she lived near her brother and his family, too. Ranching was hard work but she seemed happy. She reminded Friedman once again to send the Arrow. “It has so many news of how dear old Carlisle is improving.”
Files like Ethel Daniels’ are not uncommon. They do not square easily with the horror stories unearthed at Canadian residential schools, and they do not square easily with the accounts given today of American boarding schools. There is ample evidence of cruelty, neglect, illness and sadness at Carlisle, and we shall get to those stories in the coming segments. But there were also many Indigenous peoples for whom Carlisle provided exciting opportunities, a community of friends, a chance to learn a trade, to perform, to play sports, to make art. Carlisle changed lives, to be sure. Sometimes it devastated, and sometimes it transformed, but it always left a powerful impression on the lives of those who attended.
THEY WERE JUST KIDS. That is something that leaps off the page when you look at their student files. Delia and Florence Edwards, two Onondaga sisters, arrived at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in December of 1909 and May of 1910, respectively. Delia was fourteen years old, Florence 13.
They were not dragged to Carlisle. State officials did not forcefully remove them from their homes. Like many of the young people who came to Carlisle, a parent signed them up. The girls attended the Onondaga Nation School for a couple of years, and then the Mindenville School District in the Mohawk Valley before they came to Carlisle. By the time the girls arrived, Carlisle required all students to have had several years of prior schooling and fluency in English. David Russel Hill, an Onondaga chief, the leader of the Onondaga Indian Band, and an advocate for Indian education, wrote on both of the girls’ applications that they had “advanced beyond the required studies.” If they wished to continue their schooling, he suggested, Carlisle may have been the best and the only opportunity open to them.
RECENT MONTHS have witnessed the discovery of more than 1300 unmarked graves at the site of a number of Canadian residential schools. The discoveries, according to a story that ran in the Ottawa Citizen, are proof of what First Nations people have been saying for a long time: “That Canada’s Indian Residential Schools spent nearly a century overseeing shockingly high rates of death among their students, with the bodies of the dead routinely withheld from their families and home communities.” In part because of the outcry these discoveries sparked, the American Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced an initiative to “address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.” Haaland cautioned that the work would be difficult and time-consuming. Nothing, she said, will “undo the heartbreak and loss we feel.” Nonetheless, she said, “only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud of.”
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative will investigate “the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.” These schools, said Bryan Newland, the Principal Deputy Assistant for Indian Affairs, were intended to “culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.” “Hundreds of thousands” of Indian children, Newland said, were taken from their communities. The Interior Department will work to collect the relevant documents, locate possible burial sites, and try to set the record straight.”
This is a worthwhile project, one of the only times in American history where an agency of the federal government has pledged to take an honest look at its history, collect the evidence, and allow for a true accounting of this part of the nation’s past. It is stunning, really. Having spent much of my work time the last year or so reading through Carlisle student files, this will be complicated and in many ways difficult work. And it may force many people to reconsider what they know to be true about Indian boarding schools.
CARLISLE WAS ABOUT 250 MILES south of the Onondaga Nation Territory, so Delia and Florence traveled less far than most of the 10,000 students who attended the school between 1879, when it opened, and 1918, when it closed.
It is difficult to discern much about the girls’ lives before Carlisle. Their Onondaga mother had died from heart disease, and they were being raised by their Mohawk father on the Nation Territory. We know which schools they attended, and that they were Protestants, though the denomination is not clear.
A military officer named Richard Henry Pratt founded the school to “kill the Indians and save the man.” Speaking to a gathering of Baptist ministers in 1883, Pratt said that “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 until they are thoroughly soaked.” The best that Pratt could see in the thousands of young Native Americans who attended Carlisle was that with proper training they might be formed into something else, and he boasted of his ability to do just that.
Pratt was an energetic and effective promoter of the school. He produced before and after photographs of Carlisle students, the first depicting the child in their traditional dress, the second with their hair cut, their faces cleaned, and dressed in Carlisle’s school uniform. Pratt claimed that Carlisle took “savage” and “wild” Indians and transformed them into civilized individuals, ready for citizenship and productive employment in the American republic. His school, according to a newspaper article announcing its opening, “will endeavor to save the Indians from extermination by educating young Indians, who can grow up to be leaders of their people and direct them to civilization.” In reality, the largest numbers of students came from Iroquois communities, eastern Cherokees, and the Oneidas in Wisconsin. These young people spoke and wrote in English when they arrived, were members of Christian denominations, and familiar with farming.
Pratt needed to promote his efforts. Contrary to popular belief, policy-makers began to criticize off-reservation boarding schools as educational institutions. Early twentieth century commissioners of Indian Affairs and secretaries of the interior, for instance, much preferred reservation day schools, which were less expensive because they allowed children to return home at the end of the day, and because they better prepared the students for life in American society. Francis Leupp, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, wrote in 1905 that “it is a great mistake to try, as many good persons of bad judgment have tried, to start the little ones in the path of civilization by snapping all the ties of affection between them and their parents, and teaching them to despise the aged and nonprogressive members of their families.” Pratt retired five years before the Edwards sisters arrived, at a time when boarding schools faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from reformers, political leaders, and of course Native peoples themselves, who viewed them as retrograde institutions, dated and of questionable value compared to the benefits of schools closer to home.
Students at Carlisle spent only some of their time on school grounds. Much of their time was spent on their various “Outing” placements, where they were sent to live with white families to learn a craft or a trade or, in the case of women, basic housewifery. If they were old enough, they attended schools near their patrons’ home. Delia attended Moorestown High School in New Jersey, and Florence attended Haddonfield High.
Delia’s patrons found her “headstrong and self-willed,” but capable of doing well when she tried. Another thought she was “a great child and tries to please.” Florence spent time in Jenkinstown and Kennet Square, Pennsylvania, and at a couple of sites in New Jersey. One of her patrons, in 1910, told the Carlisle field agent, whose job it was to check in on students, that “Florence is not satisfactory, she is not very strong, is at a critical period in her life.” The thirteen year old was “willing,” but just not capable, in the eyes of her patron, to provide enough help. “She is very untidy about her person & work.” A year later, however, a new patron in Beverley, New Jersey, reported that she was very fond of Florence, and found her “a good obedient child, a little slow, but tries and is improving.”
Florence may have struggled at times during her placements, but she took advantage of the opportunities Carlisle presented. She wrote for the student newspaper. She received a prize for one of her essays from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. She was an active member of Carlisle’s YWCA chapter, and at one meeting led the students in a lecture on “the heroes of the Bible.” She was also a member of the Mercers, where she practiced “Declamation.” IN 1914, she gave a reading in the auditorium of her essay, “Is it Worth While?” (The paper gave no sense of what “it” was). In January of 1915 she led the Protestant service at the school “and also gave a fine little talk.” She must have been a magnetic figure, filled with charisma. People liked her.
Both of the girls went home for the summer of 1915. By September they were back at school and both had moved on to their next placements. In October of 1915, the Carlisle Arrow ran a report of students staying in the school’s hospital. Florence “who came in from the county,” was one of them. She was “now up,” and, according to Agnes Owl, “was only lonesome for Carlisle.”
Turned out it was much more serious. Florence had contracted tuberculosis, the dread disease that killed 194 out of every 100,000 Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lawrence Edwards, her father, began to hear that his daughter was ill. In November he wrote to the school’s superintendent, asking for information. He had heard nothing from Florence, but “others are telling me she is sick.” Two weeks later, on the sixth of December in 1915, the Superintendent wrote back. Florence was cured, but he told Mr. Edwards that he thought it advisable “to let your daughter…have a complete rest in order that she regain her physical strength.” He was sending her home to Onondaga.
Delia, it turned out, was sick as well. Mrs. Lippincott, one of her patrons, sent Delia to the hospital. She complained of abdominal pain. It was appendicitis, and she had surgery in November. She recovered well. While Florence journeyed home to rest, Delia returned to her patron. She wanted to go back to Carlisle. She wrote to her friend Lucy Lenoir, a Chippewa student. The letters are wonderful. Delia was a relentless kidder, always ready to affectionately tease her friend. And she was bored to tears at times doing housework for her patron. “I wish we could be there for the social which will be the last Saturday” of January. Earlier, she told Lucy, she had broken up with her boyfriend. “We certainly would make a hit on some swell guys,” she wrote. But getting back to Carlisle was more difficult than it should have been. The superintendent saw no reason for her to return to the school. Her patrons reported that her work was good, and that she was succeeding in her studies. Delia told Lucy that “I am so darn sick of country life I believe I’d die if I stay here much longer.” Maybe, she wrote, “I’ll play sick and see if I can’t go back to Carlisle.” She missed her friends. A short time later she wrote to Lucy again, saying “Dearie, I have no idea where I will be when you open this letter, but if I am not in my grave I will be at dear old Carlisle.”
Delia would not make it back to Carlisle until June. In May of 1916, Lawrence wrote to the superintendent. “My daughter Florence is very low now and I wish to have Delia come to her before anything happens.” Delia was summoned back to the school, where she arrived on the First of June. She returned home to the Nation Territory on June 6.
One month later, Florence died. “She had been ill for about ten months,” Delia wrote. “She certainly wanted to get well so she could return to Carlisle in the fall to graduate with her class next spring.” She told the superintendent that it was hard for her to lose a sister. “Father and I are trying our best to bear it,” she wrote, “but life is not ours so we will have to take things as they come.” Her sister had returned to Carlisle from her outing assignment with a fatal illness. The school’s records document the names of the children who died there. Still, Delia could not wait to return. Like many of the Onondagas who attended Carlisle, she missed the school when she was not there. She was nineteen years old. In the very same letter in which she expressed her grief at her sister’s death, she told the Superintendent that “I will try to return the latter part of September to Carlisle to continue my studies.” She wanted to “be placed with the graduating class as I certainly worked hard this winter with my studies at the Moorestown High School.” She wanted confirmation that she could return, so she asked the superintendent to “let me know if I can be entered in the ‘Fourth Year vocational’ class and I will return just as soon as I can before I get too far behind with my studies.” She hoped as well that the school would consider admitting her stepsister Elsie. Carlisle mattered to Delia.
She never returned to “dear old Carlisle.” She was told that she did not have “sufficient credits to enter the class which is to complete the course in another year.” She should return to Moorestown High School and then, at “the opening of the year you will be given the opportunity to take whatever work for which you are prepared.” Her last date of attendance was listed as May 31, 1916. It is not hard to believe that when Carlisle closed a short time later, she may have seen this as a loss for her people. As Onondaga chief Jesse Lyon asked, “Why was Carlisle closed? Nobody know,” he said. “Too good for Indian, maybe, but that is what Indian needs.”
THE STORY OF CARLISLE is not a simple one. As historians we know to be attuned to ambiguity and ambivalence. It is proper to view boarding schools as American institutions directed toward cultural genocide—the erasure of Native American culture, values, and beliefs. It attempted to play that role. But it did not always succeed. Students were homesick, at times. Some ran away from the school, especially the boys. Some returned to their communities feeling as if they no longer belonged. Yet there were Onondagas who ran away from home to get to Carlisle. Some of those runaways were not heading home, but to visit girlfriends. It is proper then, to view Carlisle as well as a flawed institution which Native American students attended to receive an education and learn crafts and trades, or to play sports or to play music, opportunities that were often closed to them elsewhere. More than one thing can be true at a time. Carlisle took and it gave, but it neither destroyed nor erased, the Onondagas who attended it between 1879 and 1918. The Interior Department’s Boarding School Initiative will need to be attuned to the school’s ambivalent legacy.
As a nation we have always claimed that we need to take away children. The New York Times yesterday ran a deeply disturbing story examining closely the Trump Administration’s “Family Separation Policy” supported most forcefully by then-Attorney-General Jeff Sessions. “We need to take away children,” Sessions told prosecutors at the Mexican border. If people crossing the border cared about their kids, the Attorney General said that they would not have brought them. It did not matter how young. It did not matter if they were in diapers, or if they still were nursing. It did not matter what horrors in their homeland they ran from. And when called to account these Trump administration officials lied about it. They knew it was morally abhorrent, but they did it anyways.
It was a stunning story. It was not a surprising one.
One could write a history of North America, with the cruelty meted out on the children of peoples of color as the narrative thread weaving the entire horrifying tapestry together. Cruelty towards children runs through the entire story.
It rests at the center of the trade in human flesh central to this nation’s founding. Children ripped from parents. There is no way to excuse these horrifying crimes.
There is Columbus, whose big day is just around the corner. He looked at a child swimming, a little girl, and saw only that she would make a suitable slave. He scooped up Indigenous children, packed them aboard his ships, and sent them back for sale in Iberian markets. There is the murder of Paspahegh children by armed colonists from Jamestown. The colonist George Percy appeased his men, angry at taking any prisoners at all, by allowing them to throw these children into the James River and shoot them in the head. I think of the burning of Mystic fort in 1637, of so many other massacres of native peoples across the continent, where Native children fell beside their parents, victims of a style of warfare practiced without restraint by “civilized” peoples against their “savage” enemies. “Nits grow into lice,” the perpetrator of one of those massacres reportedly said. I think of the slaughter of Christian Conestogas by the Paxton Boys, the mass murder at Gnaddenhutten, the epidemics that carried off native children and sparked the Ghost Dance among their grieving parents, or the boarding schools where American officials so confident in their deluded good intentions collected and removed indigenous children from their homes. And today, when we can read of the murder of native peoples by well-armed police, the too-frequent disappearance or murder of Native American women and girls in both Canada and the United States, and the travesty of South Dakota’s treatment of Native American families in its foster care system. It is exhausting.
When I teach I tell my students about George Percy. That weak and cowardly aristocrat who settled at Jamestown led a raid by an English party against the Paspahegh Indians, whose town stood a short distance upriver from that sickly fortified settlement. Percy’s soldiers took the “Queen of Paspahegh” and her children hostage but his men began to grumble. He gave in to them, threw the children overboard, and allowed his men to entertain themselves by “shooting out their brains in the water.” I tell them of the Paxton Boys’ massacre of peaceful Conestoga Indians in December 1763. The Paxton men killed fourteen of them: men, women, and a couple of children, no more than three years old. The Paxton Boys split their skulls with tomahawks, and took their scalps as trophies. This was intimate violence, acts committed at close range. To children. To babies. In order to help my students make sense of the Ghost Dance, I tell the students about the movement that occurred on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation. Among the Kiowa ghost dancers were a lot of parents, and they danced on the snowy ground hoping to see, once again, the children who had died, innocents slaughtered by measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia. Grief lay at the broken heart of the Ghost Dance movement. And of course that grief continues. Harold Napoleon, in Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being, a book that will break your heart as it educates you, described Alaska Native communities immersed still in a grief caused by what he called “the Great Death.”
We cannot teach the past without considering the pain, the grief, and the sadness that people felt. If we want to reach our students, we need to help them feel history as they learn it, to consider those moments of brutality and violence and sadness. And in so many ways, this current president and his cascading collection of war criminals, grifters, and cruel incompetents forces us to realize that the pain we teach and write about is still very much present and very much alive. They feed on the misery they cause, find justification in your suffering. There is so very much at stake in the approaching election.
I teach a first year writing seminar at my college on the history of the
Carlisle Boarding School, I have spent a fair amount of time reckoning with the
words and deeds of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the Indian’s school’s founder
and chief propagandist.
school’s history fascinates me. In my
own research on the history of the Onondaga Nation, I have followed those who
attended the school through its records and reconstructed their lives as much
as the evidence permits. Like my
students, I make use of the digitized school records available at the Carlisle
Indian School Digital Resource Center.
thing I have not done is visit Yale’s Beinecke Library, where Pratt’s personal papers are housed. I have read his published writings, and in
them I find it difficult to detect any self-doubt, any questioning, of the
school’s fundamental premise: to best prepare Native American men and women for
citizenship and participation in the American body politic and economic system,
they must be removed from their homes and educated away from the
Pratt was quite explicit about
this. The attachments of home generated
a powerful pull. Even boarding schools located on reservations could not work,
Pratt believed, because the sights, sounds, and scents of home provided a
powerful distraction. Best to remove the
students entirely. Speaking to a gathering
of Baptist ministers, Pratt said that “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 until they are thoroughly soaked.” Because of his tendency to make statements
like these, scholars and the interested public describe the boarding schools as
brutal institutions. Pratt, they say,
acted with genocidal intent. He said,
indeed, that he hoped to “kill the Indian,” and save the man.
There is no doubt that there was
cruelty, brutality and short-sightedness.
There was coldness and callousness and inattention. Some students resisted. One of my students is working on a paper I
very much look forward to reading on firestarters, girls who set fires at
Carlisle and were expelled. Yet the
graveyard at the school contains the bodies of students who died far from home,
the victims, in Calvin Luther Martin’s phrase, of “blundering goodwill.” Efforts are underway to repatriate some of
these children, to return their bodies to their homelands. There are stories at
Carlisle to melt a historian’s heart.
At the same time, we historians
generally find simple morality tales uninteresting, because the past is always
more complicated. For example, I
recently reviewed a book by a historian named Keith Burich about the Thomas Indian School in New York, located on the Seneca Nation’s
Cattaraugus Reservation. Thomas was open for a century, from the 1850s to the
1950s. There are people alive today who
attended Thomas. The consequences of the
school’s treatment of Iroquois children, Burich writes, were horrific. The school’s policies and its approach
created in the students “a state of dependency and perpetual childhood that
guaranteed the students’ inability to adjust to life outside the institution.” Arriving at Thomas from families broken by
the forces of colonialism, “the same ‘pathologies’ that landed them at
Thomas—poverty, divorce, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence—followed them
when they left, ensuring that there would be future generations of Thomas students.”
Yet the evidence that Burich provides
suggests that he may not be attuned enough to the school’s ambivalent legacy.
The Mohawk Andrew Herne, disappointed by the public school opportunities at
home, hitchhiked to Thomas to enroll.
Burich points out that for many of the children, “Thomas provided a far
better educational opportunity than the public schools on or near their
respective reservations.” The Seneca
Arthur Nephew remembered the school as the best part of his life. “We were taken care of, we had shelter, we
had food, we had medical care, we had all kinds of recreation, and all kind of
trades we could learn,” he wrote. Thus it appears that Burich’s claim that the
school left children “unable to survive outside an institutional setting where every
aspect of their lives was dictated and controlled by the institution” is an
oversimplification at best, that underestimates the resilience and toughness of
Iroquois families and children. His claim that the school left its students
shattered in self-esteem and “unable to adjust to life after Thomas” seems
inadequately supported and, indeed, contradicted by some of the evidence he
presents. There was suffering to be sure, as Iroquois people have pointed
out. But there was more to Thomas than
And Carlisle, too.
Pratt left Carlisle in 1904. Robert
Utley, who wrote the introduction to the University of Oklahoma Press edition
of Pratt’s From
Battlefield to Classroom
said that the school’s founder “retired.”
Technically that is correct. But Pratt left under duress, and a number
of powerful critics of the entire off-reservation boarding school enterprise
had emerged in the early twentieth century, most notably Francis Leupp, who served
as Teddy Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Utley said that Pratt retired to
Rochester, New York, where I live. Other sources say the same thing. The
Rochester Public Library has done an incredible job of digitizing its local
history resources, so I set off in search of the retired Colonel Pratt. His name does not appear in any of the
published city directories, nor does that of his wife or any
of his children. I asked friends for
help, and I followed some other leads, but still no luck. Where was Colonel
Pratt? I did not know, and I worried that Utley might have been wrong.
I am fairly certain that if I had
limitless time and limitless resources, and no family and no need to do things
other than history, I could have made the trip over to New Haven. I bet there are answers there about Pratt’s
time in Rochester. But I don’t, and I
couldn’t, so I didn’t, and the staff at Yale did not answer my email queries.
I poked around a bit more and I
found what I was looking for in the newspapers.
Pratt had daughters, and they married. It did not take long to figure
out that his son-in-law Edward M. Hawkins lived in Rochester, on Highland
Avenue, a five-minute bicycle ride from where I live (I know. I tried it).
I am not sure how much time Pratt
spent in town, but he was in Rochester often. In retirement he spoke out
against the Indian Bureau, and the “ethnologists” whose work informed the
critiques of Pratt’s program for Carlisle.
Long after off-reservation boarding schools had fallen out of favor, he
continued to champion the entire effort as worthwhile and significant. He was
proud of Carlisle, and he seems to have kept in touch with former students and
even attended a reunion of former Carlisle students in 1913 in Akron, New York,
near the Tonawanda Seneca Nation.
Just a couple of dozen Tonawandas attended Carlisle. More than three hundred went to Thomas. Of those who went to Carlisle their experiences seem to have mirrored those of other Haudenosaunee people who attended the boarding school. Some appreciated their time at the school and expressed their gratitude to Pratt and to his successors as superintendent. Daisie Doctor Snyder, for instance, in 1907 expressed her regret that she would not be able to return to Carlisle for that year’s commencement ceremony. She missed “Dear Old Carlisle,” and wrote that “I only hope this Commencement will surpass all others, and that the out going class are prepared to stand the hard knocks of the cold world and to fight a hard battle for the right and also to still uplift our race. Rosalie Doctor Poodry invited the administrators at Carlisle to visit her at her handsome, two-story frame house in Basom, New York, and said that she would love to send her children to Carlisle someday. She sent the superintendent a postcard,
with a photograph of the house. The baby, a little girl named Marion, had
died a few weeks before she mailed the card, and Rosalie understandably still
was broken up. As much as she looked
forward to reading the school newspapers that she received in the mail, she
asked that they not say anything about her dead child.
Doctor Poodry’s letter was intimate and revealing. Other Tonawandas told the
school what they were up to, but did not share too much more than that. Hiram Moses was farming forty-five acres of
reservation land, and working when needed on the state highway. He attended the Presbyterian church on the
reservation. Joseph Poodry lived in Buffalo. He worked at the Pierce Arrow plant there,
and managed the Seneca Indian baseball team.
said little about their time at the school, chose not to keep in touch, and did
not reply to the school’s questionnaires.
Many of them returned to the reservation and lived lives that would have
differed little from what they might have experienced had they never gone away
to school Some succeeded, and attributed
their successes to what they learned at Carlisle. Others did not do so well. Perhaps their hardships stemmed from the
dislocation caused by the years they spent away, or the difficulties they faced
in reintegrating themselves into the community after they returned.
despite the boarding school experience, the criticism of their culture they
routinely listened to there, and their years away from home, Tonawanda remained
an indigenous homeland. Despite the
efforts of the state to break up their lands and dispossess them, a story the
Tonawandas knew all too well, they remained native peoples. And they asserted this, publicly and
frequently, in ways that Pratt could not have missed.
Pratt is one of the villains in Native American history. He spoke of eliminating Native American
cultures, and carried out his policies, for a time, with the enthusiastic
support of American officials. But if he really believed the erasure of Indian
identity was an attainable goal, he could not have missed the reality that he
failed spectacularly. His legacy is
ambiguous, and defies easy categorization.
Every year, Tonawanda Senecas came into Rochester. I am pretty certain they were in town when Pratt was there, too. The Tonawandas went to Maplewood Park, one of the city’s popular gathering places. They set up a stage. They advertised their gathering in the papers, and the press attended and described what they saw. The Tonawandas routinely adopted and granted names to powerful white men, like Mayor Hiram Edgerton, in this photo housed in the collections of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. And as white Rochesterians gathered, and watched Indian
teams play baseball and demonstrate their lacrosse skills, and as they purchased the baskets and other items of craft produced by Tonawanda Seneca women, the Tonawandas danced.
The men wore ribbon shirts and their gustoweh. Women wore their calico dresses, their moccasins. They dressed in the traditional attire of Haudenosaunee people, with a few Plains-style feather headdresses thrown in for good measure. I like to think that Pratt, if he was in town, would have attended. He liked native peoples, after all, and liked to meet with former students. And in front of him, and white audiences who easily imagined that native peoples were part of the past, and who supported the allotment of their lands, the dissolution of aboriginal culture, and the erasure of their language, they gathered in the center of Rochester. They danced, and they proceeded to proclaim that they were still here, and that here they would remain. They were supposed to have been gone long before. If warfare or the dispossession of the nineteenth century didn’t get them, assuredly they would disappear as the century progressed. But here they were, in the middle of an important industrial city, announcing to all who cared to watch that anything the forces of colonialism might throw at them, they would survive as native peoples.
I recently finished reading Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives. It’s a beautiful little book, written originally in French, translated into English by Thomas Scott-Railton.
Farge’s journey into the archives brought her into contact with the denizens of 18th century Paris, ordinary men and women who entered the historical record only because they found themselves dragged before authorities as accusers and victims, witnesses or perpetrators. They came to advocate for their cause, to protect or recover their property, to seek redress, or vengeance, or, at times, to save their lives. Farge describes the people of Paris, but her experiences in the archives and the lessons she drew from the people she encountered there—men and women who appear fleetingly and incompletely in the judicial records–are wise and wonderful enough to be useful to all students of the past, whatever field they study. I can imagine using Farge’s book the next time I teach the freshman writing seminar.
The allure of the archives, Farge writes, “is rooted in these encounters with the silhouettes of the past, be they faltering or sublime. There is an obscure beauty in so many existences, barely illuminated by words, in confrontations with each other, imprisoned by their own devices as much as they were undone by their era.”
Farge describes the rituals and mechanics of archival work, and she describes archival etiquette, at least for an era before digital cameras became commonplace. But the book’s beauty lies in its account of Farge’s interactions with the archives’ inhabitants, the ordinary French men and women who show up in bits and pieces in the surviving records. “The incompleteness of the archive,” she writes, paradoxically “coexists right alongside the abundance of documents.” Tell me about it. Historians write down quotations from these documents, and “the proper usage of documents is similar to the inlaying of precious stones: a quotations only truly takes on meaning and significance if it fills a role that nothing else could.” Historical scholarship is a discipline and a craft and, for Farge, it is a reflective process. Those working in the archives must remain conscious of what they are doing, and the consequences that may result from their carelessness. We hold these forgotten lives in our hands. That is a privilege that comes with great responsibility.
History is never the simple repetition of archival content, but a pulling away from it, in which we never stop asking how and why these words came to wash ashore on the manuscript page. One must put the archive aside for a while, in order to better think on one’s own terms, and later draw everything together. If you have a taste for the archives, you feel a need for these alternating tasks of exclusion and reintegration of documents and writing, as you add your own style to the thoughts that emerge.
Still, so many people you meet in the archives, so many stories. “What can be done with these countless individuals, their tenuous plans, their many disjointed movements?” She likens these images to silhouettes on a wall or the shifting images one sees when gazing into a kaleidoscope, dynamic always, appearing and then disappearing, passing quickly out of your field of view before you get a clear sense of what you are looking at.
I get it. My colleagues who write about Native American history will sympathize. In so many archives, in so many collections of documents, in parish registers, burial records, transcripts of diplomatic encounters, bits of correspondence scattered here and there, receipts, school records, and even newspapers, thousands of lives, thousands of individuals, will appear fleetingly, saying little or nothing at all, words recorded by people with limited understanding of the peoples whose stories they tell.
These lives are difficult to reconstruct, I know, as I work through the many thousands of pages of documents I have collected to write my Onondaga book. It is difficult and demanding work. We work to recover larger pictures from scattered or broken fragments. But as I look small, I look large, too. We wrestle with the challenge of understanding the relationship between these individuals and the larger societal forms to which they belonged as native peoples.
It is easy to write the history of native peoples as objects acted upon by non-native actors. Writing that sort of history, however, privileges the forces of colonialism and the voices speaking in behalf of that process.
Farge has given me a lot to think about as I continue to read my sources and work on my history of the Onondaga Nation.
The Onondagas, as a community, experienced warfare, disease, and dispossession. They endured efforts to break up their reservation, to individualize them and destroy their national identity, and to transform them into something else. They confronted the State of New York’s efforts to extend its laws over their lands and the decisions of nearby business interests that destroyed Onondaga Creek. Telling these stories requires detailed examination of the many thousands of pages of documents and an enormous amount of reading, but the work itself is not particularly difficult. The views of white policy makers and power brokers are uncovered with relative ease. The challenging part is reconstructing the lives of the thousands of individuals who cross the pages in the sources I read, and who interacted with these larger forces.
History: It’s the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures. To tell these stories of continuity and change, to give them real meaning, requires a close examination of the small pieces, the individual pebbles on the beach. Boarding schools were terrible, we are told, instruments of cultural-genocide marching under the guise of benevolence. Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle School, and I read his propaganda and his reports, all the paper detritus of his campaign to “kill the Indian and save the man.” The best he could see in the thousands of young Native Americans who came to Carlisle was that they might be formed into something else. Pratt’s words are difficult to read, knowing that his blundering arrogance shattered so many lives and caused so much grief.
But I also need to look at the young men and women who clearly wanted to go to Carlisle because it offered them an opportunity to acquire a trade, to improve themselves. The records exist. We can see the Carlisle students who ran away from their “outing system” placements because they were homesick or were needed at home or because they hated their overseers, or fell in love with a fellow student working at a place not far away. It requires telling the stories of those Onondagas who missed the school once they left, who pestered the school’s administrators to send them copies of the student newspaper, and who attended Carlisle games when the team was close enough for them to make the trip. We must consider of the stories of those who were sent home because they were sick or rebellious or because they drank too much. It requires placing one set of difficult readings against another and against yet another still, cobbling the pieces together into some sort of sensible whole.
Sometimes, the people who appear in these records have children and grandchildren still living. As historians, drawn in by the allure of the archives, we are voyeurs and witnesses, and we will uncover stories that if shared carelessly can produce grief and pain and sadness. If we view our trips into the archive like a raid or a treasure hunt–and I will admit to feeling this way during my 5:00am drives down the Thruway from Rochester to Albany–we risk becoming exploitative, engaging in a sort of colonial enterprise. These documents are not ours, and the stories we fashion from the lives we see in bits and pieces do not belong to us alone. As we share these stories, and shape our careers as historians on the backs of the people about whom we write, we must remember our obligations, and the seriousness of our enterprise.
Many of my friends are historians, and many of us, I believe, identify closely with the work that we do and the subjects that we teach. It is part of what makes us what and who we are. We think about our work a lot, maybe too much for those with whom we share our lives. We can obsess and lose sleep as we think about the questions that can only be answered by a sojourn in the archives. We must be honest: as historians, we are nothing without these stories. Arlette Farge’s book reminded me of these obligations, and the deep and alluring connections that exist between the people we write about and the stories we tell, what we do and how we see ourselves.
I have written at length on this blog about the boarding school experience, mostly in light of recent Canadian efforts to recover and digitize an enormous documentary record and discuss its implications fully enough to arrive at some sort of truth and reconciliation for the suffering these institutions unquestionably caused. While acknowledging the limitations of these initiatives, I have been largely positive in my assessment, and I have lamented that no similar accounting has taken place in the United States. As a nation we do not talk about our history enough.
That is why I was so excited to learn about the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center based at Dickinson College. Dickinson is located in Carlisle and houses an enormous amount of material connected to the school in its archives. This wonderful project, under the direction of Dickinson College Archivist Jim Gerencser, Sociology Professor Susan Rose, and Special Collections Librarian Malinda Triller Doran, brings the sources together from a host of archives for a frank discussion of boarding schools and the involvement of the American government in them.
About a decade and a half ago, I took an interest in the student records from the Carlisle school. At the time I was conducting research on an Indian best known as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance. I ordered Long Lance’s student file from his time at Carlisle from the National Archives. It was expensive and it took some time.
I was drawn to Long Lance’s story because the other works looking at his career had, it seemed to me, missed the heartbreak and the drama at the heart of his story, one that I felt was so rich not only for understanding Native American history and the history of race in America, but also how one flawed man navigated the restricted racial pathways of the United States in the early twentieth century. (So much scholarship, students, finds its origins in a historian’s dissatisfaction with something he or she has read).
And here he was: grade reports, news clippings about his career after he left Carlisle, and the lengthy correspondence between school officials and others attempting to discern Long Lance’s true heritage. He had claimed a series of identities over the course of his varied career: Croatan, Lumbee, Cherokee, and, ultimately, Blackfeet. Some, however, aware that he had been born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1890 as Sylvester Long, suspected that he was a black man playing Indian to avoid the racial confines of the segregated south. Long Lance left Carlisle as the pressure and the questions mounted, joining the Canadian expeditionary force that went to France to fight in the first World War.
Long Lance never succeeded in escaping these suspicions. Indeed, much of his career ought to be viewed as a series of attempts to prove the authenticity of an Indian identity that carried him through more and more grandiose efforts to conform to white stereotypes about who Indians were and what they ought to be. As a Croatan, a Lumbee or a Cherokee; as Sylvester Long or Sylvester Long Lance or Buffalo Child Long Lance; as a Wild West performer, a soldier, a boxer and a chief: he never seemed Indian enough in his own eyes or in the eyes of the many people who watched his self-made celebrity grow.
He ended up in Southern California, the toy-boy of the wealthy Anita Baldwin, a Los Angeles heiress who hired Long Lance to accompany her and keep her company, an exotic ornament she could display to her friends. It was in her house, which stood on land that is now part of the Los Angeles County Arboretum, where he committed suicide in 1931. Though most accounts suggest that he ended his life because he could not escape suspicions about his “blackness,” that his “ethnic transvestism” had been at last unmasked, it is more likely that he was a forty-year-old man who felt that he had passed his prime, who had lost his opportunity at true love with a woman who simply did not care about his race at all. Alone and on the downward slide: men have killed themselves for far less.
Fifty years later, crew members filming the television series “Fantasy Island” on the grounds of what had been the Baldwin estate claimed to have seen Long Lance’s ghost, dressed in the regalia of a Blackfeet Chief, astride his pony. In death if not in life, Long Lance may have made a convincing Indian.
The value of these Carlisle records is that they allow the historian who is willing to dig and poke around, and accept that frustration and dead-ends are part of the historian’s enterprise, to reconstruct the lives of individual native people at a time when they government and its agents wanted them to assimilate and disappear, whether that individual is notorious like Long Lance, or little-known like the scores of Onondaga Indians who attended the school.
117 Onondagas attended the Carlisle Indian School. Most of them were male, almost all of them teenagers. Most of them had attended the day school on the Onondaga Nation territory south of Syracuse, New York, before enrolling. Some of them had attended the Thomas Indian School on the Senecas’ Cattaraugus Reservation, a boarding school operated by the state of New York. Colonel Pratt, the school’s founder, liked to show his supporters before-and-after photographs of “wild” Indians transformed into uniformed and short-haired students. Pratt told anyone who would listen that his goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man,” replacing their savagery with civility.
Except that he didn’t. Pratt was a tenacious self-promoter. He was also, in my book, a liar, and too many historians who have not looked at the school’s records have allowed him to get away with it. As the information on the Onondagas shows, the students who came to his came to his school often had attended day schools or other educational institutions before coming to Carlisle. They could speak, read, and write in English, many of them better than most of the college freshmen I see. They were often members of Christian congregations on the reservation. Many of them knew how to far. In addition to learning crafts, they studied algebra, grammar, and spelling.
I am working on a history of Onondaga, from the earliest days of the Iroquois League up to the present. In writing a story that covers more than five hundred years it is easy to lose sight of individuals, to focus instead on the larger strands a historian can pull and weave in order to produce a compelling narrative. The individuals who emerge in stories such as these, in Native American history as in other fields, are often elites, leaders, and men mostly, who interacted with the white people who produced the documentary record upon which we historians rely.
In these Carlisle records, we can see inside the homes of ordinary Onondagas. We can hear their thoughts, see their concerns. We can see the poverty, the hard work needed to scrape by in central New York, or the difficulty in finding the six or seven bucks it took to buy a ticket home from Carlisle to Syracuse, when a parent needed the help of his or her child. We see parents earnestly imploring Carlisle’s superintendent to treat their children well when word arrived that the kid had fallen ill–from an abscessed tooth, or erysipelas, a fever, or tuberculosis.
There is plenty of heartbreak in these documents. Some of the young people from Onondaga who went to Carlisle suffered from loneliness. Some clearly felt acute homesickness. Some learned of the death of parents or siblings through the mail and were not able to go home afterwards. A few of them were treated poorly, the felt, in the houses where they were sent through Carlisle’s “putting out” system. Many of them ran away, and some of them tried to do so more than once.
But there is more to it than this. We see young people from Onondaga who wanted to go to Carlisle, or whose parents wanted them to go to Carlisle, to learn a trade that they could not learn at home. Sometimes the kids had fun. Some of them wanted to be at Carlisle. A few of them did not want to go home. They wrote fondly to Pratt’s successor Moses Friedman and thanked him for sending copies of the school’s newspaper. When they could, they attended Carlisle sporting events. More than a few described how much they missed Carlisle, how they wished they could come back. They kept Friedman abreast of developments in their lives, and some of them helped recruit students. For some of the Onondagas who attended Carlisle, their fondness for the school was enormous.
These documents, so carefully digitized and well curated by the team at Dickinson, complicate and enliven the stories we now can tell about Carlisle. And they will allow me to tell a more nuanced and detailed story about the Onondagas and their history.
One of the tricks of writing Native American history is to take sources written by white people who almost always thought that native peoples needed to die, disappear, or change, and use them along with those sources where native voices do appear to provide a rich description of Native American lives. With a judicious selection of secondary sources, an instructor could offer a wonderful seminar on historical research methods for beginning students, introducing them to the analytical and investigative tools a historian must develop. And a student could use this database to write a wonderful research paper. The Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center is digital humanities at its best.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History