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.
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.
In a speech delivered last week before the United Nations, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about his country’s history of relations with its indigenous population. He wanted to show the world that Canada could take responsibility for the “terrible mistakes” of its past.
Whether or not Canada has succeeded in doing, so, Trudeau spoke of the enduring legacies of colonialism. “Early colonial relationships,” he said, for Canada’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples, “were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences,” but rather an experience that “was mostly one of humiliation, neglect, and abuse.”
And the damage has been long-lasting indeed. Trudeau spoke of Canadian indigenous communities with unsafe drinking water, of large numbers of missing or murdered indigenous women. He spoke of “Indigenous parents in Canada who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won’t run away or take their own lives in the night.” The problems of which Trudeau spoke have been well-documented.
Trudeau has faced significant criticism at home from indigenous spokespeople who feel that his words have not been matched by action. Many have criticized the Canadian movement towards reconciliation, which I have written about on this blog, as a feel-good movement for white people that does nothing about structural inequalities and injustices deeply rooted in Canadian society. These are significant critiques, and it is well-worthwhile for students of America’s native peoples to watch how Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues its work. (You can access its reports here.)
But despite the criticism of Trudeau and the limitations of his approach, for an American president to even consider saying something close to what Prime Minister said before the UN is utterly inconceivable. If you saw the excellent “Wind River,” you will recognize that the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women is not exclusive to Canada. Corporate profit-seeking in Indian Country has led to the devastation of water supplies on American reservations. I have written much on this blog about DAPL (the documentary “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” is strong on sentiment but weaker in terms of substance) but that is hardly the only example. More than a third of all Superfund sites are located in Indian Country, and others, like Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, are nearby. Police violence against native peoples, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and higher rates of deficiency on every measure of social well-being: the problems are enormous, the challenges daunting, and the resources available limited. In both Canada and the United States, these are the legacies of an enduring colonialism.
Now, if I were to ask my students if they should expect President Trump to deliver a speech similar to that given by Prime Minister Trudeau, they would emphatically say “no.” If I were to ask them why, their answers would be a bit more complex. For to assert that Trump is a racist or white supremacist uninterested in hearing about complaints from or the conditions experienced by peoples of color, while true, only gets us so far. No American president, whatever his party, has spoken as frankly as Trudeau about his country’s mistakes and misdeeds. No, there is much more to it than the current American president’s long list of shortcomings, inadequacies, and character flaws.
The United States, regardless of its leader, has shown little interest in confronting its long history of colonialism. The growth of the United States could not have occurred without the wholesale and systematic dispossession of native peoples. Sure, many of the thousands of transactions where Indian land came into the hands of white people were “legal” in the sense that they were recorded in deeds or ratified in treaties, but these transactions have histories of their own. They occurred because of the relentless pressure exerted by European farmers and their livestock on native lands, or because native peoples decided to sell lands that they knew from hard experience “settlers” would take from them anyways, or after epidemic diseases reduced an indigenous community’s population and this made their lands seem “vacant” or as “surplus” land. Some of these cessions were the price of peace after a military invasion of conquest and desolation. Dispossession and violence often walked hand-in-hand.
The loss of land was immense. But it cannot be understood apart from the assault on native peoples’ cultures and ways of living. Just as Canada had its residential schools, the United States had boarding schools. Still, there was so much more to the assault on Indian identity, and it was so much more thorough than a focus on these sadistic institutions might lead one to believe. I tell the story of this cultural assault in Chapter 8 of Native America.
We, as a country, are not very good at talking about our misdeeds. We insulate our children from these stories, for instance, for a variety of reasons: because the stories of the suffering that his country has caused native peoples are so massive that kids could not handle them, or because somehow hiding the country’s crimes from them is the best way to produce loyal and patriotic citizens. So we design curricula that talk about tiny parts of the Native American past, but not in a way that would cause children to question their country’s conduct. It happened a long time ago. We are free and clear, we tell them. We’ll blame it on Andrew Jackson, and call it a day.
Meanwhile we cast Indians as part of the past, a point I have raised on this blog many times, because it makes it easier to deny their just grievances today. We will pat ourselves on the back for renaming a football team, or changing Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day,” or persuading this or that religious denomination to renounce its approval for the Doctrine of Discovery, valuable though these acts may be. But let’s be clear. These actions cost white people little, and the structural burdens imposed by colonialism and white supremacy survive them and remain intact. We like to tinker around the edges of significant problems. Too many of us view manifestations of Indian identity as inauthentic, and the expressions of long-held grievances as belly-aching about things that happened long ago. We do not believe, as a rule, that inter-generational trauma is a thing, or that the burdens of history weigh more heavily upon some people than upon others.
We are unrepentant, unwilling to apologize, and to many of us too ill-informed or too uninterested to learn and understand how Native America’s loss has been white America’s gain.
As I wrote the first draft of this post earlier this morning, the hourly NPR newsbreak came over the radio. The first story was Donald Trump’s denunciation of those NFL players who, with respect and civility, took a knee to protest police brutality and the continuing slaughter of people of color by the nation’s law enforcement officers. The second story involved the shooting of a deaf person of color by police officers in Oklahoma. The victim did not hear the officers’ demand that he set down the metal pipe he was holding.
This country, it’s something else sometimes. As native peoples long have told us, white people in America are comfortable dictating to people of color how they should conduct themselves, the forms of grievance and redress-seeking that are legitimate, not to mention how to conduct themselves religiously, spiritually, emotionally, sexually, domestically, and aesthetically. When kneeling for the National Anthem is viewed as more disrespectful than flying the Confederate flag, and when this proposition can be debated, defended, and taken seriously by millions of almost exclusively white Americans who support the President, it is pretty evident that the sickness is rooted deep.
Justin Trudeau clearly has not come close to doing what his very sincere and committed critics want him to do, but he has done more than any American president, and he is light years ahead of our Brass Creon. Talking cannot do everything, and acknowledging past crimes is not a remedy by itself. But it’s a start. It is a vital precondition to things getting better. The act of acknowledging that I am at least partially responsible for your pain, and that I have benefited from the historical suffering of your people: it can be a powerful thing. I am fully aware that I am speaking favorably of Prime Minister Trudeau for doing, at the end of the day, what any informed and honest person would do. Yet our current leadership, in politics and in public education, in the Democratic and in the Republican parties, are not even close to being able to clear so low a bar.
One of my very good former students told me about “The Secret Path,” a multimedia project produced by Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip in the fall of 2016. An animated film, a musical album, a graphic novel, The Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack. Twelve years old when he fled from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, Chanie wanted to return to his family at Ogoki Post, four hundred miles away. He did not know how long a journey he had, and he never made it home. He died from exposure, exhaustion, and hunger along the tracks that he thought would lead him to his family in October of 1966. Just a kid.
The Secret Path is a simple but searing portrait of the experience of children in Canada’s residential schools. From the late nineteenth century into the 1980s (Cecilia Jeffrey closed in 1974), Downie wrote,
“All of those Governments, and all of those Churches, for all of those years, misused themselves. They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder. Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are. “
Children at Cecilia Jeffrey were subjected to medical “experimentation and treatment of ear disease” in the 1950s, government documents later revealed. Children suffered, emotionally and physically. Their families did, too, and a lot of people knew about it. If you are interested in this history, or the parallel history of boarding schools in the United States, you should watch the film, listen to Downie’s music, and learn from the panel discussion treating the painful legacy of these institutions, filled with children taken by law from their parents aboard “Trains of Tears” which transported them hundreds of miles from their homes. Between 20,000 and 50,000 children were sent to residential schools in Canada. As in other parts of the history of native peoples, the numbers can stagger, become too abstract. What Downie does so well is force us to look at the entire broken and horrible process from the perspective of one child.
There is a large literature on the history of American Indian boarding schools. The bibliography will guide you to some of the books I like. The best treatment of the famous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania remains the unpublished dissertation written by Genevieve Bell, “Telling Stories out of School: Remembering the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1879-1918,” (Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1998). You will likely have to get it through your college library’s interlibrary loan.
Bell showed that we have not told the story of the American boarding schools as effectively as we might, that the important insights from this vast scholarship have not trickled down to high school and college American history textbooks. For one thing, we have allowed Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of Carlisle, to shape too much of the narrative. Pratt liked to boast that he would “kill the Indian and save the man.” He liked to produce before-and-after pictures, showing “savage” children from the western wilds and the same children, cleaned up and with their hair cut, in the military uniforms worn by Carlisle students. Pratt wanted his supporters to believe that he was “civilizing”
The reality was more complex, a point Bell makes convincingly. The most numerous children at Carlisle came from native communities in the east–Oneidas, for instance, or eastern Cherokee. These children spoke English and already were familiar with agricultural work on a white American model. Many of them already were Christian. They studied Latin and Trigonometry. Many of them wrote English beautifully.
But the institutions still were cruel. Institutions in general where “the other” was corrected, improved, educated, reformed, rehabilitated, or detained, were routinely brutal. Children died at these schools, far from home, some without knowing how much their parents and siblings missed them, without knowing how much they were loved.
I took this picture on a very rainy day nearly a decade ago in the graveyard that still stands on the site of the former Carlisle Indian School. I was inspired to visit the site one day while I was in the area after reading Calvin Luther Martin’s The Way of the Human Being, which I mentioned in my previous post. In that book’s closing pages, Martin and his wife visited the graveyard at Carlisle. Having left his teaching job at Rutgers, and having spent some time teaching the real people in Alaska, Martin looked at the columns and rows of tombstones as if they were the seats in a classroom. He presented to them, in a sense, his last lecture.
“I took my position at the front of the class and looked around, professor for the last time. Before me, attentive students in silent formation. The last class at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. They died before becoming blacksmiths and carpenters, shoemakers and tinsmiths, tailors, printers, harnessmakers, plumbers, bricklayers, or laundresses, cooks, and seamstresses. But they were already real people, I thought, as I fought back my anger–people who understood the way of the human being in this place. I was a man, a historian, standing before a cemetery created by blundering good will.
I paused and reconsidered. I had to leave them with something more satisfying than my bitterness. . . I apologized to these kids. I apologized not as an angry historian but simply as a sorrowful human being. What else can one possibly be, standing in a graveyard? I called some by name as I did so. I told them we were traveling west, and I invited any lingering spirits to come along. All I heard were the cars, though sometimes, more powerfully, the wind.”
The United States, several years ago, apologized for its historic treatment of native peoples. You probably missed it. The apology received little attention. Largely the work of then-Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, the resolution included the formal “Whereas” statements that appear so often in Senate documents: Indians had been treated badly, they had been dispossessed, and, “Whereas the United States government condemned the traditions, beliefs, and customs of Native Peoples, and endeavored to assimilate them by such policies as the redistribution of land under the General Allotment Act of 1887, and the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden,” the United States apologized “to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” Nonetheless, “nothing in this joint resolution,” the Senators agreed, “authorizes or supports any claim against the United States.”
It was an empty, cynical, and shallow gesture. We do not talk about the boarding schools, and other painful parts of our history, frankly enough. We do not learn from this history. The government boarding schools are gone, but there are still a few run by church and other organizations, like St. Labre in Montana. Their approach is different than those used in an earlier period but, still, it is important to remember how recent this history is. The Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus reservation in western New York remained open into the 1950s. It is not unusual to speak of and, in New York State, to meet boarding school “survivors.”
Canada is doing more than the United States to talk about its troubled past. Still, problems remain. Just a couple of days ago, APTN ran a story with the headline “Ontario Government Has No Idea How Many First Nations Kids it Puts in Group Homes.” Three teenage girls had died in these schools in less than six months, one in a fire, two by suicide. If American officials and Canadian officials would have had their way in the not-so-distant past, nobody would be discussing the fate of Indian children, for the schools would have succeeded in assimilating native children into the Canadian or American mainstream. According to Ry Moran, the director of the Canadian National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, these schools “tried to end indigenous peoples. They tried to end cultures.” Speaking at a panel discussion available on The Secret Path website, Moran noted that “the railways were used in this country to establish Canada, but they also were used to transport kids,” many thousands of them, who were forcibly taken from their families. It’s a story, Moran argues, that still too few Canadians know. (The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is creating an archive, an amazing but troubling archive of arrogance, cultural imperialism, and ethnocentrism: You can check it out right here).
Americans, too, do not know these stories well enough. Colonialism. It is a force. It produces comforting myths that blind Americans to the truth. “It could not have been as bad as we might have heard.” I have heard that from audiences where I have spoken. We do not like to confront the legacy of our past cruelties. More powerful work like that produced by Downie may force more of us to do so.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History