Jim Remsen

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Our Undying Past

Preserving Carlisle School's story

December 5, 2014

Tags: Native Americans, Indians, Carlisle, civilization, education, landmark


A Carlisle Indian Industrial School student, before and after his assimilation. A coalition of descendants and allies is working to create a heritage center about the controversial school.
You’ve probably heard of Jim Thorpe, the immortal American Indian athlete. Maybe you knew he gained fame a century ago while a student at the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pa. But did you know that in the eyes of many Indians and cultural historians, Thorpe’s fame is easily matched by the Carlisle school’s infamy?

For four decades beginning in 1879, the Carlisle school existed to “civilize” over 10,000 native students--to make them think and act white. Carlisle was one in a network of federally run boarding schools that systematically pulled Indian youngsters from their home reservations, sheared them of their traditional hair, names, language and traditions, and subjected them to a regimen of “total immersion” in European ways. At the time, this was considered a humane alternative to the rabid voices for extermination that were being raised, especially in the West. If you’re a white person you may be somewhat aware of this dubious history, though it’s probably not because you learned it in school.

Now, a coalition of Carlisle descendants and allies is aiming to set up a heritage center where we all might better understand this legacy and reflect on it. Talks are proceeding with the U.S. Army Garrison Carlisle Barracks to house the center in a historic farmhouse that is one of the few physical remnants of the boarding school. The coalition also has set up a “Carlisle Farmhouse Friends” page on Facebook to gather input from tribal representatives, descendants of students, and others.

The Army had planned to raze the farmhouse in 2012 to make way for new housing. Descendants and others rose up in protest, leading to negotiations and a plan designate the building as a national landmark.

According to an article last month in Indian Country Today, the coalition’s preservation plan aims to “tell the story of Carlisle through multiple points of view, including descendants’ voices” as a way to “integrate Native histories into our larger stories of American History in order to have a more richly textured understanding of our shared past.” The center would balance themes of trauma, abuse, neglect, grief and student resistance at Carlisle with more positive themes of school friendships, successful alumni, Indian achievements in society, and the modern native rights movement.

I visited Carlisle in 2006 as part of a long road trip that resulted in Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Indian-settler conflicts in the 1700s. In downtown Carlisle is the impressive museum of the Cumberland County Historical Society, which had a large exhibition devoted to the Indian school. I was particularly touched by the story of Angel De Cora, a prominent Indian artist who for a time was able to teach native art styles to the Carlisle students, who had utterly forgotten those skills.

The boarding school was on the edge of town, but as I learned, it’s been all but obliterated. I was directed to the school’s cemetery, which does remain, walled-in and solemn. Graves marked students from distant tribes, or sometimes as “Unknown.” Descendants and others still come to grieve, evident from the amulets placed near headstones and ribbons on overhead branches.

The Carlisle school finally was closed in 1918. Its rise and fall is well-told in a book I purchased at the museum, The Indian Industrial School, by Linda F. Witmer. Like the museum, the book is loaded with vintage photographs of Indian boys and girls in white clothing engaged in “civilized” trades, games, music, theater, and other approved pursuits. They are beyond disturbing, to my eyes.

Witmer explains that Carlisle periodically fell into disfavor for money or management problems. And in the early years of the 20th century, many people were rejecting the approach of school founder Richard H. Pratt. They didn’t object to Pratt’s racial reconditioning – but just didn’t think the schools had to be placed in white areas. “Many policy makers and reformers were convinced,” Witmer writes, “that the reservation was the best place for a massive civilization effort.”

Pratt stuck to his guns, even in retirement. On a return visit in 1914, Witmer writes, he had the students recite the old school pledge, “The way to civilize an Indian is to get him into civilization. The way to keep him civilized is to let him stay.”

The heritage center would be a great way to examine the spoils of that philosophy. To stay abreast of developments, consider joining the Carlisle Farmhouse Friends on Facebook. And take a drive to Carlisle itself. It’s a beautiful town rich in history, for better or worse.

Selected Works by Jim Remsen

Nonfiction
The chronicle of a group of fugitive slaves and the world they encountered in the wary North. Despite serving bravely in the Civil War, their battle for respect was never-ending.
A comprehensive, immensely practical self-help book for intermarried families and those who love them.
Historical fiction
A tween girl visits a seemingly out-of-the-way town on a summer vacation and has close encounters with its amazing past. This saga blends history, suspense, and a coming-of-age journey.

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