The Carlisle Indian Industrial School (11/12/21)

In the latter half of the 1800s, the Indian conflicts (skirmishes, wars) in America were at an end. The vanquished Native Americas were herded to reservations. But the question emerged about what to do with the Indian children.

The American government decided that Native American children should be reeducated and “Americanized.” They should be taught skills that would enable them to become productive citizens of society outside of the reservation. Thus, thousands of Native American children were separated from their parents and sent to special boarding schools to become educated and “Americanized.” These schools were operated by the U.S. Government. Figure 1 shows the location of the 27 Off-Reservation Indian Boarding Schools in 1908 operated by the government.

Figure 1. Indian Boarding Schools in 1908. The legend identifying the schools is found at the end of this Footnote.

One such school, the largest and most famous (or perhaps infamous), was school number 1 on the map – the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. It was the first such school (1879) and established the pattern for many of the other schools that followed. This Footnote will focus on that school. This is the second Footnote in our series acknowledging Native American Heritage Month.

Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School

Before Carlisle Indian Industrial School came into existence missionaries and other compassionate groups established schools on or near Indian reservations to educate the Native American children. This was to prepare the children to live in the white man’s world. However, at the end of the school day, the children returned to the reservation environment which basically undermined what they were being taught. So, the U.S. Government came up with the idea of having off-reservation boarding schools.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first off-reservation boarding school and opened in 1879. It was located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on an old military base. It was far from home for the Native American children. The philosophy of the school was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” The goal was to assimilate the children into the white man’s culture.

The Superintendent of Carlisle was General Richard Henry Pratt. He had supervised the education of a group of 72 Native American prisoners of war at Fort Marion, Florida, and was convinced that if Native American children were removed from their tribes and placed in an Anglo environment, they would assimilate within a generation.

Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and family and loaded onto trains, stagecoaches and ships headed to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When they arrived at Carlisle their long hair was cut off [Note: long hair was a symbol of manhood among Native Americans; captured warriors had their long hair cut off to shame them], they were given Anglo names, and dressed in white man’s clothing. The boys wore uniforms, and the girls wore Victorian dresses. Any totems or articles to remind them of their cultural heritage were confiscated.

Figure 2. Tom Torlino

The children were forbidden to speak in their native language, even to each other. They marched to and from classes. They also had to use forks, knives, spoons, and napkins while eating. Shoes were required, no moccasins.

The curriculum at Carlisle included a strong emphasis on reading, writing, and speaking English. History was taught with a definite Anglo bias. Columbus Day was considered a great day in history. Religion (that is Christianity) was also taught. And some rudimentary science was taught. There were also classes in music and art. About half of the day was spent learning a trade.

The American Indian Relief Council reports:

Half of each school day was spent on industrial training. Girls learned to cook, clean, sew, care for poultry and do laundry for the entire institution. Boys learned industrial skills such as blacksmithing, shoemaking or performed manual labor such as farming. Since the schools were required to be as self-sufficient as possible, students did the majority of the work. By 1900, economic practicality became the goal and school curriculum slanted even further toward industrial training while academics languished.

Agricultural Education at Carlisle

On February 12, 1907, William Mercer, School Superintendent at Carlisle wrote a letter to the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs requesting to abolish the assistant farmer position at Carlisle and replace that individual with a “teacher of agriculture.” In justifying the position, he writes:

There can be no question in my mind that for our Indian boys and girls nothing is more important in the way of training than that relating to farm work and agricultural pursuits. The practical side of course is acquired at this school through our outing work, but it is felt that there should be a thorough, systematic course of training arranged and pursued in our classrooms.

If the position is established it is contemplated that the appointee shall not only arrange and outline the course of instruction as may be deemed desirable on farm subjects but also have immediate charge of our two school farms and dairy. Neither our farmer nor assistant farmer has any special training for their work other than that acquired on the farm. There can be no doubt but that the efficient and intelligent oversight by a trained man the output of our farms would not only be materially increased, but that the training to be obtained by our boys while here at the school can be made more efficient by having it properly systematized.

The request to hire an agriculture teacher was approved. In a letter dated March 22, 1907, Mercer writes the Commissioner of Indian Affairs that his choice of the three candidates considered is to hire Hugh W. Taylor of Kentucky. In April Superintendent Mercer reports that Taylor has been hired effective April 15 at a salary of $1,000.

The October 26, 1917 issue of The Carlisle Arrow and Red Man (student newspaper and magazine) has an article about the formation of the Agricultural Association in the Agricultural Room. Forty-six boys were present. The article stated the agricultural teacher planned to have several speakers to give “illustrated lectures” about agricultural club work. The group planned to meet twice a month and (p. 4) “All who are interested in any phase of farming are invited to join us, not only because of the educational value you will derive from the meetings, but because they will help you for better leadership and citizenship.”

Figure 3. The Agricultural Club. This image appeared in the 1917 school yearbook, The Carlisle.

The Carlisle Arrow (a student newspaper) reported that agriculture teacher Leo Marks traveled to Wisconsin to buy Holstein cattle in 1916, the same year the dairy herd was tested for tuberculosis and was found to be negative. This page from the 1917 Carlisle presents the best information I could find about the Agriculture Department at Carlisle.

Figure 4. Information about the Agriculture Department from the 1917 Carlisle.

The Outing System

Superintendent Pratt created the “outing” system (also known as the placing-out system). He had students live with white families during the summer (or for a year) to experience the American family and to learn other practical skills. See the outing contract in Figure 5. The Outing system gave the students the opportunity to earn money since they were paid for the work they did.

Figure 5. The Carlisle Outing Contract.

An article in the July 21, 1916 edition of The Carlisle Arrow, a newspaper printed by the students, reveals that “outings” as farmers were popular and resulted in respectable earnings. It seems to me that this was the forerunner of the Placement category utilized by today’s agriculture students as part of their Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) program. See Figure 6.

Figure 6. Earnings from the “Outings” for 1916.

Carlisle was known nationally for two things – the band and athletics. By 1907, the Carlisle Indians were the most dynamic team in college football (even though the school was not a college they played college teams). Jim Thorpe was their most famous athlete and Pop Warner was the football coach. They pioneered the forward pass, the overhand spiral, and other trick plays that frustrated their opponents. The Carlisle Indians have been characterized as the “team that invented football.” You might want to check out the video The Legacy of the Carlisle Indian School Football Team.

The Carlisle Indian Band earned an international reputation. The Carlisle Indian Band performed at world fairs, expositions, and at every national presidential inaugural celebration until the school closed.

The Model for Indian Education??

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was viewed as a model throughout the nation. More than 20 other boarding schools operated by the U.S. Indian Bureau were created using Carlisle as the model. The Carlisle model was also used by religious groups and others who established boarding schools in Indian Country.

In 1879, the Canadian government sent lawyer Nicholas Flood Davin to the U.S. on a fact-finding mission. Davin visited the Carlisle school and was enthusiastic about what he saw. Davin recommended that Canada develop their own residential school system as soon as possible [Note: The Indian Boarding Schools in Canada have been in the news recently because of the discovery of hundreds of graves on their grounds].

In 1891 the U.S. government passed a federal law that made attendance at off-reservation boarding schools compulsory for Native children. The Bureau of Indian Affairs withheld food and other goods from those who refused to send their children to the schools and even sent officers to forcibly take children from the reservation.

Life at many Native American boarding schools was hard. Unclean and overpopulated living conditions led to the spread of disease and many students did not receive enough food. Bounties were offered for students who tried to run away, and many students took their own lives. Sometimes students who died were buried in the school cemetery in coffins made by their classmates.

In 1928, the U.S. government commissioned what is known as the Meriam Report, a comprehensive report on the conditions of Native Americans. The first sentence in the chapter on education said that a fundamental change in the point of view was needed – removing the Indian child from the family was wrong. The report criticized everything from the schools’ deteriorating conditions to the excessive manual labor the children were forced to perform. Students were hungry, sick, and demoralized and were subjected to harsh physical punishments.

It would take about 50 years for conditions to change. In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which granted tribes the ability to assume responsibility for programs that had been administered by the federal government. Then in 1978 with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.

The 1975 and 1978 legislation were the death knell for the remaining residential schools that had survived the great depression of the 1930s, but a few remain. Today, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education still directly operates four off-reservation boarding schools – Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma; Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California; Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon; and Flandreau Indian School in Flandreau, South Dakota.

In 2009, Congress passed a joint resolution of apology to Native Americans that included a reference to “the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden.”

Concluding Remarks

Figure 7. This group picture of students at Carlisle was taken in 1885.

From 1879 to 1918, more than 10,000 Native American children from 140 tribes attended Carlisle. The School closed in 1918. The War Department needed the facility to care for soldiers wounded during World War 1. And with similar schools out west, there was no longer a need to ship the Native American children across the country.

There are differing opinions about Carlisle. Cress (2018) reports:

There is no uniform point of view on the impact Carlisle had on Native American culture. Landis [Cumberland County Historical Society Archivist] has visited communities where factions view the school as a source of intergenerational trauma, while other factions see it more as an institution that drove generations of native youths to succeed and advance in the white man’s culture.

Unspoken is a 57 minute documentary about Native American Boarding Schools on YouTube I highly recommend it. Narrated by Peter Coyote. If it is too long for one class period, just show parts of it. We really need to have this conversation about inclusion.

We need to know where we started in order to know where we should be headed. A different model for educating Native Americans about agriculture will be featured in next week’s Footnote. Stay tuned to learn about an exemplary high school agricultural education program in Arizona.

References and Resources

American Indian Relief Council. History and Culture Boarding Schools.

Blakemore, Erin (2021). A Century of Trauma at U.S. Boarding Schools for Native American Children. National Geographic.

Cress, Joseph (2018). Carlisle Indian School Legacy Presents a Conflicted Point-of-View. The Morning Call.

Indian Boarding School Legend for Figure 1

  1. Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) – opened October 1879, closed in 1918
  2. Chemawa Indian School (Salem, Oregon) – opened February 1880, still in operation
  3. Chilocco Indian School (Chilocco, Oklahoma) – opened January 1884, closed in 1980
  4. Genoa Indian Industrial School (Genoa, Nebraska) – opened February 1884, closed in 1934
  5. Albuquerque Indian School (Albuquerque, New Mexico) – opened August 1884, closed in 1981
  6. Haskell Industrial Training School (Lawrence, Kansas) – opened September 1884, closed in 1965
  7. Grand Junction Indian School (Grand Junction, Colorado) – opened 1886, closed in 1910
  8. Santa Fe Indian School (Santa Fe, New Mexico) – opened October 1890, reverted to tribal control in 2000
  9. Stewart Indian School (Carson City, Nevada) – opened December 1890, closed in 1980
  10. Fort Mojave Industrial School (Fort Mojave, Arizona) – opened December 1890, closed in 1931
  11. Pierre Indian School (Pierre, South Dakota) – opened February 1891, evolved into a school for children with special needs in 1974
  12. Phoenix Indian School (Phoenix, Arizona) – opened September 1891, closed in 1990
  13. Fort Lewis Indian School (Fort Lewis, Colorado) – opened March 1892, closed in 1910, now a college
  14. Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School (Fort Shaw, Montana) – opened December 1892, closed in 1910
  15. Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial School (Mount Pleasant, Michigan) – opened January 1893, closed in 2008
  16. Tomah Indian Industrial School (Tomah, Wisconsin) – opened January 1893, closed in 1941
  17. Pipestone Indian School (Pipestone, Minnesota) – opened February 1893, closed in 1953
  18. Flandreau Indian School (Flandreau, South Dakota) – opened March 1893, still in operation
  19. Wittenberg Indian School (Wittenberg, Wisconsin) – opened August 1895, closed in 1917
  20. Greenville Indian Industrial School (Greenville, California) – opened September 1895, closed in 1922
  21. Morris Industrial School for Indians (Morris, Minnesota) – opened April 1897, closed in 1909
  22. Chamberlain Indian School (Chamberlain, South Dakota) – opened March 1898, sold to the Catholic church in 1909
  23. Fort Bidwell Indian School (Fort Bidwell, California) – opened April 1898, closed in 1931
  24. Rapid City Indian School (Rapid City, South Dakota) – opened September 1898, closed in 1933
  25. Sherman Institute (Riverside, California) – opened July 1902, still in operation
  26. Wahpeton Indian School (Wahpeton, North Dakota) – opened February 1908, became tribally controlled in 1993
  27. Bismarck Indian School (Bismarck, North Dakota) – opened December 1908, closed in 1937