EPA visitors learn history of Carlisle Indian School

The recent journey of about 25 EPA Conference members to the site of the historic Carlisle Indian Industrial School took them a distance of only about a hundred miles. But their daylong tour also took them back more than a hundred years into the difficult history of that institution.

Carlisle was the first of 26 off-reservation industrial schools created by the U.S. government to acculturate Native American children and youth by teaching them acceptable customs of mainstream American society in place of their own.  It opened in 1879 with 82 boys and girls. By the time it closed in 1918, more than 10,600 students, ages 6-25, had passed through its gates, their lives and even their families back home forever changed, and for many, changed for the worse.

The visitors who boarded a yellow school bus to journey there on June 24 were treated to the adventure by the EPA Conference Committee on Native American Ministries (CoNAM).

The school was built on an abandoned Army base; and now the National Historic Landmark site has returned to that original use as the U.S. Army’s War College and barracks. But the school’s memories, including heroes like the famous Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, are forever present there, like the white gravestones near the entrance marking where hundreds of former students are buried.

Sandra Cianciulli and Barbara Christy, both CoNAM members, recently joined advocates in saving the former school’s farmhouse (left), a key part of its legacy. They prevailed over attempts in 2012 to demolish and replace the timeworn building with additional Army base homes. Over the next few years the farmhouse, whose historical significance was uncovered through research, will instead be renovated and possibly turned into a museum or visitors center to better tell the compelling story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

During visits to the nearby Cumberland County Historical Society and the Army base, an informative guide gave the group a look back into Carlisle’s history. It was the brainchild of Capt. Richard Henry Pratt of the U.S. Army Cavalry. After the Civil War Pratt fought against American Indians in the West and brought prisoners back to Fort Marion in Florida.

He had local Quaker women teach them to read and write; and when the prisoners were released some went to college and others to agricultural school. Pratt believed assimilation into mainstream white culture–teaching children to speak English, to dress as whites did, and to learn useful trades–would give Native Americans their best chance for survival.

‘Kill the Indian. Save the Man’

While some may have benefited from these assimilation efforts, it is widely felt that the majority of students and graduates did not. “Kill the Indian. Save the man,” was Pratt’s now-infamous motto.

“Our guide said it was a form of blackmail, in a way, to keep the Native people in line,” reported Molly Dee Rounsley, who chronicled the journey. “Imagine saying to parents, ‘We will take your children far away from home and give them a good education and trade.’ On the surface that sounds good; but think about it on a deeper level. It also says to parents, ‘We have your children; so you’d better not cause any more trouble.’”

Children from 150 tribes arrived wearing Native American dress, but their clothes were immediately removed, burned and replaced with attire that white children wore. The boys’ long hair was cut short and the girls’ hair was coiffed and curled. In many tribal cultures, hair is cut only in mourning when a family member has died. So many children thought they had lost a relative.

Students were not allowed to speak in their native tongues, only in English. They were often placed in dormitory rooms with children from tribes of their adversaries. Corporal punishment was the norm, as it was in most schools.

“Two of the students in the first class in 1879 were my relatives,” said Cianciulli, “Geoffrey Chipps (Walks in the Clouds) was 7; Bertha Chipps (Keeps Cane) was 9.  Even though I don’t know either of their stories—it was so long ago— just realizing they were there gets me a little emotional and inspires me to keep up the good fight.”

The Carlisle school excelled in sports and music, the guide explained. Its football team and its band were nationally known. The renowned  Pop Warner coached the football team in the early 1900’s, and his star player was Jim Thorpe, a phenomenal, versatile athlete. The school had an 11-to-1 record in 1911 and won the National Football Championship in 1912, the same year Thorpe earned two Olympic Gold Medals. The music band, meanwhile, traveled the country playing at several World’s Fairs and presidential inaugurations.

Carpentry was one of numerous trades the students learned, and several buildings they erected still remain on the grounds, including a gymnasium, housing for teachers and an infirmary.  Students trained in masonry also built a stone wall that channeled water from a nearby spring to encircle the grounds and irrigate the fields.

“Our guide told us that children were not sent to the infirmary to get well, but were sent there if they were not expected to recover,” recalled Rounsley. “Or they were returned by train to die at home because it would reflect poorly on the school if they died there.”

Reportedly, one tenth of Carlisle’s roughly 10,000 students died in its 39-year history; and 186 of them are buried in the cemetery near the entrance, some in unmarked graves.

Painful Memories Repressed

Many who survived Indian industrial schools later repressed painful memories, just as their tribal customs were repressed. Forced to reject their own cultures, they were prepared for assimilation into a mainstream culture that ultimately rejected them out of racism. The result for many was alienation, shame and generational trauma.

As the CoNAM tour group boarded the bus to return home, Rounsley said, she and perhaps others were thinking about the 2012 General Conference resolution titled Acts of Remembrance and Reconciliation with Native Americans. It charges the denomination’s Council of Bishops and all annual conferences to engage in an ongoing process to improve relations with indigenous peoples through acts of repentance.

The 2015 EPA Annual Conference is expected to include activities to honor that commitment. It may benefit more conference members to prepare for that occasion by taking the same journey to the former Carlisle School and learning its painful but revealing lessons.

By Molly Dee Rounsley and John W. Coleman

Editor’s Note: Much of the content for this article was provided by Molly Dee Rounsley. NewSpirit thanks her for reporting on this important journey. For more information about Carlisle and the Farmhouse restoration project, contact Sandra Cianciulli, CoNAM co-chairwoman, at sandi_c524@hotmail.com.