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Indian Boarding Schools' Traumatic Legacy, And The Fight To Get Native Ancestors Back

Aug 28, 2021
Originally published on September 4, 2021 10:07 am

After the remains of more than 1,300 First Nations students were discovered at the former sites of Canada's residential schools earlier this year, the U.S. is now facing its own moment of reckoning with its history of Native American boarding schools. In response to these findings, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (a member of the Pueblo of Laguna) announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to review "the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies."

In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, efforts have been underway since 2016 to return the remains of Native children to their proper resting places. Carlisle was home to the first off-reservation Indian boarding school in the U.S. — Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Today, it's an army barracks, home to the US Army War college for senior officers. But from 1879 to 1918, it housed Native students from tribes across America, with the express purpose of assimilating them into American culture.

Barbara Landis is a retired biographer and historian who has studied The Carlisle School extensively.
Michele Landis / Courtesy of Barbara Landis

Barbara Landis, a retired biographer and historian who has studied the school extensively, gives tours of the barracks on occasion. During a tour I attended earlier this month, she pointed out a row of white houses that surround a grassy commons.

"These three cottages you see down along the perimeter of the southern portion of the school grounds," Landis said, "were cottages that were built by Native American children as part of their industrial training." The Carlisle school had academic training for half the day and industrial training the other half - essentially cheap manual labor. Many of the buildings were constructed by students as part of this program, but they would also be sent out into the surrounding community to provide work for non-Native families. The boys were given construction and farm work, while the girls would serve in the home.

But upon entering the barracks, the first thing one will notice is the cemetery: rows of white headstones where students are buried. Over four decades, roughly 8,000 students attended the school, and nearly 200 were buried here. Now, the number of graves at Carlisle is incrementally dropping, since efforts began several years ago to return the remains of students to their tribes and families.

At times, parents of students at Carlisle would receive notice of their child's passing only after they had been buried. The cause was often attributed to disease, although abuse was often rampant at these schools. The entire system of Indian boarding schools has long been condemned by Native Americans as a form of cultural genocide.

The students of the Carlisle Indian School are amassed on the grounds of the school in March of 1892.
John N. Choate / Cumberland County Historical Society Photo Archives

The idea for the school, the first of its kind in America, began in 1879 with Richard Henry Pratt, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. "It was born out of his experience as the jailer of a group of Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho prisoners of war who were arrested by the United States and sentenced to a three-year imprisonment at Fort Marion, which is now the old Castillo de San Marcos Fort down in Saint Augustine, Florida," Landis said. "And while working with these prisoners, Pratt developed his philosophy in Indian education."

That philosophy is best summed up with a phrase he is often attributed to: "Kill the Indian, save the man."

Pratt was influenced by Puritan beliefs, and in the POW camp converted 12 prisoners to Christianity. He was able to get those 12 prisoners to help him recruit children for the Carlisle Indian School, which became the first class at Carlisle.

"Students, when they came into the school, their hair was cut," Landis said, "They were put in uniforms. They were organized into regiments and units and battalions. Pratt being a military man, he designed the program to be this very regimented structure."

Part of that regimented structure was a ranking system in which the more senior students would mete out punishment to their subordinates if they disobeyed orders.

"So, you can just imagine the psychological impact of that kind of a structure among Native American children and their peers. That was all part of the process of keeping discipline and keeping order at the school."

The government created these schools to assimilate American Indians into the dominant culture of the day - white American culture - says Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, professor and head of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, and an enrolled member of the Hopi tribe from Northeast Arizona. "The government had created these schools to teach Indian students, some as young as four or five years old, industrial trades so that they could be 'useful members of American society' and take that training back to back to their communities, or take that training into predominantly white communities that surrounded the Indian school."

Gilbert said he believes Haaland will be in a pivotal position to lead the effort to uncover potential gravesites in America's Indian boarding schools. Denise Lajimodiere, recently-retired associate professor of Educational Leadership at NDSU, and a founding member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NNABSHC), thinks so as well. She recalls hearing an interview with Deb Haaland on a podcast:

"One of the questions they asked her was, 'Do you think that we will find, in the United States, unmarked graves at boarding schools similar to what we found in Canada?' And she said, 'I don't know.' She said, 'I can't answer that.'"

"But I can answer that. Absolutely. A resounding yes, we will find unmarked graves at boarding schools."

One researcher, Preston McBride, believes the number of graves discovered could be as many as 40,000 here in the US. "That's a big number." says Gilbert. "That's more than I had ever thought. And so there's a story there, and I'm glad that with this revelation taking place in Canada, that it will shed more light."

In Carlisle, the process of repatriation is ongoing. In 2016, at the request of a member of the Northern Arapaho, the U.S. Army began collaborating with tribes to repatriate the remains of those buried at Carlisle. The process takes place once a year (with a pause in 2020 due to COVID). The most recent of these repatriations occurred back in July; the majority of those being returned belonged to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, who held ceremonies in Carlisle and along the journey back to their reservation.

Rosebud Sioux President Rodney Bordeaux attended the final ceremony in South Dakota, where the remains were re-buried. He says the experience was humbling: "Being there, you're basically put back in time just imagining what they went through as young children."

I asked him what he hoped for from the investigation launched earlier this year by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland into Indian Boarding Schools, and he said he hopes it will bring about the true history of what happened to them.

"This history that happened to us, you know, there's been attempts over and over again to whitewash it, saying that it didn't happen. And it did happen. So it's best for America to learn what actually happened," he said. "And then they can understand our plight, our situation on reservations, but then also understand that... we want to be self-sufficient. We don't want to be dependent on our federal government. We want to move forward."

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The recent discoveries of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at Canada's residential schools has brought scrutiny to sights in the U.S. where similar institutions once operated. The Interior Department has launched a nationwide investigation. Sam Yellowhorse Kesler of NPR's Code Switch podcast visited Carlisle, Pa., home to the first off-reservation Indian boarding school in the country. Efforts are already underway there to return the remains of Native children to their proper resting places.

SAM YELLOWHORSE KESLER, BYLINE: Today, what used to be the Carlisle Indian Industrial School is an army barracks. It's home to the U.S. Army War College for senior officers. But from 1879 to 1918, it housed Native students from tribes across America with the express purpose of assimilating them into American culture.

BARBARA LANDIS: So this is the original entrance where we are right here. As you can see, the railroad tracks cross what was the original entrance.

KESLER: Barbara Landis is a retired biographer and historian. She still gives tours pretty often, though she says this was the first time a train actually drove by during one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)

KESLER: The front entrance has since moved to just next to the cemetery at the barracks. Passersby will see the rows of white headstones were just under 200 students are buried. Now that number is decreasing since efforts began several years ago to return the remains to their tribes and families.

LANDIS: These three cottages that you see down along the perimeter of the southern portion of the school grounds were cottages that were built by Native American children as part of their industrial training.

KESLER: The Carlisle School had academic training for half the day and industrial training the other half, essentially cheap manual labor. The idea for the school began with Richard Henry Pratt, a lieutenant colonel who had formerly overseen Native American prisoners of war. He was influenced by Puritan beliefs and in the POW camp converted 12 prisoners to Christianity.

LANDIS: And he was able to eventually get those 12 prisoners to help him recruit children for the Carlisle Indian School.

KESLER: That became the first class at Carlisle. Over the years, roughly 8,000 students lived here, and nearly 200 were buried here. At times, parents would receive notice of their child's passing only after they had been buried. The cause was often attributed to disease, although abuse was rampant at these schools. The entire system has long been condemned by Native Americans as a form of cultural genocide. At Carlisle, students were required to cut their hair and wear a uniform. The more senior students would discipline their subordinates. This highly rigid structure was modeled upon Pratt's military experience.

LANDIS: So, you know, you can just imagine the psychological impact of that kind of a structure among Native American children and their peers.

KESLER: Not surprisingly, over the nearly 40 years of the school's existence, about 1,000 students tried to run away. And that's where those train tracks come back in.

LANDIS: So the railroad tracks were important, an important rite of passage for kids to know the train schedules, because that's how kids ran away. They would jump on a train.

KESLER: In 2016 at the request of a member of the Northern Arapaho, the army began collaborating with tribes to repatriate the remains of those buried here. The process takes place once a year. The most recent of these repatriations occurred back in July. The majority of those being returned belong to the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota, who held ceremonies in Carlisle and along their journey back to their reservation, like this one in Sioux City, Iowa. A young activist named Christopher Eagle Bear spoke after a prayer service. He noted the Big Dipper was visible in the sky overhead.

CHRISTOPHER EAGLE BEAR: And in a sense, you sit there and at the Big Dipper. And whenever it's dipping, it's picking up the people and taking them back to the stars. And maybe, you know, these children are getting a second chance at life in the next generation to come. Maybe they'll get to do whatever they wanted to do, you know, that they didn't get to do when they are younger.

KESLER: Rosebud Sioux President Rodney Bourdeaux attended the ceremony as well. He says the experience was humbling.

RODNEY BORDEAUX: Being there, it - you know, you just - you're basically put back in time, you know, just imagining what they went through as young children.

KESLER: I asked him what he hoped for from the investigation launched earlier this year by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland into Indian boarding schools. And he said he hopes it will bring about the true history of what happened to them. His one concern is that many of the original records might have been lost or destroyed.

BORDEAUX: I think with the history of our people passed on orally or, you know, through textbooks, you know, they'll just have to consult and do a lot of research on every reservation and talk to the people to find out where these graves are.

KESLER: According to the most recent number, there were over 367 Indian boarding schools across the country. The investigation will conclude in April, but the process of repatriation will likely take years. Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, NPR News, Carlisle, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.