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Carlisle Indian School
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

The transformation into white society began immediately. The students were given a haircut which in Indian culture only done at times of mourning. Students had to trade in their buckskin clothes and moccasins for European styles. Boys were given military uniforms and girls in Victorian dresses. Like all American schools during that time discipline was strict. Speaking ones native language, wearing moccasins, not learning English quick enough, and many other infractions could earn students a beating. For most students at the Indian boarding schools their first year was the hardest. Many former students wrote of the crying and wailing that happened as the shock and loneliness set in. ​


 At first, attendance at the Carlisle School was voluntary. Pratt convinced Indian leaders like Red Cloud to send his own children there. This was no easy task, for by this time the Indians thoroughly distrusted the intentions of the whites. However, Pratt insisted that the reason why the Indians constantly were cheated by dishonest whites is because they relied on interpreters and could not speak for themselves. If their children learned English they could defend themselves in the future. However, soon the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over the boarding schools and made attendance mandatory. Indian agents accompanied by soldiers were sent to the reservations to round up the children and send them to boarding schools in the east. Some parents refused and hide their children when the agents came. However, parents could be arrested and sent to prisons for not cooperating. In 1901, there were 6,000 children attending these boarding schools, by 1973 enrollment peaked at 60,000. However, reports of physical, mental and sexual abuse led to many of these schools being investigated and shut down, although a few still remain today conditions have greatly improved since the schools first began more than 100 years ago.



The Carlisle Boarding School


In 1879, Richard Henry Pratt, commander of the famed African-American Buffalo soldiers, had an ah-ha moment. By the 1880s, the Indian Wars were coming to close, and the Indians were on the losing end. Most tribes had agreed or had been forced on to reservations and it was the job of the army to keep the Indians from running away. Those who refused to stay on the reservation would be rounded up and their leaders sent to prison. Pratt had been experimenting with educating Indian prisoners at St. Augustine, Fl. Why not do the same for Indian children?


Pratt's reasoning was simple. The Indians were going to lose the Indian Wars. On the reservations they would continue to be cheated by dishonest interpreters and Indian Agents who were known to steal supplies and cheat the Indians in their payments. To save the Indian they would have to give up their culture, learn English and assimilate into white society.


Pratt gathered support for his idea amongst other well-meaning whites who donated money and an old military base in Pennsylvania as the site of the Carlisle School. The mission of the Carlisle School was to “kill the Indian to save the man”. When the first students arrived at the Carlisle School in September 1879 they were greeted by local townspeople who wanted to get their first glimpse at these wild Indian children.


The Carlisle School became a model for other Indian boarding schools. Students at these schools were expected to attend academic and industrial training classes. Boys learned trades such as carpentry, farming, and blacksmith. Girls were taught domestic arts such as sewing, laundry and cooking. All students were expected to become Christians and attend church, regularly. Unlike most boarding schools, Indian children did not return home for fear of returning to their old ways. Instead they were sent to live with local white families to continue their assimilation.

"If the Great Spirit had desired me  to be a white man he would have made me so  in the first place. He put in your heart  certain wishes and plans;in my heart he put  other and different desires. Each man is good  in the sight of the Great Spirit. It is not necessary,  that eagles should be crows."..
Sitting Bull (Teton Sioux)
"Here a Lieutenant struggles to evolve order out of the chaos of fourteen different languages! Civilization out of savagery! Industry and thrift out of laziness! Education out of ignorance! Cleanliness out of filth! And is forced to educate the courage of his own instructors to the work, and see that all the interests of his Govt. and the Indian as well are properly served."
- Richard Henry Pratt in a letter to President Hayes
Clip from "Into the West"

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