On Sacred Ground
Commemorating Survival and Loss at the Carlisle Indian School
by Stephanie Anderson
As published in CENTRAL PA magazine, May 2000
the middle of a bitter night in October 1879, a train puffed slowly
across the last few feet of track and eased into Carlisle after a long
journey from Dakota Territory. On board were 82 children from the
Lakota people, whom most European Americans knew as the Sioux. Hungry
and tired, they rose from their seats one by one, pulled their blankets
tighter around them and stepped onto the small platform at the station.
Their eyes, adjusting to the darkness, met a sea of strangers staring
back at them. Just three years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn,
hundreds of townspeople gathered with necks craned to glimpse the
"exotic" Indian children from what was still regarded as the Wild West.
the next 39 years, American Indian children became a familiar sight in
Carlisle. While their arrival was little more than a curiosity to the
townspeople, their departure from their homes, families and way of life
marked momentous change in the lives of the children, their parents and
From 1879 to 1918, approximately 12,000
Native-American children attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial
School, on the grounds of Carlisle Barracks, to become educated in the
ways of European-American culture. They came from all corners of the
United States - some even from Puerto Rico and the Philippines - and
from more than 140 tribes. Some came willingly; others did not. And
while many survived, some did not.
The goal of the Carlisle
school and its founder, a U.S. Army officer named Richard Henry Pratt,
was total assimilation of Native Americans into white culture, at the
deliberate cost of their Indianness. The legacy of Carlisle, and of the
extensive system of boarding schools it spawned, continues to pervade
the lives of Native Americans today. Mention the Carlisle Indian School
in Central PA, and most residents think of Jim Thorpe, its most famous
student. Proclaimed the world's greatest athlete, Thorpe became a
source of pride for the school and the town. But to most Indians, the
mention of Carlisle elicits a conflicting mixture of strong emotions -
both positive and negative - involving the dignity of survival and the
mourning of lost cultural identity.
More than 80 years after the
school closed, the Cumberland County 250th Anniversary Committee has
invited each of the 554 federally recognized American Indian tribes,
along with the nonnative community, to come together in Carlisle for
the first-ever commemoration of the school and its contradictory
legacy. Powwow 2000: Remembering Carlisle Indian School will take place
on Memorial Day weekend on the site of the former school. The
organizers hope "to provide awareness of Native-American Indian
cultures and the Carlisle Indian School history, and to remember and
honor the students who attended the school."
But there's also a
deeper purpose to the singing and dancing, the ceremonies and talks.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Native-American author N. Scott Momaday, the
keynote speaker for the event, hopes "it is a healing process. We are
doing real reverence to the children."