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Reclaiming the Truth: Stories and Reflections on Carlisle Indian Industrial School

Plans for cultural genocide as well as the stories of courage and oppression at Carlisle Indian Industrial School appear in a new book.
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Plans for cultural genocide as well as the stories of courage and oppression at the famous/infamous residential Carlisle Indian Industrial School appear in an unprecedented collection of essays, poems and photos entitled “Carlisle Indian Industrial School/Indigenous Histories, Memories and Reclamations,” recently published by University of Nebraska Press and edited by Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose.

This compelling gathering of work examines the legacy of the Carlisle experience through verse by noted poets N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) and Maurice Kenney (Mohawk) along with essays by distinguished historians and scholars such as Fear-Segal, Rose, Barbara Landis and Louellyn White (Mohawk). It also includes the recollections and reflections of some descendants of the more than 10,000 Native children who attended the school between 1879 and 1918.

The book is divided into six parts—1) A Sacred and Storied Space; 2) Student Lives and Losses; 3) Carlisle Indian School Cemetery; 4) Reclamations; 5) Revisioning the Past; and 6) Reflections and Responses—and provides a panoramic view of the experience, including many poignant and heartbreaking stories.

The anthology starts out with a comprehensive introduction to the school, the historical context of Manifest Destiny, Native dispossession and a compelling re-imagining of how the Native children must have felt after being seized and sent far away to be forcibly “assimilated” into white culture. The removal of children, in effect the tearing apart of families and communities, was part of the attempt to “Kill the Indian, and save the man,” a seminal quote from the school’s founder and superintendent, Richard Henry Pratt who sought to change the children, beginning with their names.

One of the many themes in the book involves names, the white names given to Native children and the names on tombstones in the school’s cemetery.

“Names are especially important in Native American culture,” Momaday wrote in “The Stones at Carlisle.” “Names and being are thought to be indivisible. One who bears no name cannot truly be said to exist, for one has being in his name… In this context we see how serious is the loss of one’s name. In the case of the tombstones at Carlisle we are talking about the crime of neglect and negation. We are talking not only about the theft of identity, but the theft of essential being.”

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Landis, a historian, recounts in Part 1 how her research into student names at the school lead to thousands of Native people learning about the lives of their ancestors, some of whom did not return to their home communities. She also delved into some of the stories of the children who died at Carlisle and the compounded grief of their families far away.

One of the many extraordinary accounts in the collection is in Part 2, where scholar and activist Louellyn White tells part of the story of her grandfather Mitchell Aronhiawakon White and her Great Uncle John White, who were students at the school. In “White Power and the Performance of Assimilation: Lincoln Institute and Carlisle Indian School,” she describes how her grandfather, along with other students, often struggled to get paid and to make sure the Carlisle superintendent, who controlled their money, was not spending their wages.

She also recounts the surreal and disturbing experience of her Great Uncle John who was chosen to play the role of Elder Brewster in “The Captain of Plymouth,” a comic opera based on the poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish” by the famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In the play Native students took on all of the roles, white and Native and the story depicts the Natives as “savages” and “bloodthirsty.”

She points out that “The school promoted assimilation, but the play created a stark dichotomy between white and Indian, civilized and savage, and did not suggest this gap would ever be bridged.”

While most of the sections of the book deal with stories unknown to most people, there is a chapter on the school’s most famous athlete, Jim Thorpe. “The Imperial Gridiron: Dealing with the Legacy of Carlisle Indian School Sports” takes a broader historical view of the role of sports at the school and the larger culture.

This remarkable book is also partially a result of a landmark gathering in 2012, “Carlisle, Pa: Site of Indigenous Histories, Memories and Reclamations” which brought together Native and Non-Native scholars, activists and descendants. This book has been described as “the published legacy of the Symposium,” an event whose repercussions will continue to be felt for many generations.

The book is available from the University of Nebraska Press, and an excerpt can be read here.