Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
Louellyn White’s grandfather came to her in a dream one night after she’d stayed up late transcribing documents from the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
She asked him what he would want people to know about the Carlisle experience.
“Tell them we didn’t have a choice,” he told her.
White, Akwesasne, an associate professor of First Peoples Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, has been conducting research and writing about the Carlisle boarding school for a number of years.
Her grandfather, Mitchell Arionhiawa:kon White, and several other relatives attended the school, which became the model for other boarding schools across the U.S. and Canada.
Founded in 1879, Carlisle was one of the first of about 200 federal Indian boarding schools whose mission was to assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream American society and stamp out their connections to traditional culture and language. Located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the school closed in 1918. It is estimated that more than 10,000 Indigenous children attended Carlisle, at a rate of about 1,000 per year.
For White, the process of exploring Carlisle and Indian boarding school history in general has been very spiritual.
“You don’t choose this work, it chooses you,” she told Indian Country Today.
While conducting her research, White learned about a program at Carlisle and other Indian boarding schools called outings, in which older students spent their summers working for local White families or businesses.
White was shocked to learn that several students died during their outing placements, and were buried in cemeteries away from the school, often in unmarked graves in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
White initially pursued the research at her own expense but eventually secured a small grant from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which helped pay for travel. The coalition included her research in a submission with the U.N.’s Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, calling on the U.S. to provide a full accounting of Indigenous children taken into government custody under the boarding school policy and whose fate and whereabouts are unknown.
Soon, it became White’s mission to locate the children’s graves and do everything she could to reconnect them with their families.
With the help of a graduate student, she created a database that she hopes can help families search for relatives who died during the outing program. Currently, however, she has no funding for the project, but she and the graduate student have been volunteering their time to work on the database still in development.
White emphasizes community engagement and access in her work.
“This work needs to be driven by the community,” she said. “We want to keep it small and accessible to grassroots people and organizations.”
She wrote a recent article for the Journal of American Indian Education, “Who gets to tell the stories? Carlisle Indian school: Imagining a place of memory through descendant voices.” In the article, she argues that stories passed on to descendants become their own stories, informing how they make sense of boarding school history and integrate narratives into their lives.
According to White, it should be up to family members to decide if they want to travel to the grave sites of those who died during their outing experience to pay their respects, erect a memorial or have remains repatriated.
She is the author of “Free to be Mohawk: Indigenous Education at the Akwesasne Freedom School,” and is currently co-editing a book, “Boarding school stories: Collaborative acts of Indigenous remembering.”
She and co-editor Michael Taylor published a call for contributions in July for stories emerging from personal narratives, family and community histories and first-person testimonies from those who might not otherwise have opportunities to have their experiences heard.
White is also co-founder of the Carlisle Indian School Farmhouse Coalition, an effort to save the school’s farmhouse from demolition and use it to create a space where descendants can remember, honor and commemorate loved ones who attended the school.
For more information about the coalition, visit Preservation Pennsylvania.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 contribution today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.