It lasted only 39 years.
But the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a century gone, made a significant impact both on local history and the history of Native American peoples and culture.
In 1879, Richard Pratt, a U.S. Army officer, founded the school based on his belief in forced assimilation, stripping students of their language, culture and religion, all under strict militaristic rule.
Located at what is now the U.S. Army War College, the school was “home” to an estimated 8,800 students representing more than 375 nations over the course of its history. These nations did not include any tribes local to central PA, which already had all but disappeared.
“By 1879, there were no communities in Pennsylvania with any kind of identity or sovereignty as a nation,” said Barbara Landis of the Cumberland County Historical Society. “That’s one reason why Pratt chose this area. It was far away from the influence of communities, and it was close to New York City, Philadelphia, D.C., and Pittsburgh—white cultural centers that he could take advantage of.”
Pratt’s approach was assimilation at almost any cost, removing all sense of native culture and forcing conversion to Christianity.
“We give the rising Indian something nobler and higher to think about and do, and he comes out a young man with the ambitions and aspirations of his more favored white brother,” Pratt wrote in an 1898 issue of the school newspaper. “We do not like to keep alive the stories of his past, hence deal more with his present and his future.”
Landis explained that the dark side of the school’s history was left out of the written record, but that one can read between the lines of documents on the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.
“Pratt set up this justice—adjudication—structure,” Landis said. “There was a ranking system, and every person was assigned to a rank. There were boys that were giving out punishments for boys that were misbehaving or for infractions.”
A series of letters from 1910 and 1911 between the school staff, the Department of Indian Affairs and a concerned Carlisle citizen, Arthur Rupley, detailed the use of solitary confinement and corporal punishment for transgressions such as swearing, insubordination or fighting.
“I desire to call your attention to the fact that at the present time there are confined three or four Indian boys in the Guard House and three Indian Boys in the dungeon of said Guard House at the Carlisle Indian School,” Rupley wrote on Nov. 3, 1910. “The Guard House and Dungeon constructed during the Revolutionary War is almost an airtight compartment with no light and inadequate ventilation and is in a most unsanitary condition. The conditions under which the Indian boys are confined are worse than our County Prison.”
According to the letters, an investigation and a series of requests for a new guard house for confinement followed (the preferred disciplinary method after corporal punishment was done away with in 1907).
“I think what’s particularly interesting are the silences, the ways in which it is known in certain communities and passed on in terms of the trauma that was experienced here,” said Susan Rose, professor in sociology and director of the community studies center and mosaics at Dickinson College in Carlisle. “Not that everyone has negative experiences. There’s some that talk about the positive experiences that their ancestors had.”
Some students eventually returned home. Others made a permanent home in and around Pennsylvania. Pratt facilitated this transition through the school’s “Outing Program,” in which students were assigned to a Catholic, Protestant or Quaker home to learn a trade and be immersed in the white way of life. Male students often toiled as farmhands or clerks, and females worked in homes as domestic servants.
Records indicate that students were assigned to communities including Bainbridge, Carlisle and Harrisburg.
“It’s like these kids were invisible, and no one really has any stories about them even though it was only two generations ago,” Landis said. “There were 15 families in Harrisburg who had Indian kids in their homes.”
Kesetta & Jack
An early student of the school was Kesetta, a young Lipan Apache girl, whose tribe was reportedly massacred by the U.S. cavalry. Orphaned, Kesetta and her brother, Jack, were delivered to Carlisle in 1880. School staff discovered scars on Kesetta’s head and back, physical evidence of her mother’s attempts to end her life with a rock instead of allowing her to be taken away.
Kesetta and Jack had two distinct, but not uncommon, experiences at the school. Jack died of tuberculosis in 1888. It’s estimated that 192 children died at the school from disease or suicide.
Eventually, Kesetta was assigned “outings” in Carlisle and Schuylkill Haven. She moved to Baltimore, where, according to a letter, she got into “some trouble” and was sent to Philadelphia, where she gave birth to a son. Kesetta died of tuberculosis in 1906. Her son, Richard Kesetta, was brought to the school in 1907.
Despite gaps in the historical record, Rose believes that Richard grew close to a Carlisle family from whom he eventually inherited land.
“He didn’t know where he came from,” she said. “People would refer to him as ‘the Indian.’”
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Texas-based Lipan Apache tribe found out that their people had been sent to the Carlisle school.
“Until then, we had no idea that two of our children, Kesetta and Jack, had been sent to Carlisle,” said Hermelinda Walking Woman, the tribe’s director of education. “They were considered prisoners even at Carlisle. Our tribe was never contacted throughout the 100-plus years that followed after their imprisonment as students at the school.”
The Lipan Apache, she said, were never captured as a tribe, despite an attempt to exterminate them.
“Much is unknown about who their [Kesetta and Jack’s] parents actually were or even if they were truly sister and brother,” she said. “They were Lipan Apache, and that was all the information that these children were allowed to keep concerning their cultural past.”
Walking Woman contrasted that with her own experience.
“I grew up not only knowing that I was Lipan, but also that we had a rich culture and sacred traditions that were part of our very existence,” she said. “Kesetta and Jack, however, were stripped of this Apache-ness. This is horrific. It truly saddens me that our people were never informed that these children were in Carlisle. It saddens me that they never knew that their people and relatives were still alive. That was just cruel.”
While Walking Woman knows of the history of her ancestors, others are missing their own historical context as their ancestors were forced to extirpate themselves of their identity, leaving no native history of which to speak.
When Walking Woman was asked how she educates today’s children about the Carlisle school, she answered succinctly.
“I explain it as cultural genocide,” she said.
For more information, visit the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center at www.carlisleindian.dickinson.edu.
If you have any information or stories about the students assigned to homes, please contact Barbara Landis at BLandis@HistoricalSociety.com.