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Fighting to Get Home
Frank Green ran away from Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1898, headed to the Oneida homeland in Wisconsin. In 2022 he finally arrived.
By Charles Fox
Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams.
— Louise Erdrich, from her poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”
When “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” rolled into Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on June 24, 1898, Frank Green was transfixed by the spectacle as the western show swirled around the horseshoe-shaped arena in front of him.
The event was in stark contrast to the 15-year-old Oneida youth’s military-style school uniform, his close-cropped hair, and the monotony of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s carefully scheduled days. The school prevented Indigenous students from expressing their culture and speaking their native languages, and gravely restricted their freedom to make decisions about their lives.
Green was trapped between the only way of life he had ever known, and an uncertain future surrounded by strangers in an unfamiliar world.
“Frank and like-minded students were punished for having the audacity to miss their homeland and the loving acceptance of their families,” said Sandra Cianciulli, president of the Carlisle Indian School Project and a descendant of Carlisle students.
“They took everything away and brought them to a place that wasn’t embracing them,” she added. “They were coming to a place that had all intentions of erasing them and changing them into their image.”
During his three years at the school, Green would try to run away at least six times and be labeled as a problem student.
A Fateful Day
The local newspapers promoted the first and only visit to Carlisle by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West like it was an approaching tsunami. The Carlisle Sentinel proclaimed: “a spectacle such as this has never been witnessed in Carlisle.”
At approximately 4:30 a.m., the show’s 39 railcars rolled into town with 467 performers, 447 horses, six bison, and all the bleachers, canvas, and lights to create an arena for 20,000 spectators.
While people scrambled to see Col. W.F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody lead the grand parade across town to the show grounds, his guests of honor for the afternoon show were the students and staff of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
The founder and superintendent of the school, Capt. Richard Pratt, did not share the excitement. Pratt believed the show exploited its Indigenous participants instead of preparing them for “civilized pursuits.”
The Carlisle school sought to assimilate its students into white culture by cutting all links to their cultures and families. The first federally funded, off-reservation, secular Native American boarding school in the United States, the Carlisle school was in existence from 1879-1918 and was attended by more than 8,000 students during its history. In time, the federal boarding school system would consist of 408 schools across 37 states and territories.
Pratt accepted the invitation to attend the “Wild West” show, even though he maintained that “the public exhibition” was in direct opposition to the Indigenous students’ “advancement as true and useful citizens.”
While Pratt opted to eliminate Native cultures in the name of assimilation, Cody homogenized diverse Indigenous peoples to fit a stereotypical image, dressing the performers in the buckskin and feathers of the Plains Indians.
Cody presented it as an accurate educational depiction, “a moment of historic and educational magnificence,” and refused to label it as a show, lest anyone question its authenticity.
For over thirty years, the performances firmly etched Cody’s depiction of American Indians and a mythic American West in the minds of America. It would go on to shape the depiction of Indigenous peoples in U.S. popular culture as sports mascots and Hollywood Westerns.
Yet, Indigenous members of the show earned a living equal to their white counterparts and it gave many of them the opportunity to stay in touch with their traditions and participate in cultural practices that in some cases had been deemed illegal. Author and activist Vine Deloria Jr. said “playing Indian” was how they refused to abandon their culture.
“Perhaps they realized in the deepest sense, that even a caricature of their youth was preferable to a complete surrender to the homogenization that was overtaking American society,” Deloria wrote.
The parade in Carlisle brought these two contrasting groups together in a scene recounted in the school paper, The Indian Helper: The parading “blanketed Indians,” as Pratt called them, greeted a group of male students with “How! How!” (Likely the Lakota word háu, a greeting by men to men, often anglicized into How.) The students responded by tipping their hats. “What more speaking contrast could there be between the Indian before and after civilization than that one graceful act?” one resident of the town was quoted as saying.
Between the two performances, the Native performers were invited to the school for dinner — which provided an opportunity for Indigenous students to reconnect with at least some semblance of their cultural inheritance. In the case of students Philip Iron Tail and Andrew Knife, it was also a literal reconnection with family members — a father and brother, respectively — who performed in the show.
Seeing close to 100 Indigenous men on the school grounds dressed in traditional regalia and speaking Indigenous languages — both things forbidden to students — must have been a startling contrast to their everyday routines.
“It also must have brought up memories of home, seeing familiar faces, clothes, and hearing their language being spoken with no punishment,” Cianciulli said.
The Midnight Train
No one was more caught up in the excitement of the day than Green.
The afternoon performance was not enough. Green and a fellow classmate snuck off the school grounds to take in the 8 p.m. performance as well. While his friend returned to the school grounds, Green decided to again run away, and hitched a ride on the show train as it headed out of town at midnight.
But as the train made its way northwest to Huntington, PA for its performance the following day, Green died. Early reports speculated that he had dozed off and fallen off the show train some 50 miles west of Harrisburg.
But a letter Pratt wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on July 6 recounted different details: As daylight broke, Green was spotted walking along the tracks near Mexico,PA in Juniata County. Between Mexico and Thompsontown, Green reportedly tried to board a passing freight train, but as he grabbed onto the hand irons of the next-to-last car he was jerked off his feet and lost hold, falling under the train and dying instantly. Pratt’s letter went on to request permission to pay the undertaker $43.50 for Green’s embalming and casket, as well as $60 to repair a broken typewriter at the school. Dealing with a tragic death at the same time as a broken piece of office equipment seemed a cruelly casual dismissal of the value of Frank’ life.
Green was not remembered fondly in Pratt’s letters, or in the school newspaper, which wrote: “The poor boy has been a disturbing element for some time. … Few tears were shed for his loss.” The Carlisle Gazette described the 15-year-old as “wayward and incorrigible.”
But Green’s desire to escape from the school was certainly not unique. Ernest Knocks Off (also known as Ernest White Thunder), a member of the first class sent to Carlisle in Oct. 1879, may well have been the first to run away. He attempted to return to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation by stowing aboard a train when visiting chiefs returned to South Dakota. His failed attempt and forcible return to the school led to depression and a hunger strike, and ultimately illness and death in December 1880.
“I think it (running away) is an indication that you can only oppress human beings for so long, even when they’re young.” Cianciulli said.
Anthropologist Genevieve Bell has estimated that at least 1,850 attempts to desert the Carlisle school were made during its history. Approximately 97% were by male students, and while students at the school came from 140 tribes, Oneida (along with other members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy), Lakota, Chippewa, and Cherokee youth accounted for 60% of the runaways.
Green was not the only Carlisle student to try to join “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” either, nor the only one to die on the trains. Charles Packineau, a Hidatsa from North Dakota, and four other students left the school to attend a performance in Harrisburg in 1912. Following the show, two of Packineau’s classmates joined the show, two returned to school, and Packineau died trying to return home when he fell off a train near Tyrone, PA.
“Can you imagine the heartache and pain that they had and that sense of, ‘I don’t belong here, everything is being stripped and taken from me. I need to get back to where and who I am?’” said Maria Doxtator Alfaro, Green’s great-niece.
Pratt saw runaways as a blemish on his success record. He referred to them as a “serious evil” that should not be tolerated. If returned, the students were met with harsh punishment, such as being locked in the guard house. At some schools the punishments were even more severe: children were forced to wear a ball and chain and endure severe whippings. In the book, Stringing Rosaries by Denise K. Lajimodiere, Phil St. John, a Dakota from Sisseton, S.D. remembers the night guards on horseback at the Flandreau Indian School and how they would treat runaways. “They would run you down, rope you, and bring you back.”
While desertion — the military term the Carlisle school used for running away — was a chronic problem, little if anything was ever done to resolve issues that may have precipitated the attempts such as bullying and abuse. Students were expected to assimilate to the white man’s ways and be grateful to do so. Those who resisted were labeled disciplinary problems or became runaways.
“It doesn’t help us to understand what his trauma was that caused him to run away so many times, and we will never know, because the people who were entrusted to care for him, obviously, they did not have that love for those that they were in charge of,” Alfaro said.
Some 456 Oneida students made the 850-mile trip from the Wisconsin reservation to Carlisle. According to a 2019 Oneida Nation study, 109 members of the community are related to students who died while attending the Carlisle school. In addition, there were at least 11 Native American boarding schools, most modeled after Carlisle, located in Wisconsin.
The government agents in Oneida, Wisconsin were known for the aggressive way they took children to forcibly send them to boarding schools. Violet Blake, whose relative Jemima Metoxen was repatriated from Carlisle in 2019, recalls the fears her grandparents lived with. “That was just something they learned,” she said. “Don’t answer the door because you might lose your kids.”
The Long Delayed Homecoming
Mary Jane Doxtator, 80, had been told by her mother about how crying Oneida children were led to a waiting train to be forcibly sent to boarding school. Her father, Joe, would hide in a barrel to avoid being taken back to Tomah Indian Industrial School.
But Doxtator never learned she had an Uncle Frank until she was asked, three years ago, to sign the paperwork for his repatriation from Carlisle. Her paternal grandparents died when she was only a few years old, and her own father was born in 1899, one year after Green’s death. Green’s escape attempts and his fatal train accident had not been a part of family history — it was deemed too traumatic to be passed along.
On July 2, 2022, Green, along with Paul Wheelock, the 10-month-old son of Dennison Wheelock — a former Carlisle student and famous bandleader— were welcomed home with an honor dance at an annual Oneida pow-wow, led by Green’s 70-year-old nephew, Mike King.
The following morning, along a road named Freedom, they were memorialized as the hymn “I Feel Like Traveling Home” was sung in Oneida. It drifted out of the historic Church of the Holy Apostles through the surrounding Wisconsin hillsides. The tears that were absent from Green’s original funeral flowed freely at this service.
In his eulogy, the Rev. Rodger Patience spoke about the staff of the Carlisle school as not being good shepherds, failing to care for the students and being quick to apply negative labels to Green.
“They don’t describe him as a child who was traumatized. They don’t describe him as a child who was taken from his home by force and made to submit to an institution that he didn’t want to be part of,” he said.
In the Holy Apostles Cemetery, Green was buried 20 feet away from Joe Green, the brother he never knew, and beside Ophelia Powless, who was repatriated from Carlisle in 2019.
Thirty-two students have been returned to their respective homelands from the Carlisle Indian Cemetery since 2017. But even those returns have been fraught.
When Wade Ayers’ body was exhumed in June 2022 in Carlisle, they discovered his grave held the remains of a woman between 15 and 20 years old, instead of those of the Catawba teen from South Carolina. Ayers is now believed to be one of 14 students buried in graves marked as unknown — a result of the cemetery being carelessly moved in 1927. It was recorded in the school newspaper that Ayers, who was 13 or 14, died because of a reaction to a vaccination. He had been at the school less than five months. This cemetery records again proved to be erroneous again in 2023, when the remains of a female student were found in what was thought to be the grave of Edward Spott of the Puyallup.
For Green’s relatives, the recent discovery of his history created wounds as fresh as the newly dug grave.
The lack of a photograph and the unknowns of Green’s three years in Carlisle as well as the events leading up to his death are part of an uneasy peace for his family. “Because, what closure do we have when you have so many questions?” Alfaro asked as she reflected on the burial.
“You’re just getting little bits and pieces and glimpses into what you can only imagine a person’s life was like.”
As Green’s reburial service concluded, each attendee threw a handful of the dirt brought back from the Carlisle gravesite upon the casket. At the end, a man asked Patience if he could take a small amount of the remaining earth home with him to pray over it — for the 146 students who remain in the Carlisle cemetery. As of Sept. 21, 2023, 32 students have been returned home.
The Federal Boarding School Initiative of the Department of the Interior announced in May 2022, that it has identified unmarked and marked burial sites on the grounds of 53 different boarding schools for Indigenous children.
Frank Green’s journey home was over. The homecomings were just beginning.
Charles Fox has been a staff photographer at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 36 years. He has worked on many stories on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School for the Inquirer as well as magazines and books.