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‘Road to Healing’ tour highlights a century of abuse at hundreds of boarding schools for Indigenous children
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland launched the tour in 2022, which will include the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Cumberland County
History buffs touring Pennsylvania often visit Gettysburg and Valley Forge — two iconic locations commonly known to have played pivotal roles in U.S. history.
But an often overlooked site that exposes a much less known and yet essential part of American history resides between these two locations: Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa. The boarding school, open from 1879 to 1918, sought to assimilate thousands of Indigenous children from over 140 tribes across North America to the dominant culture by teaching manual labor and vocational skills — and seeking to eradicate their Indigenous languages and cultures.
As the first off-reservation school, Carlisle helped to ignite a much broader boarding school movement for Indigenous children that rippled across the nation, often tearing children apart from their families, with many never to return home. Despite the federal government’s significant role in this process, the tragedies that occurred at Carlisle and so many other similar boarding schools have been largely unacknowledged until recently, including later this month when children will be disinterred from the Carlisle cemetery and returned to their tribes.
Now, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and descendant of boarding school survivors, is changing that. In 2021, she launched an investigation to uncover the federal government’s role in these schools.
For 150 years, from between 1819 and 1969, the federal government ran or supported — often with the aid of churches — 408 Indian boarding schools, according to a 2022 Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.
Generations of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children were forced or coerced from their homes and communities and sent to live at schools where they were beaten, starved and made to abandon their Native languages and culture. The Department of the Interior announced last year that the federal government ran or supported 408 such schools in 37 states, including 21 schools in Alaska and seven in Hawaii.
A report released Wednesday by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition uses different criteria to calculate the number of boarding schools that once existed, bringing the number of known Indian boarding schools in the country to 523 in 38 states. In addition to the federally supported schools tallied by the Interior Department, the coalition identified 115 more institutions that operated beginning in 1801, most of them run by religious groups and churches.
The coalition scoured thousands of records scattered across the National Archives, universities, tribal offices and local historical societies to identify and map the schools as part of an effort to raise awareness about an often forgotten part of U.S. history.
In response to the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigation Report’s recommendations, Ms. Haaland has been on a “Road to Healing” tour that started in July of 2022, visiting Native territory and listening to the stories of survivors.
As Ms. Haaland chronicles these stories, people passionate about Indigenous issues in Pennsylvania express support for the tour, and say there is much work to be done to address this state’s connection to the cultural genocide and abuse inflicted on Native children, starting with education.
In Carlisle, Gwen Carr and her colleagues from Carlisle Indian School Project, a nonprofit made up of members who have extensive knowledge related to Indigenous culture and history, are working toward creating a museum and heritage center near the original site that will offer a place for those affected by the boarding schools to heal, as well as a space to educate the public.
Ms. Carr said the Carlisle school is “the heart of darkness” when it comes to boarding schools. The school’s earliest classes of students came from tribes most resistant to government expansion, she said.
“Children were beaten for speaking their language,” said Ms. Carr, executive director of the Carlisle Indian School Project and an enrolled member of the Cayuga Nation of New York, Heron Clan. “They were beaten when they did not do exactly what was expected of them. There was widespread sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse every single solitary day. There were little cells where children were put when they were bad.”
The school’s founder, Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, coined the phrase “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” which became the model for hundreds of schools across the country. While the refrain framed the mission of these schools, many children died due to neglect, disease, loneliness and even freezing to death after attempts to run away.
A cemetery near what is now the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle contains the graves of 186 children who died while attending the school. Fourteen graves remain unknown and 22 children have been repatriated and returned to their tribes since 2019, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. In fact, the first known Indian boarding school repatriation efforts, spearheaded by the tribes who have lost children, began at Carlisle in 2016.
“People that live in Carlisle don’t even know that there was an Indian boarding school there, so there is a tremendous amount of education that has to happen,” Ms. Carr said. “To understand where we are going, we have to know where we fit.”
On Sept. 11, the Army will begin a multi-phase disinterment project to bring healing and closure to five Native American families and tribes whose children died after being sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and who were buried there more than 100 years ago.
The decedents who will be disinterred are Beau Neal from the Northern Arapaho Tribe; Edward Spott from the Puyallup Tribe; Launy Shorty from the Blackfeet Tribe; Amos Lafromboise from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe; and Edward Upright from the Spirit Lake Tribe.
“The Army is committed to returning these five children to their Native American families. We are truly honored to help provide the peace, comfort, and closure they deserve,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries and the Office of Army Cemeteries.
Similarly, University of Pittsburgh professor Alaina Roberts, who teaches modern Native American history, has found that her students rarely know the history of boarding schools in this country.
While they go unrecognized by the mainstream, she said the generational impacts of the boarding schools have had lasting effects. Children lost touch with their family stories, their cultural languages and customs, and community.
“There is really a difference between knowing that your people endured something and that it is treated like it doesn’t matter, and finally seeing the United States at least do the bare minimum, acknowledging: Yes, this happened. Yes, it was wrong,” she said.
According to a story Wednesday in The Washington Post, there are increasingly few Native elders alive to give firsthand accounts of their time at the schools. Many are now in their 70s and 80s and attended the schools in the late 1940s and ‘50s.
The coalition’s work comes amid a growing effort to expose the harmful legacy of the boarding school era on American Indian families and tribes as part of the federal government’s broader, centuries-long policies to try to eradicate Native Americans and seize their land. The reckoning has been spurred in large part, many Native leaders said, by the discovery in 2021 of roughly 200 unmarked graves of children who died at a residential school in Canada.
The “Road to Healing” tour, Ms. Roberts said, also shows the importance of representation in government. In Pennsylvania — a state with no federally recognized tribe — advocacy efforts come from a pan-tribal community and allies.
One of these activists is Donna Fann-Boyle, of the Choctaw and Cherokee Nation and member of the Coalition of Natives and Allies in Philadelphia. When she traveled to Harrisburg with the Coalition of Natives and Allies in June 2021 to speak with legislators, she said “it was incredibly disturbing” to find out how many lawmakers did not know about the Carlisle school.
“It is just amazing how well the government has done at hiding the atrocities that they have done,” she said. “They don’t educate people, and even when people go through school and become representatives for the people, they don’t know the true history.”
That rang true for state Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, when he first took office. Upon learning the history of boarding schools, Mr. Rabb, who invited the coalition to Harrisburg, said he was moved to action. In June, he spoke on the state House floor, condemning his colleagues for the lack of acknowledgement of this history.
He is drafting several bills that address Indigenous issues in the state, including the establishment of a permanent commission on Native American Affairs that would provide policy recommendations to the state government.
There is no formal body for this because there is no Native territory in the state, but that does not mean that tribes ancestrally linked to this land no longer exist, he said. There are five federally recognized tribes with homelands in Pennsylvania, according to Ms. Fann-Boyle.
Miguel Sague Jr., a board officer of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, of Taíno descent, said he fears for what progress can be made during a time when several states are removing the already limited parts of Indigenous history from the curriculum.
With the Council of Three Rivers, Mr. Sague attends speaking events in the Pittsburgh area, educating people about this region’s Indigenous history, which runs much deeper than solely the Carlisle school, he said. From early settlement hundreds of years ago to as recently as the 1960s with the construction of the Kinzua Dam, natives have been removed from this state’s land due to governmental policy.
“We have a speaker’s bureau because there can’t be healing until people are informed,” he said.
A complex part of the story of the Carlisle school is that some graduates of these schools went on to achieve great accolades, Ms. Carr said. Jim Thorpe, a legendary American athlete and Olympic gold medalist, along with several others who went on to advocate for cultural preservation, graduated from the school.
Mr. Sague said all aspects of this history should be known. While he sees the federal government beginning to take on some responsibility, he wishes he saw more attention to these issues locally, he said.
“Pennsylvania, we had one of those schools here, at least one,” he said. “Pennsylvania should be on the forefront of presenting this to our citizens.”
First Published September 2, 2023, 4:30am