This June I travel to Carlisle, Pennsylvania for my fiftieth Dickinson College reunion. In addition to the astonishment of being eligible for a fifty-year reunion, there is the wonder of realizing how very little I actually knew about much of Carlisle when I was there. I am particularly aware of how little I knew about the Carlisle Indian School. I’d heard of it and I’d heard of Jim Thorpe, the Indian athlete and Olympic Gold Medalist who, in 1907, was a two-time All American for the school’s football team. I now understand that this historic school has a legacy that lasts to this day – and that the legacy is not entirely pretty.
In 1879, the United States government undertook a project aimed at assimilating Native American youth into mainstream American culture. Amid predictions of the “extinction” of Native Americans without complete and rapid integration, Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School as the first off-reservation Indian boarding school to “Americanize” Indians. His refrain, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” reflects his misguided philosophy. Building upon the lead of the Carlisle Indian School, in 1893 mandatory education for Native children became part of the United State’s assimilation policy that was forced upon Native youth and families until the mid-1900’s.
Children’s experiences at the boarding schools were typically bewildering and traumatizing. The schools were run with strict military precision. Children were forced to exchange their traditional clothing for garb favored by European Americans. Their beautiful long hair was shorn and their Native language names were replaced by English names. They were severely punished if they spoke in their native tongue. And as if losing all ties to family, tribe and culture were not enough, conditions in the school were horrific. There was rarely enough food and disease was rampant. Physical, mental and sexual abuse were regular occurrences.
This profoundly ill-informed, racist practice proved to be devastating to generations of Native Americans, and it was not until 1978 that, with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, the practice was finally prohibited. Included in the act is Congressional finding that “the wholesale separation of Indian children from their families is perhaps the most tragic and destructive aspect of American Indian life today.” H.R. REP, 95-13896, at 9 (1978)
Through my work with Native American families in the child welfare system, I am personally aware of the legacy of this policy. Deprived of their families, their language and their culture, Native American children lost touch with who they were. Traumatized by physical deprivation and abuse, they acted out in predictable ways, including self-medication with alcohol and other drugs. Moreover, the trauma did not end with the people attending the boarding schools. In a dynamic now understood as intergenerational trauma, not only the boarding school students, but their children and their grandchildren, as well, were affected. Consequently, it is not a coincidence that today rates of Native American incarceration are four times the national norm. Native American youth commit suicide at rates three times the national average and Native youth are placed in foster care at rates five times higher than rates experienced by white children. Tate Walker, social activist and editor of Native People’s Journal, states: “It is my belief that government and church-run boarding schools have had the single greatest negative impact on Natives, beyond wars or reservations or anything else the US threw our way.” (everydayfeminism.com/2015/10/indian-boarding-school-legacy) This is the heartbreaking legacy of the boarding schools that began with the Carlisle Indian School.
I am currently writing a book about parents I met while working in child welfare, showcasing transformational changes they made to overcome the issues that led them into the system to begin with. One chapter is about a Native American woman named Danielle, whose great grandmother and grandmother were both in the boarding schools. From the time of her birth until she was nearly thirty, Danielle suffered from the trauma that was her inheritance. Her life was a crazy quilt of addiction, rape, domestic violence and sexual trafficking. Five of her children spent time in foster care and she permanently lost custody of two of them.
Danielle is now Services Manager of the Peer Counseling Program in a large, local mental health center. She is parenting her three youngest children and working on her Bachelor’s degree. The story of how she brought an end to the intergenerational trauma that plagued her family for generations is a story of courage, resilience, culturally appropriate intervention, and the power of love. I tell her story to put into historical and cultural context the nightmare of her life and the lives of others like her, to demonstrate that with the right supports even the most wounded of people can change, and to uncover the largely unknown and unjust story of the Indian boarding schools.
Returning to Carlisle, I will have an opportunity to learn more about the Carlisle Indian School. As a part of a reunion weekend “Alumni College” I will take a class on the Carlisle Indian Schools’ Digital Resource Center. This center was established to increase knowledge and understanding of the school and its complex legacy and to tell the stories of the many thousands of students sent there. I am eager to learn about the project and its promise. Truth-telling is an essential part of healing. In any case, returning to Carlisle fifty years after my graduation, I am much more aware of issues of equity and social justice that I managed to miss during my college years. Although looking in the mirror I cannot appreciate many of the consequences of the passage of time, I am gratified that the years have granted me a potion of wisdom that allows me to more fully understand the community in which I received my “college education.”