Drawing from his military background and the success of other Indian educational programs, the idealistic Captain Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879. The flagship boarding school drew from more than 140 tribes and educated over 12,000 students before its closing in 1918. Pratt framed the goals of his project using the language of the Enlightenment and appealled to changing public opinion about the role of Native Americans in white society. While the past century of federal policy had advocated for keeping Indian communities separated from the mainstream on reservations, new attitudes argued instead that it was the duty of white society to "civilize" the next generation of American Indians. Citing his belief in the family of man, Pratt expressed confidence in the potential for Native Americans to achieve social equality within white society through assimilation-based education, asserting that he would “kill the Indian, save the man.” Within the high walls of the Carlisle Barracks, Pratt’s living experiment employed military discipline as well as industrial training to prepare often resistant children for lives outside of the reservation. While some Indian parents willingly sent their children to Carlisle to get a formal Western education, others were forcibly separated. After travelling a long distance to Carlisle, students were intentionally severed from their past lives both through physical distance and through structured processes of acculturation. Indian students received military haircuts, new “American” names, and stiff uniforms upon their arrival at Carlisle and were forbidden from practicing any cultural rituals or speaking their own languages.
The history of Carlisle is rife with paradox. Pratt used the language of equality to justify a highly racialized and hierarchal system; ultimately, his tireless advocacy for Indian education was based on ethnocentrism to the extreme. With such a complex narrative, the legacy of the school remains controversial. Many descendents of Carlisle students look back on these years as a cultural genocide. Others highlight the personal and economic empowerment found in their Western education that some even used to advance tribal sovereignty upon their return home. One perspective cannot capture the complicated and emotional realities that have made the Carlisle Indian School such a powerful and painful part of Native American memory.
Unfortunately, historians are primarily left with just one perspective: while some student narratives have survived, the vast majority of the data available for research comes from the institution itself. In this project, we have made use of photographs taken by the Carlisle Indian School that were printed in diverse publications for both private and public audiences. With thousands of curious subscribers, the works printed at Carlisle portray the institution as it wished to be seen. Therefore, while these documents cannot provide a complete picture of the Carlisle Indian School, they do provide meaningful insights into the institutional perspective. Although the voices of Indian students are certainly heavily censored and the photographs posed to tell the administrative narrative, even these highly deliberate representations hint at the complex nature of the school. Our selection of photographs aims to provide a visual narrative of life at Carlisle, highlighting the social and cultural breadth of Pratt’s landmark experiment even beyond the classroom.
The documents used in this research can be found in the Archives and Special Collections at Dickinson College. For more information about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and to view more digital resources, please visit http://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/.