Essay about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

Red Woman’s Burden

How the Carlisle Indian School used gender to erase a culture and put a new one in place

It was midnight, October 6, 1879. [1] A train pulls into the station at a small Pennsylvanian town called Carlisle.  A large crowd gathered there despite the late hour and the cold autumn weather.  The crowd eagerly awaiting their first glimpse at the savages that were aboard the train.  It had only been three years since Custer’s famed cavalry was wiped out at the battle of Little Big Horn and the idea of seeing an actual Red Man was very exciting.

They were not tall, muscular braves, armed with bows and tomahawks that emerged from this train.  Instead, what greeted the crowd were frightened children wrapped in blankets.  They were tired, cold, and frightened by the crowd of strange white people that stared at them.  There were eighty two boys and girls that arrived at Carlisle that night. These were the first of many Indian students that would learn how to be “civilized” at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

What these students didn’t know was that they were about to have a burden placed upon them.  Aside from trying to learn a new language and culture, they would be tasked with bringing everything they learned back to their reservations and teaching their people the White Man’s ways. In order to do this, the instructors at Carlisle used gender, in particular the females, to “civilize” the Indians.

In Zitkala-Sa’s book, American Indian Stories, Zitkala-Sa writes a fictionalized account of her own journey to a boarding school.  “I sank deep into the corner of my seat, for I resented being watched.”  “Their mothers…looked closely at me, and attracted their children’s further notice to my blanket.  This embarrassed me, and kept me constantly on the verge of tears.”[2]  This is a small glimpse into what it was like for these children.  It must have been somewhat traumatic for them to be in a strange land so far from their families and home.

Why were these Indian children taken from their homes and sent to a boarding school?  They went to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School to learn to be “civilized”.  In order to do this however, the school had to strip them of their traditional ways and beliefs and put western standards in their place.  An important instrument they used to do this was gender roles.  By teaching the children that a traditional Indian man or woman was not a real or true man or woman, they were able to erase the Indian culture from the children.  Once that was done, they would put in place what they considered to be proper gender roles.  This paper will primarily examine how the school taught females.  Carlisle taught women to tame the male and thus be the main civilizers of the Native Americans. Gender was how the Carlisle Indian School made Indian children into American men and women.

Students at Carlisle. Pratt's in the background.

There have been relatively few books written about the Indian experience at boarding schools;[3] however this is a part of history that has largely been ignored.  Most people, unless they had an ancestor that went there, do not know about these boarding schools.  Most books are written about the Indians during the height of their native cultures or about modern reservation life.  The middle transitional period is usually glossed over or ignored all together.  It’s the transitions however that reveal how things that once were have ceased to be and how new institutions rose to replace the old.  To not study the transitory times is like reading only the beginning and end of the book while skipping over the middle.

The books available on Carlisle, usually talk about Jim Thorpe, a famous football player who attended there, or the general history of the school.  There are many books on Native American culture and society, many dealing with gender.  One of the most telling sources for information concerning traditional Native values comes from their myths and legends which often contain lessons on how a proper man or woman should behave.  To my knowledge there is not a study specifically dealing with how gender roles played a part in how the directors of the school planned to civilize the Indians.

There are several good books about Indian culture including a few that were written by Native Americans including Black Elk, Mary Crow Dog, and Zitkala-Sa.[4] There are also Lakota myths that are often repeated in several of the books, though each one is slightly different depending on the teller.  The Cumberland County Historical Society has a cornucopia of material about the school.  Almost all of the records from the school are there including many personal items, photos, drawings, yearbooks, and school newspapers.

The largest percentage of Indians at Carlisle came from the Lakota tribes,[5] also known as the Sioux, so for the most part I will be discussing the Lakota culture in their native sphere and how their culture changed at the school.  Another reason that I will concentrate on the Lakota is that every tribe had different ideas about proper gender roles in society and they are too varied and numerous to discuss fully here.  What is the same among all Indian cultures at Carlisle, is that they were treated as “Indians.”  Unless I am using the word ‘Indian,’ I am referring to Lakota.

First this paper will examine traditional men and women’s roles in Native society. Then it will show what was expected from a proper male and female of Lakota society. By understanding the culture they came from, one can more fully appreciate the change that was brought upon them at the school.

Next we will move from the plains to the east and give a brief history of the school and its founder, Richard H. Pratt.  Pratt was an idealist and had a large dream for American Indians.  That dream did not include their native culture however.  We will look at what Pratt wanted to teach and how he taught it, using Western standards of proper gender roles.

Carlisle taught the boys and girls to be industrious by American definition.  They learned trades such as carpentry or farming.  Women were taught to be homemakers. They were given classes on cooking and laundry.  These industrial classes were organized according to gender.  The males would learn how to work with machines, tools, and other male dominated occupations.  The women learned to be homemakers, nurses, or teachers; the only respectable occupations available to women in Western society.

Growing up Lakota

During the first year of a child’s life, the Lakota believed that the child was ‘wakan’ or sacred.  The child must be treated properly or the soul would return to where it came from.  Beating was unheard of in Lakota culture and the parents taught the children mutual respect.[6]  The children honored their parents, older siblings and other members of the tribe and the family members and tribe returned this respect.

Both girls and boys played games together until puberty.  These simple games often taught the children about the culture and rules of their society.  The games were a way of preparing the children for further education.  When boys’ voices began to change and girls began menstruation, they were then considered full adult members of the tribe. At that time, they young adults began their serious education.  Young women learned from the older women of their family about their duties and young men learned from their fathers how to hunt.  Some games like Cab onaskiskita ‘trample the beaver’ or Matokiciyapi ‘bear game’ were fun ways to teach both boys and girls about animals and hunting.  Another game, Wiokiciciya ecunpi ‘they court each other’ was an innocent way to teach about courtship and gender interaction. [7]

Lakota women

The most important and lasting way the children learned about their own society was through the stories told by the fires at night.  Often it was a grandfather or other aged person; other times it was who could tell the best story.  Storytelling was most common during the long winter nights and was often the most memorable experiences from childhood.  Many Lakota adults consider these their favorite memories. [8]  Often these stories featured Iktomi, the trickster or Anukite, Double Face Woman.  Iktomi was the spider spirit who was often the brunt of comedic stories.  Often Iktomi stories were made up on the spot by the storyteller.  Through his antics, which were always a favorite with children, they learned both positive and negative behavior.  Iktomi was sometimes a hero in the stories, so the children learned what doing good deeds meant. Sometimes Iktomi acted selfishly and was punished for his misdeeds.

Through Anukite  (Double Face) the female spirit who was punished for her bad behavior by having one half of her face made ugly,[9] young girls learned what manner of behavior they should avoid and what consequences awaited them if they did misbehave.

Young girls also had a very positive model to look up to, that is White Buffalo Calf Maiden.  Unlike in most other cultures where a religious figure comes and changes the society, the Lakota messiah figure is a woman.  White Buffalo Calf Maiden comes and teaches the Lakota people their seven sacred ceremonies, including the Pipe Ceremony.[10]  The Sacred Pipe religion was brought to the Lakota by a young and beautiful woman who was the idealized perfect woman.  From an early age both males and females were presented with right and wrong examples of how to properly behave.

In regards to how males and females interact with each other is the story of how the four winds, four directions, and four seasons came about. In the story, Tate lives with his four sons Yate, Eya, Yanpa, and Okaga, who are the four winds. One day, a young woman named Wohpe comes along and begins to live with them as a sister.  Wohpe is portrayed as the ideal Lakota woman.  She takes care of everything in their lodge including food preparation, skinning, cleaning, and making clothes for the Four Winds.[11]

The Four Winds, especially Okaga, are portrayed as the ideal males.  Three of them, Okaga excepted, have faults to avoid.  Yata, the older, wants to marry Wohpe, but this is viewed as wrong because Wohpe wishes to maintain her status as sister and not change their relationship.  Problems arise with Yate because he does not act as he should and accept the pre-determined relationship.  An example of this is when he is sent out to establish the four directions, he wants to stay at the lodge with Wohpe and not do his duty.  “I now care not so much for the directions as I do for Wohpe and I wish her for my wife.” [12]  Okaga is the main hero of this story and he continues on to help an old woman who turns out to be a good witch.  Later, Yate refuses to help an old man while Okaga volunteers help.  The old man also turns out to be a wizard.  The old man makes it so Yate looses his birthright and helps Okaga because Okaga was kind to him.

We can see clear lessons about behavior and gender relations within these myths. Women are supposed to take care of all things pertaining to the lodge as well as humility and industry. All these lessons would be imprinted on a young child from a very early age.  Iktomi, Anukite, Wohpe, White Buffalo Calf Maiden, and Okaga were well known by all, like Western Civilization’s religious and cultural heroes such as St. George, St. Francis of Assisi, King Arthur, and Luke Skywalker.

Much knowledge passed from father to son through these stories.  Family stories about brave deeds and great visions from their ancestors would influence the children also.  In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk talks about how he learned from his father things that his father learned from his father.[13]   Knowledge passed down through the generations orally among the families and these family stories were alongside the myths and humorous stories.

From these myths and family stories, young children learned the most important values for a Lakota.  Most importantly the child was to have wacantognaka ‘generosity.’ In the story of the Four Winds, Okaga, the youngest brother, is helped by a witch and wizard because he is kind to them.  This was considered the most important value.  Little children were taught to give and during the buffalo hunts, it was considered an honor for young men to kill buffalo for the poor people of the village.  Next there is cante t ‘inza, ‘bravery.’  This was important to both girls and boys.  It was not a normal occurrence, but women have been known to go out on war parties and earn the title of ‘brave.’ [14] But mostly women’s bravery was to support the men when they went off to fight.  Since the food from buffalo hunts was shared with the entire village, it was rare that a woman needed to join the hunt.  Then there is wacintakna ‘patience’ and finally ksabyahan opiic’iya which is wisdom. [15]

There was no such thing as a formal school in Lakota society.  The children’s schooling came from the village and the world around them.  The boys, learned about hunting and fighting from their older brothers or older boys in the village.  Girls accompanied their mothers and watched and learned from them about the duties they would have to perform one day.

Boys played with toy bows and arrows and girls played with toy tipis and dolls. Soon real bows replaced the toy bows and as the girls got older, they were more frequently charged with caring for younger children.  It was a gradual learning curve and the children became more accustomed to their duties in a smooth transition.

The idea of family did not include simply the nearest biological kin.  Extended family such as grandmothers and aunts usually helped raise the children. Discipline could be offered from anyone in the tribe.  The family was in a way, considered everyone in their tribe.  A child would call an old woman ‘grandmother’ or a young man ‘brother.’ The child would be very aware of his or her place in the tribe.  They would have one birth mother, but many surrogate mothers.  This gave the whole village a very familial feeling.[16]

Mary Crow Dog, a modern Lakota woman writes about her life.  In this passage she speaks of her family.

Although the old tiyospaye (traditional extended family) has been destroyed, in the traditional Sioux families, especially in those where there is no drinking, the child is never left alone. It is always surrounded by relatives, carried around, enveloped in warmth. It is treated with the respect due to any human being, even a small one. It is seldom forced to do anything against its will, seldom screamed at, and never beaten.[17]

Due to the close family relationship the Lakota village had, everyone knew what his or her duties were.  Everyone had a set place in society, however, this division of labor was not an absolute rule.  Gathering firewood and water from the stream was normally viewed as women’s work, but if the husband had free time it would not be unusual for him to help with the chores.  The man was not technically considered above the woman; it was only that he had different jobs to do.  As a sign of respect for the woman, the man would comb his wife’s hair in the morning and put decorations in her hair such as feathers, beads, and porcupine quills.

The woman’s usual job was to take down and put up the tipi.  She owned and was in charge of all the household items used in homemaking.  This was a large job, but she always had help from other women in the family or village.  She could usually count on help from her mother, sisters, cousins, aunts, children, or even co-wives.  They were a nomadic people and the village would be particularly vulnerable while moving and so the men were usually deployed ahead as scouts to protect the village in case of attack.[18]

One of the most telling ways that we can see what children thought of their society is by examining what they drew about it.  Upon arriving at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Richard Pratt had many of the young boys draw what they remember about their lives on the plains.  In traditional Lakota culture, only males up to the age of 35 could produce pictorial art.[19]  As a result, there are no examples of pictographs drawn by females.  The Cumberland Historical Society in Carlisle Pennsylvania has many of these drawings, but only a few of them will be examined here.  These are black and white, but the originals are in gorgeous color.

The first pictograph, fig 1, is by Conway Two Cut.  This shows a traditional pictograph drawing of a buffalo hunt.  The male draws what he remembers, one of the most important events for a community.  It is also what he would hope to aspire for, to be a great hunter and help feed his village.

A buffalo hunt

Fig 2 is a rare drawing of a woman.  It is interesting to note that when asked to draw what he remembers of the plains, this child drew a mother tending a child.  This was done by Sam Boaley.  The mother has the child in a traditional cradleboard.  The cradleboard could even be hung in a tree so the baby could see his mother while she was busy working.[20]

Mother with cradleboard.

Fig 3 is by Abe Sommers.  In this pictograph, a warrior is “counting coup” on an American soldier.  Counting coup is when a warrior, instead of killing his target, simply taps him with his weapon and steals his horse.  This is considered even braver than outright killing the victim.  Abe Sommers drew in great detail the costumes, especially the magnificent headdress of the warrior.  Also the horse’s tail is tied for war.  The level of detail demonstrates that he had observed such things with enough familiarity to draw them from memory.

Countnig coup and stealing a soldier's horse.

Fig 4 is done by Edgar Thunder, a Lakota boy.  This is a very interesting and rare depiction of a “Courting Ceremony.”  Due to privacy being rare in a small village, the young man would put his blanket over the young lady and himself so they could talk and in some form, be by themselves.  The young man would wait outside his sweetheart’s tipi and wait for a chance to speak with her.  In this picture we see some designs for Lakota blankets and also decoration for a tipi.  The horse is prancing impatiently.  The Lakota were a culture that was very concerned with modesty and courting a young lady was a very structured and ceremonial activity.

Courting ceremony.

Children learned their roles and duties in society from an early age. They grew up surrounded by teachers that taught them how to be a proper member of society. Women had different duties than men, but they were considered just as important and treated with great respect.

The Man on the Bandstand

Richard Pratt

The band stand is still there.

Far removed from this traditional life of the plains Indians, is Carlisle Pennsylvania and its Indian Industrial School.  The idea of an Indian boarding school started with one man.  His name was Richard H. Pratt, often called “the Man on the Bandstand” due to his watching the students from the bandstand on the parade grounds of the school and how he signed his articles in the school newspaper.[21]  He was a young officer in the Civil war who served the Union.  After the war he went out to Ft. Gibson where he came into contact with Indian scouts working for the Army.  About this experience of meeting Indians he said, “Talking with the Indians, I learned that most had received English education in home schools conducted by their tribal governments.  Their intelligence, civilization and common sense was a revelation, because I had concluded that as an Army officer I was there to deal with atrocious aborigines.”[22]

Pratt had the idea that all races were equal; it was only education that set civilizations apart.  Given the proper education, any Indian could be the equal to any white man.  In order to educate the Indian, he had to erase their primitive culture from his students.  “Kill the Indian, save the man” is a phrase he had been heard to say on several occasions.[23]

When he was stationed at Ft. Marion in St. Augustine Florida, he was in charge of many Apache prisoners being kept there.  This is where Pratt got the idea that Indians should be educated, not exterminated.  Here he began for the first time to teach Indians. He wrote to the government about his experiment at Ft. Marion.  “The duty of the Government to these Indians seems to me to be the teaching of them something that will be permanently useful to them…they have besought me repeatedly to try to get Washington to give them an opportunity to work.”[24]

Apache children

From Ft. Marion and later, at Hampton institute where he brought Indians to a black school, he began to believe that the only real way to civilize Indians is to take them far from their familiar surroundings and culture and immerse them in white culture.  He found some old Army barracks at Carlisle Pennsylvania.  In 1879, the first group of students from the Pine Ridge Reservation arrived at the school.

The first order of business was to strip them of their identity.  Pratt thought that it was a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage.  As he said, “He is born a blank, like all the rest of us.”[25]  The same theory is used today in military training.  When soldiers arrive at basic training, the first official thing they do after taking role-call is to cut the trainee’s hair.  It was the same for the young Indian children who got off the train that October night in 1879.  There is something dehumanizing about having one’s appearance drastically altered.  However, this matter was much more serious for these Indian children.  In Lakota society, one only cuts their hair as a sign of mourning.  Even more, it was a sign of their identity and pride.[26]

One male student in particular held out and refused to have his hair cut.  That night however, Mrs. Pratt was awakened by a wailing on the parade ground.  The student had gone outside in the middle of the parade ground and cut his own hair with a knife and was wailing as if mourning.[27]

Like the modern Army, the next step was to strip the person of their familiar clothing and receive a uniform.  Pratt was a career Army man and followed what he knew best.  He gave the children uniforms and regimentalized them along Army lines.

Few people have written about the complete culture shock these children must have received.  Zitkala-Sa wrote about her experiences trying to adjust.  She tells how difficult it was to learn to eat in a regimented way when she was used to a freer life style. When it came to getting her hair cut, she writes about running away and hiding.  However, she was found and the teachers forcibly cut her hair.

“Then I lost my spirit.  Since the day I left my mother I had suffered extreme indignities.  People had stared at me… And now my long hair was shingled like a coward’s!” [28] Something in her writing that is not present in official reports is the taste of rebellion she exhibits throughout the story.

Though written about a boarding school in the 1960’s, Mary Crow Dog talks about arriving at a boarding school.

“It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all.  I think such children were like victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average, middle-class Americans what their experience had been like.” [29]

Indeed it is difficult to imagine.  Many soldier’s experiences with joining the Army are shocking, but at least a soldier understands what is happening, knows the language and is permitted to say prayers in their own religion and in their own language. At the school, Mary Crow Dog’s and Carlisle, speaking their native language was punished with beatings,[30]   something that would never happen in a Lakota village.

Once they had the appearance of white people, the new students were marched into a room and shown a chalkboard with writing on it.  These children could not read or write, let alone in English.  They were told to go to the board and point at some of the writing with a stick.  Once done, they had a piece of paper with the same writing they pointed at pinned to the back of their coats.  What they had just picked out randomly was their new name.  No longer would they be permitted to be called by their Indian name, but now they had to go by a Christian name.  Once their own appearance, language, and name were gone, the school could now proceed to teach them how to be proper white men and women.

Now that the children were supposedly blank slates, what and how were they taught?  Their lives now ran according to the bell.  There were wakeup bells, work bells, school bells, dinner bells, and bedtime bells.

Daily Program


Rising Bell and Reveille                                                         6:00

Assembly Call                                                                        6:15

Mess Call and Breakfast Bell                                    1st 6:25, 2nd 6:30

Work Whistle                                                              1st 7:25, 2nd 7:30

School Bell                                                                  1st 8:30, 2nd 8:35

Recall Bell From School                                             1st 11:30, 2nd 11:35

Recall Whistle From Work                                                     11:30

Assembly Call                                                                         11:45

Mess Call and Dinner Bell                                          1st 11:55, 2nd 12:00


Work Whistle                                                              1st 12:55, 2nd 1:00

School Bell                                                                  1st 1:10, 2nd 1:15

Recall Bell From School                                             1st 4:00, 2nd 4:05

Flag Salute                                                                  Spring/Summer 5:45

Flag Salute                                                                  Fall/Winter 5:25

Supper                                                                         Spring/Summer 6:00

Supper                                                                         Fall/Winter 5:30

Evening Hour                                                              Spring/Summer 7:30-8:30

Evening Hour                                                              Fall/Winter 7:00-8:00

Roll Call and Prayer                                                    First Call 8:45,

Taps and Inspection of Rooms                                   9:30[31]

Half of the school day was devoted to occupational training.  This work was segregated along gender lines.  Males had particular jobs to do and females had their jobs.  Males had shops where they could go to learn such occupations as baker, blacksmith, plumbing, tailoring, painting, and carpentry.  Women could learn sewing, canning, cooking, nursing and other home and economic activities.

In the 1902 Carlisle Indian School Catalog, there are photos of young ladies preparing vegetables, arranging tables for a fancy dinner, measuring and cutting during a sewing class, and cooking.  The men are in the carpentry shop, machine shop or blacksmithing.  There were few actual machines in those shops because the school wanted them to learn to do the trades by hand.[32]

A cooking class

To demonstrate that gender played a large roll in Pratt’s goal of civilizing the Indian, in a speech he describes how industry will help Indian males to be men.

“Carlisle does not dictate to him what line of life he should fill, so it is an honest one.  It says to him that, if he gets his living by the sweat of his brow, and demonstrates to the nation that he is a man, he does more good for his race than hundreds of his fellows who cling to their tribal communistic surroundings. . .”[33]  Pratt says that the Indian must demonstrate his manhood by his industry.

One trade they could learn at the school was printing and they published their own school newspaper.  Much of it was written by the students, but the opinions expressed in the newspapers were always personally approved by Richard Pratt.[34]  This shows that he was unwilling to accept manly independence from his students.  As such, it is impossible to gather what the students actually thought from these articles, but they are invaluable in showing what the school wanted the students to believe.

One article called The Modern Indian Girl[35] is a very telling piece that shows exactly what the faculty thought of Indians on the reservation and also what the female students were to strive for.  In the beginning of the article it says, “There is no more interesting or remarkable development in American life today than the evolution of the squaw of reservation and ranch into the modern Indian girl.”[36]   Squaw is a derogatory word and its usage here is intended to be precisely that.  The article goes on, however, to demonstrate how the faculty looked on traditional Indian life with little but distain.  After erasing the students’ identities, the faculty then proceeded to make the students’ old identities appear to be shameful and wretched.

Further on in the same article it says, “The popular conception of the Indian woman, formed by reservation pictures and Wild West shows, is a primitive creature garbed in a drab, blanket-like cloak with a sort of hood falling down the back…” This is describing the idea Westerners had about an Indian girl’s appearance.  It uses words such as “primitive,” “creature,” and the blanket is drab.  From the pictographs discussed earlier we can see that their blankets were anything but “drab.” Already it is painting a picture of a less than human creature to cause the students to look back and shudder at how they used to dress.

The article moves on to the woman herself.  “The weight of centuries of servitude bows her head to the Earth that she has tilled for warrior bold since the arrow and the bow came into existence.”  This is not only degrading the Indian woman, but also the Indian man.  The stereotype for men was that they would sit around the tipi and do nothing while they had their wife do every bit of work.  “Weight of centuries of servitude.”  Nowhere is there a hint of the actual relationship men and woman had among the tribes.  Also the term “warrior bold” is used here somewhat sarcastically because it says that the woman has been enslaved by their lazy husbands ever since the invention of the bow and arrow.

Inherent male dominance is a Western idea that does not fit into the Lakota’s world view.  What we have here is a clear example of westerners superimposing their own ideas and standards on a completely different culture.  Because the woman tends to the home, they assume that she is in servitude.  They are portraying a “squaw” as not being a real woman and the “warrior bold” is not a true man.  The truly ironic thing is the faults that this article gives Indian society are ideas and traditions that are strongly Western.

The article then goes on to compare the “modern Indian Girl” to the “squaw.” “But, as a matter of fact, the clear-eyed, intelligent, clean-limbed, progressive, and talented Indian woman of today is as different from the humble, plodding, dull-eyed squaw of the Western plains…” Here we get a hint at physical filthiness.  By saying the modern girl is clean-limbed, it implies that the old Indian girl was dirty.  Many tribes required that one wash early in the morning before doing anything else.  The Gros Ventre Indians had to bathe in a nearby stream or in the snow no matter what temperature it was.  Cleanliness was very important to many Indian tribes.[37]

“Humble, plodding, dull-eyed squaw,” is now referring to their manner of being.  Once again it is referring to their lives of servitude.  Dull-eyed is a new insult that now refers to a lack of intelligence and thought.  This is not a real American woman, but a beast of burden.

“The Indian girl enters Carlisle when a child-before she has become a part of reservation life, with its constant tendency to shiftlessness.  At once she comes into contact with Indian women of the nobler mold.”  Notice that it is not a nobler mold, but “the nobler mold.”  Western culture is inherently superior to Native culture or any other culture.  Indians on the reservation are also viewed as “shiftless.”  This says that a real man or woman is productive and Indians are not.

This next extract is interesting because it says what the school can teach them.  “She is taught to make her own clothing… Soon she is an adept with the needle and finally she can “build” a gown that would become any princess in a royal court.”  If we remember back to the story of the Four Directions and Wohpe, we see that Wohpe was the ideal Indian woman because she was industrious and made clothing for her brothers.

“The Indian girl studies music, for she is a musician born.  Photography she learns, too, for she appreciates the beauties of nature.”  From this we also learn that photography was an acceptable industry for women.  The Indian school band played at many presidential inaugurations and many other parades.  Several other students went on to become accomplished musicians.  This passage is referring to the ideal that a true woman is also skilled with some form of music.

“When she leaves school she will become, very likely, a designer of dresses, a school teacher, a nurse, or a music teacher.  When she leaves the class-rooms at nineteen or twenty she still possesses in the fullest degree that greatest inheritance of her race-patience.”  At least the directors of Carlisle recognized one of the four necessary attributes for a Lakota woman.  By the time this article was written, the Indian wars were over and the tendency was to romanticize the Indians as silent, stoic, and tragic figures.  The one attribute they recognize most likely comes from this trend.

A before and after photo. Post cards like this were popular in the day and sold by he school to show off their "progress."

About the virtue of bravery, the article mocks this by ascribing it a faulty cause.  “Clear-visioned, she sees that his indolence and his innate desire to resist the encroachment of civilization have resulted almost in the annihilation of the Red Man.”  As we can see it is the Red Man’s indolence and desire to remain lazy and savage that made him fight so hard to resist the White Man.  This may be trying to lead the student to even overlook the successes that traditional Indians have had by subscribing those triumphs to a degenerate cause.  It is the Red Man’s fault they were being slaughtered.  If they did what the White Man told them to, they wouldn’t have problems.  This could be a very powerful lesson for an impressionable student.  If they had more Indian patience with white men, perhaps, they would not be in such a dire predicament?

“It is her function to arouse him[38] from his lethargy, and to show him the preservation of the race lies not only in accepting the “inevitable” but in reaching out and grasping it; in taking up the “white man’s burden; and carrying it along in the march of progress… It is she who must teach him to be energetic, to take advantage of the opportunities for educating his children, to forget the days of campfire and war feathers, and to build homes and establish within them the aims and ideals of the pale-face.” Note the reference to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.”  The woman must be an example to the Indian male about how to act like a white person.  Strange how the White Man’s Burden becomes the Indian Woman’s Burden.

“To accomplish these things is the ambition of the modern Indian girl…” Now we see clearly the message to the young Indian girls at the school. It is the woman’s job the help civilize the Indian male.  By being mothers and teachers to his children she can make the male overcome his laziness and desire for war and to build homes and conform to the white man’s ideals.  By focusing on the women, they could raise a whole new generation that already came installed with “civilized” ideals, thus making every subsequent generation easier to teach until there is no longer the “Indian Problem.”

After spending a great deal of time degrading the traditional Indian, this article tells the Indian girl that she has a noble cause, to end the primitiveness of the Indian males and bring civilization, progress, and industry to the Indian.  Unfortunately we do not know who wrote this article, whether it was a man, woman, white or Indian. However, it is interesting to note that it wouldn’t make a difference because it is what the school wanted to say.  The Man on the Bandstand had his say in what was published at the school.

Another article called Training Indian Girls for Efficient Home Makers: by Elizabeth G. Bender,[39] talks a great deal about how the way to solve the “Indian problem” is to start civilizing the home.  One passage states that Christian homes are cleaner than traditional Indian homes.  Unlike many Indian boarding schools, Carlisle was a secular, government sponsored school.  The article then appeals to Christianity, “Can we expect to develop great, strong Christian leaders in spite of such home conditions?”  The school wanted to create strong Christian leaders to civilize the Indians.  A true woman was a Christian woman.  For “when we shall have done this no girl will be ashamed of her people or disgusted with her lot.”  This particular shame was given to them by the school in the first place.

This article also says, “as no people advance any faster than their women and the home is conceded to be the core of the Indian problem…” There is a Cheyenne proverb that says, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons.”[40]  That then is the case here, by making the Indian women into civilized white women, the Americans can absorb the Indian nations.  The article concludes by saying “The West is where we wish to solve the Indian Problem, building up better schools, better churches, and better homes.”  That is indeed the goals set by the school; by making Indian woman into Christian homemakers.

There were other occupations for Indian women besides being a homemaker. There were few professions open to women at this time, but the traditional occupations of nurse, laundress, and teacher were widely open.  At this time, white women were not encouraged to go into the work field, but the school taught Indian girls to gain a profession.  Black women were also expected to work.  We see here that the school did not hold Indian women to be equal with white women.

The school was especially proud of its nursing program.  “The Carlisle School has done much to show to the country the availability of the Indian maidens as good nurses,” one article says.[41] Another article says that Indian maidens make great nurses because they have no fear of seeing blood.  They do not say that this is because of some savage nature, but because “their nerves are always under control.”  This is the Indian value of bravery.  Another article states that it is because of their patience that they make great nurses.[42]  There are many photographs at the Cumberland County Historical Society of women practicing to be nurses.  Richard Pratt kept up many correspondences with former students and many letters of nurses who studied at Carlisle were published in the newspaper.

Food production was important also.  Not just cooking, but canning the food.  One article praises some Indian girls who won a canning competition in Oregon.  “The Chemawa maidens in beating their white sisters in open contests marks the highest development of any of the Indian schools.”[43]  Another article in the same issue praises Washington State Indians for winning prizes at a cooking contest at a state fair.  Canning was also a part of the competition.

Dressmaking and hat making were also stressed as proper jobs for proper women. Every uniform, except for the first few years, at Carlisle were made by the students themselves in the sewing classes and shops.  A 1913 article boasts that they have opened up a millinery class which makes all manner of hats that “this new innovation may yet cast the chic French models into the deep shadows… the daughters of the Red Man show amazing ability in designing and it is believed that their originality may mark women’s hats in some way in the future.”  Perhaps a little overly optimistic, but it demonstrates their excitement over the course.

Teaching how to farm.

Many teachers at Carlisle believed that having females in the classroom would have a civilizing effect on the boys.  This was what they wanted as far as the classroom. Outside the classroom, they wanted the sexes to interact as little as possible.  They wanted to curb their supposedly savage, lustful natures.  Not even siblings were allowed to see each other without supervision.[44]  Riley, a superintendent at the school said, “The unlearning of Indian etiquette and the establishment of easy, yet not too familiar relations between our young men and young women is considered an important lesson, only to be learned by a guarded but natural and pleasant intercourse.”[45] Once again they have found it necessary to erase the traditional Indian ways and replace the values with Western ideals of sexuality.

The sexes were kept apart so much that the students would use every opportunity to meet with the opposite sex.  Mr. Marcus McKnight, the son of one of the faculty, remembers that the girls would get let out for church 15 minutes earlier than the boys. The boys would “take long steps so that they could pass the girls and say hello to them, because they didn’t have too much opportunity in the school to fraternize with the girls, they kept them separate.” [46]

Another occasion McKnight remembers was a fire drill; the girls on the upper floors of the dormitories had a pole they would slide down.  The boys would rush over to see the girls sliding down so they could get a glimpse of their ankles or legs.  This was something that would be unheard of in Lakota culture.  Women were not to be looked upon as sex objects.

One brief but interesting article is titled Instruction Given in Sex Hygiene.  Sex hygiene is a term for sex education.  One thing to note is the use of the word ‘sex.’ This is not common for 1913.  The article speaks in vague terms of the importance of the lecture and then goes on to list the schedules for when boys will have it and when the girls will receive it.  A male doctor teaches the boys and a female doctor teaches the girls.  There are four meetings for the boys and six meetings listed for the girls.  Apparently girls were assumed to need more instruction than boys to deal with menstruation and childbirth.

The art was changed also.  The pictographs earlier in this paper were very traditionally Indian in their style and conventions.  It was not long before the students began art lessons and began to learn in the western style of drawing and painting. There is a photograph (catalog) that shows students painting in the studio.  The scene is of a very traditional European style of art class where the students draw from statues and busts.  There are examples of European and Christian art in the studio.  Another photo[47]  shows a young woman painting a still life, a uniquely European genre.

The End Effect

            Francis E. Leupp was a Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  He promoted traditional Indian arts as a way of strengthening Indian culture.  In 1906, Carlisle built a new art studio and named it after him.  The small studio is still standing today, one of the few buildings to survive.[48]  Soon after this, the first Native Art course was taught at Carlisle. The teacher they got was a well known Indian artist named Angel De Cora.  She graduated at another Indian school at Hampton Virginia.  She was a celebrated artist who had graduated from another Indian boarding school.

She only agreed to teach there on the condition that she “shall not be expected to teach in the white man’s way, but shall be given complete liberty to develop the art of my own race and to apply this, as far as possible, to various forms of art, industries and crafts.”[49]  This she did. However, there was an unforeseen problem.  She was no longer teaching Indians about their own forms of art, but rather, she was teaching American students who were racially Indian.  DeCora said about this, “When I first introduced the subject- Indian Art- to the Carlisle Indian students, I experienced the discouraging sensation that I was addressing members of an alien race.” The school had done such a thorough job of erasing Indian culture from the students, that their own traditional ways were alien to them.[50]

“The program under Angel DeCora reflected the first governmental recognition of the importance of Indian artistic traditions to American art.”[51]  Nine years later a different Commissioner of Indian Affairs had the school cancel its Native Art program.

Angel DeCora

What was left of the Indian children that came to the school?  Most students returned to the reservation or went on to careers elsewhere.  One thing was common among them all; they no longer belonged to any one group.  The ones that went back home found themselves torn between two cultures, the Indian’s and the white man’s.  The ones that made their way in the white man’s world were seldom truly accepted.  They live half-and-half lives.

Mary Crow Dog described returning boarding school students as, “Caricatures of white people.  When they found out-and they found out quickly- that they were neither wanted by whites nor by Indians, they got good and drunk, many of them staying drunk for the rest of their lives.”[52]  This is one part of the story.  Many former students went on to have very fulfilling lives.  Indeed, many former students spoke with pride about attending Carlisle.[53]

By indoctrinating Indians with the idea that the traditional native man or woman were not real men or women, and then replacing those ideals with western ones, the teachers at Carlisle did more to erase the Indian culture than the Army ever did.  As the teachers wanted, the mothers, now armed with all the Euro-American culinary skills they could want, went back home and taught their children western values instead of Indian ones.

The women who left Carlisle now had burdens placed upon their shoulders. Having been told to go by their parents, the Indian girl learned ways that were not of her Native tradition.  The teachers at Carlisle expected the girls to go home to the reservations and be “industrious” and “civilized.”  They were to be examples for the other Indians on what “proper” women should be like.  Though Carlisle did not fully erase Indian culture, it changed the way Indian men and women behaved on a fundamental level.

Here we see the final result of the assimilation.


Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes. Lakota Woman. Harper Perennial. 1991.

Mark St. Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier. Walking in the Sacred Manner, Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers- Medicine Women of the Plains Indians.   A Touchstone Book. Simon and Schuster. New York. 1995.

Carolyn Niethammer. Daughters of the Earth, The Lives and Legends of American Indian Women. Simon and Schuster. New York 1977

James R. Walker. Lakota Myth. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln. 1989.

Linda F. Witmer. The Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania 1879-1918. Cumberland County Historical Society. Carlisle Pennsylvania. 2000.

Zitkala-Sa. American Indian Stories. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London. 1985.

Marla N. Powers. Oglala Women. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 1986.

John G. Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks, Being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux. University of Nebraska Press. 1932.

James R. Walker. Lakota Society. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln. 1982.

Marcus McKnight. Select People, my playmates, an interview by Helen F. Norton. GI N884S. Cumberland Historical Society. Pennsylvania.

Katherine Wright. Life at the Carlisle Indian School. An interview by Helen F. Norton. GI N884L. Cumberland Historical Society.

Luana Mangold. Indian Life and Culture. Reflected by the Carlisle Indian School. An Interview by Helen F. Norton. GI N884ind. Cumberland Historical Society.

Henry Flickinger. Indian School Recollections. An Interview by Helen F. Norton. GI N 884ind.

The Carlisle Arrow. Indian Maids in Millinery. Article. Carlisle Arrow Volume 1. 1913. Carlisle Pennsylvania.

The Carlisle Arrow. Girls Express Appreciation of “Camp Sells.” Article. Carlisle Arrow Volume 1. 1913 Carlisle Pennsylvania.

The Carlisle Arrow. Carlisle Student Nurses Make Good. Article. Carlisle Arrow Volume 1. 1913 Carlisle Pennsylvania.

Edward Morrin. Camp Sells as Seen and Told by a Boy. Article. Carlisle Arrow Volume 1. 1913 Carlisle Pennsylvania.

Florence Renville. Camp Sells as Seen and Told by a Girl. Article. Carlisle Arrow Volume 1. 1913 Carlisle Pennsylvania.

The Carlisle Arrow. Instruction Given in Sex Hygiene. Article. Carlisle Arrow Volume 1. 1913. Carlisle Pennsylvania.

The Carlisle Arrow. The Iroquois System. Article. Carlisle Arrow Volume 1. 1913. Carlisle Pennsylvania.

The Carlisle Arrow. List of promotions within Job System. Carlisle Arrow Volume 1. 1914. Carlisle Pennsylvania.

The Red Man. The Modern Indian Girl. Article. The Red Man Volume X. 1890. Carlisle Pennsylvania.

Elizabeth G. Bender. Training Indian Girls for Efficient Home Makers. Article. The Red Man Volume X. 1890. Carlisle PA.

The Red Man. Indian Champion Canners. Article. The Red Man Volume X. 1890. Carlisle Pennsylvania.

Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46-59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880-1900 Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973

[1] Linda F. Witmer. The Indian Industrial School, Carlisle Pennsylvania 1879-1918. Cumberland County Historical Society. Carlisle Pennsylvania. 2000. Page 17.

[2] Zitkala-Sa. American Indian Stories. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London. 1985. Page 48.

[3] David Wallace Adams. Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas. Lawrance. 1995.  Also, Margaret L. Archuleta, Brenda J. Child. Away from home: American Indian boarding school experiences, 1879-2000. Heard Museum, Phoenix, 2000.

[4] Avoid the book  Rinaldi, Ann My Heart Is On the Ground; The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl
Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880
. Dear America Series. New York: Scholastic (1999) It is a book that professes to be a diary of a Lakota girl at Carlisle, but it is fiction and completely inaccurate in almost every aspect of Lakota culture and the effect of the boarding school on the students’ lives.

[5] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg 123

[6] Marla N. Powers. Oglala Women. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London. 1985. Page 43.

[7] Powers. Oglala Women. Pg 58.

[8] Zitkala-Sa. Indian Stories. Pg 33. Also; Mark St.Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier. Walking in the Sacred Manner, Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers-Medicine Women of the Plains Indians. A Touchstone Book. Simon and Schuster. New York. 1995. Page 9.

[9] James R. Walker. Lakota Myth. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln. 1989. Page 56.

[10] Long Soldier. Sacred Manner. Pg 44.

[11] Walker. Lakota Myth. Pg. 58.

[12] Walker. Lakota Myth. Pg 69.

[13] John G. Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks, Being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux. University of Nebraska Press. 1932. Page 9.

[14] Carolyn Niethammer. Daughters of the Earth, The lives and Legends of American Indian Women. Simon and Schuster. New York. 1977. Page 167.

[15] Powers. Oglala Women. Pg. 61.

[16] Long Soldier. Sacred Manner. Pg. 65.

[17] Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes. Lakota Woman. Harper Perennial. 1991. Page 29.

[18] Powers. Oglala Women. Pg. 83

[19] Catalog of Pictographs. A L7001.011.07. Cumberland County Historical Society.

[20] Niethammer. Daughters. Pg. 15.

[21] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 43

[22] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg 3.

[23] Richard Pratt. Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction. 1892. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880-1900 Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.

[24] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 6

[25] Pratt. Report to Conference.

[26] Zitkala-Sa. Indian Stories. Pg. 53

[27] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 24

[28] Zitkala-Sa. Indian Stories. Pg. 56.

[29] Crow Dog. Lakota Woman. 28.

[30] Zitkala-Sa. Indian stories. Pg. 65. Also, Crow Dog. Lakota Woman. Pg. 32

[31] Annual school calendar, US Indian School, Carlisle PA. Session of 1908-09. Carlisle Indian Press, July 1908

[32] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 38

[33] Pratt. Report to Conference.

[34] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 41

[35] The Red Man. “The Modern Indian Girl.” Article. The Red Man Volume X. 1890. Carlisle Pennsylvania.

[36] Emphasis added to “Squaw.”

[37] Niethammer. Daughters. Pg. 24

[38] “him” refers to the Indian Male.

[39] Elizabeth G. Bender. Training Indian Girls for Efficient Home Makers. Article. The Red Man Volume X. 1890.

[40] Crow Dog. Lakota Woman. Pg. 3

[41] The Carlisle Arrow. “Carlisle Student Nurses Make Good”. Article. Carlisle Arrow. Volume 1. 1913. Carlisle Pennsylvania.

[42] Red Man. “Modern Indian Girl.” Volume X.

[43] The Red Man. Indian Champion Canners. Article. The Red Man. Volume X.

[44] Marcus McKnight. Select People, my playmates, an interview by Helen F. Norton. GI N884S. Cumberland County Historical Society. Pennsylvania.

[45] Riley. 1886.

[46] McKnight. Interview.

[47] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 29

[48] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 78

[49] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 80

[50] Quoted. Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 78

[51] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. 80

[52] Crow Dog. Lakota Woman. Pg. 30

[53] Witmer. Indian Industrial School. Pg. xvi


3 comments on “Essay about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

  1. Lizzy says:

    I need to cite this article as a source for a project what is your name? thanks

  2. Brenda Odesha says:

    My great grandfather was taken there in 1908. I found this site after looking at his records online. thank you for this information.

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