Carlisle Indian School's History Must Be Preserved So Those Who Suffered Aren't Forgotten
When the U.S. Army decided to raze the Farmhouse at the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School (CIIS), it caused such an uproar that the Army started consulting with the Mohawk and Seneca Nations. Consultation should have come first, of course, and more needs to be done. The Army says the Farmhouse was neither historic nor significant enough to be placed with other CIIS buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, but how would it know without knowing our history?
For many of us, the Farmhouse is family history. My mother’s grandparents, mother and two aunts lived in the dairyman’s cottage in the early 1890s; their third daughter was born there. Great-grandfather Thunderbird (Nonoma’ohtsevehahtse), a.k.a., Richard Davis, was Cheyenne and born in the Dog Men Society camp; his parents were Buffalo Wallow and Chief Bull Bear (Buffalo Bear), the first signer of the 1867 Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty. Great-grandmother Nellie Aspenall was Pawnee, born in Genoa, Nebraska. Her older brother, Harry Sargent, became her guardian when their parents died, and she was sent to CIIS.
CIIS, the first federal Indian boarding school, was located in western Pennsylvania, and steeped in military history and excesses, including corporal punishment for Indian children. A bronze plaque pays tribute to the Army Heritage Tree, a European Beech that was 10 in 1794 when “General George Washington used Carlisle Barracks, then called Washingtonburg, as a rallying point of…13,000 state militia troops to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion.”
Another nearby plaque memorializes Captain Richard Henry Pratt, CIIS Founding Superintendent, 1879-1904. He had fought Native Nations on the Plains in campaigns under the “scorched earth” command of Major General Philip Sheridan—who spawned the phrase, “The only good Indian’s a dead one”—and the notorious Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.
Pratt’s plaque highlights his efforts at “civilizing” Indians, which he once described this way: “In Indian civilization, I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”
CIIS has been spit-shined to give an impression that it was merely a finishing school, but it was a breeding ground for dysfunction, where children were abused and learned to be abusive to others or themselves, or to disassociate or to be poor parents. By the time CIIS closed in 1918, more than 10,000 Native young people had been drenched, if not drowned, in “civilization.”
Thunderbird and Nellie were among the first hostage-students at CIIS in 1879, sent half a continent away by train. Their hair was cut short; scratchy uniforms and hard shoes replaced soft clothes and moccasins; medicine pouches and sacred objects were confiscated. When they didn’t learn English or Bible verses fast enough or when they spoke or prayed or sang in their heritage languages, their mouths were rubbed raw and blistered with lye soap.
The Interior Secretary’s “Civilization Regulations”—released in memo form in 1880 (and reissued and enforced until 1935)—criminalized traditional ways, targeting the “so-called ‘medicine man,’?” but applying to a parent or other “hostile,” who: “operates as a hindrance to the civilization of a tribe…resorts to any artifice or device to keep the Indians under his influence…adopt(s) any means to prevent the attendance of children at the agency schools, or…use(s)…arts of a conjurer to prevent the Indians from abandoning their heathenish rites and customs.… ”
The “educators” fixated on hair length, even in the more “enlightened” 1902, when this Indian Affairs Commissioner Circular entitled “Long Hair Prohibited” was sent to Indian School Superintendents: “The wearing of long hair by the male population of your agency is not in keeping with the advancement they are making, or will soon be expected to make, in civilization.… The returned male student far too frequently goes back to the reservation and falls into the old custom of letting their hair grow long. He also paints profusely and adopts all the old habits and customs, which his education in our industrial schools has tried to eradicate.”
Thunderbird wrote that his father wanted him to go to CIIS, but it was not optional. Pratt picked the youngest children of Native leaders he fought—or wished he
had—in order to control the strong families on the reservations. He chose Bull Bear’s two youngest sons, Oscar Bull Bear and Thunderbird; his grandson, who was the son of legendary warrior Roman Nose and eldest daughter Clouding Woman; and others in his extended family, including Matches, the prisoner-artist from Pratt’s Fort Marion command.
Pratt took pride in Thunderbird’s progress toward “civilization.” In an 1890 commissioner’s report, he recounted seeing him after a Cheyenne scalp dance at the headwaters of the Washita River, in the 1874–1875 campaign: “Among these dancers was a lad about 10 or 11 [who] was induced to attend the agency school. On the opening of [CIIS three years later] he was one of the first pupils. He was bright and capable, advanced rapidly… and in time became sergeant-major of the cadet organization.
“After being eight years with us he married one of our girls [in 1888]…found employment and went out from us to live…near Philadelphia.… During these three years neither he nor his family has cost the [U.S.] one cent. Both he and his wife are respected members of the church and the community.… He pays his taxes and votes. He desires to remain among civilized people and follow the pursuits of civilized life. He can talk of his former savage habits and the habits of his people, but he despises them and deplores the pauper condition into which his people have been forced.… ”
Thunderbird and Nellie moved to the Farmhouse in 1890 but returned four years later to his Cheyenne Treaty land along the Washita for a period of intensive ceremonial life (punctuated by forays into arts, film, politics and moneymaking ventures in St. Louis; Omaha, Nebraska; and Hollywood, California; and eventual life in Los Angeles. Many passages converged during their time at the Farmhouse—birth of the third of their nine children, the passing of Bull Bear and the death of Thunderbird’s youngest sister.
Elsie Davis (Wah-stah) was Bull Bear’s youngest child. She died of consumption 1893 and was buried at CIIS; dug up and buried again to make way for a road, a stadium and then a building; buried, perhaps, in what is now the historic cemetery, a mass grave of CIIS captives, where it’s doubtful that any of the 186 Native young people are buried near the tombstones etched with their names.
That cemetery and the Guard House were considered worthy of preservation by the National Register of Historic Places. I agree, because they are history, but also because they are evidence. That small dark prison holds the blood and memory of those who could not or would not do what was demanded of them. DNA is in the cold stones of the walls and floor; bones and spirits were broken there.
In the family lines of Thunderbird and Nellie are citizens of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes, Pawnee Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Acoma Pueblo, Gila River Indian Community, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe and others, and we have not begun to fully understand our shared history. So, why save the Farmhouse? To help bring out more of Native history, because the history of Carlisle school is not true or complete if we’re not in it.
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