Doug Meigs
Robert O’Brien, 85, was a guest of honor for the Jim Thorpe Sports Days at the U.S. Army War College – once known as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Upon his visit to the barracks and grounds, O’Brien used his time to trace his Native roots. O’Brien is seen during the closing ceremonies of the annual athletic event held in April.

Alone Without a Tribe; Native Vet Traces His Roots at Carlisle Indian School

Doug Meigs

Catholic Charities in Minnesota held documents that named his “alleged” father, Arthur Mandan. When O’Brien finally met his family in North Dakota, they welcomed him with open arms. He went from no known siblings to more relations than he had ever imagined. He and his children, Alex and Michele, all gained enrollment in the Three Affiliated Tribes.

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O’Brien contacted the National Archives in Washington D.C. to learn more about his deceased father. Documents confirmed that Arthur Mandan had graduated from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in April of 1907.

In the fall of 1907, Jim Thorpe began playing football for the “Carlisle Indians."

The namesake of Jim Thorpe Sports Days is one of the greatest athletes of all time. Thorpe (Sac and Fox) dominated the track of the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, winning gold in both pentathlon and decathlon. He competed professionally in baseball, football and basketball. He was also the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which would later become the NFL.

Meanwhile, Thorpe’s classmate and O’Brien’s father—Mandan—went on to become the first tribal chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara during the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

Mandan’s surname refers back to another influential ancestor. Mandan’s grandfather—Red Buffalo Cow—was the last hereditary chief of the Mandan and a signatory of the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1851. Red Buffalo Cow’s leadership prevented Mandan relocation to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

For 24 years, O’Brien has been enrolled in the tribe of his paternal ancestry.

Native tourism in Carlisle

Like O’Brien, Sandra Cianciulli (Lakota) is descended from Carlisle students. Her great-aunt and great-uncle were in the first class at the Indian School. As president of the Carlisle Indian School Project, Cianciulli coordinated O’Brien’s trip to Carlisle, and she also brought Carlisle descendants with military experience: Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw), a former Army Ranger, 2013; and Bill Gollnick (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin), a former Marine Green Beret, 2015.

The Carlisle Indian School Project is a fairly recent initiative that grew out of the Circle Legacy Center’s grassroots effort to prevent the 2010 demolition of an old farmhouse on the Carlisle Barracks.

The Project joins a number of other historic initiatives working to preserve the legacy of the school. Other key local institutions include the Cumberland County Historical Society (a crucial repository of archival materials relating to the Carlisle Indian School) and Dickinson College’s Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, which is in the process of digitizing and uploading relevant documents from the National Archives.

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“We all want to work together to make it a destination that is welcoming and informative,” said Cianciulli. “The Carlisle Indian School is part of an era that was experienced by a generation. It is local history here, and it is our nation’s history.”

Cianciulli was joined by BIA tourism coordinator Ed Hall (MHA), vice president of the Carlisle Indian School Project.

Hall happened to be related to O’Brien. He had heard stories about O’Brien’s reconnection with family on Ft. Berthold, but the two hadn’t met before the Jim Thorpe Sports Days.

“We have a lot of relatives who came to the Carlisle Indian School. I think it’s an honor to be alive and see someone who is my elder, a relative, honored in this way,” Hall said. “Our challenge today is to say that we understand how this happened; now what do we do? We’re still here. How do we honor what happened? And those people who didn’t survive? How do we move beyond? I don't think people can truly move beyond until they know where they’ve come from.”

Hall said that Jim Thorpe’s role in the Army War College’s sporting event seems to have begun with Thorpe’s iconic All-American status. Hall praised how the Army’s approach to Jim Thorpe Days has broadened through efforts to recognize tribes and descendants of Carlisle Indian School students.


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