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

“[The Carlisle Indian School] is not just an Indian story; it’s not just an Army story; it’s not just a Carlisle story,” Hall said. “It’s a complex story among many. And when you talk about the families, and the children, and the people who were impacted, that’s a whole other story. I think we are at the beginning of being able to weave all of that together.”

During the second day of the Jim Thorpe Sports Days, Cianciulli took O’Brien to visit Dickinson College’s archivist James Gerencser, the individual responsible for the Digital Resource Center.

Cianciulli also took O’Brien to meet 92-year-old George Yuda (Oneida Indian Nation), a fellow veteran and descendant of a Carlisle graduate. His father’s diploma from Carlisle hangs with family photographs on the wall of his Carlisle residence

“Father was weaving baskets when someone told him, ‘You should go to school at Carlisle.’ He thought that sounded like a good idea, so he did,” Yuda said. “After he graduated, he hired many of his classmates from the Indian School to work with him in Philadelphia’s shipyards.”

Yuda shared mementos of his father’s time at the Indian School: a book of quotes from classmates, old photos, and he told O’Brien about the time Jim Thorpe dropped by the house to see his father.

A resident of Carlisle, Yuda was recognized at several previous Jim Thorpe Sports Days alongside Thorpe’s grandson (John Thorpe) to add “heritage and dignity” to the event prior to the involvement of the Carlisle Indian School Project.

A model of assimilation?

Richard Henry Pratt established the Carlisle Indian School in 1879 with supposedly good intentions. He believed in the inherent equality of indigenous and white people. But Pratt—and mainstream American society at the time—also viewed Native social and political organization as fundamentally “uncivilized.”

On a boulder outside Washington Hall where O’Brien was lodging on the Carlisle Barracks, a plaque articulates the Brigadier General’s philosophy of well-intended ethnocentrism. The plaque quotes Pratt: “The way to civilize an Indian is to get him into civilization. The way to keep him civilized is to let him stay.”

The sort of ethnocentrism that Pratt advocated remains a stain on the federal government’s boarding school policy, a legacy of forced cultural assimilation, children forbidden to practice their religion, stripped of their Native tongues.

O’Brien did not attend Indian boarding schools, but his childhood in the strict Catholic orphanage bore striking resemblance to the lifestyle in them. He didn’t know any other Native people. He was alone without a tribe.

Since his 1992 reunion with family on the Ft. Berthold reservation, he has strived to learn what it means to belong to the Three Affiliated Tribes. From his family, he has learned about Mandan and Hidatsa matrilineal clanship, etiquette, and spirituality. Every visit to Ft. Berthold is a joyous educational experience.

On the final night of his visit to Carlisle, after the closing ceremony, after the Army War College won the Commandants Cup, Robert O’Brien reflected on the legacy of the Carlisle Indian School from his plush lodgings in the Jim Thorpe room.

He pondered aloud: “I would probably be the model for the sort of Indian Pratt had in mind, don’t you think? ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’ Pratt had said. I didn’t know one Indian growing up. Would there have been anything better that Pratt would be looking for?”

O’Brien has no regrets in his life, no bitterness. Only gratitude. Upon returning to his home in Omaha, he sent a letter thanking the Army War College for his reception as the guest-of-honor.

“I see this as recognition of not only myself,” he wrote, “It’s an honor to all my relations and the legacy of my father, Arthur Mandan.”


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