The Sweet Tragedy of Indian Schools in the Late 19th Century

In Your Arms_smallThere are a few topics in my forthcoming novel, In Your Arms, that walk the line of being highly controversial. None more so than my heroine, Lily Singer’s background. Lily is Native American, but as a small child she was taken from her tribe to be raised at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA. It’s important to understand a thing or two about these Indian schools in order to gain the full impact of what Lily’s upbringing means.

Now, I’m really not an expert in these Indian schools. All that I know comes from careful research, but not in-depth study. I have also tried to think like a late 19th century person in coming to a conclusion about these schools. The problem is, they are the poster children for the phrase “the path to hell is paved with good intentions”. So much of what they stood for and what they hoped to accomplish is reprehensible in the eyes of 21st century people and the Native Americans that were effected by them. At the same time, they did do some good. But it’s sticky good.

Let’s take a look at the Indian schools from the point of view of the white people first.

The idea of educating children from various Native American tribes so that they could be Christianized and integrated into American society gained steam in missionary societies throughout the second half of the 19th century. The west was being settled, progress was coming to the frontier, and the view of the Americans was that something had to be done about the native inhabitants. Not everyone was in favor of killing all the Indians or planting them on reservations. There was a segment of reformers that believed education would be the best solution to everyone’s problems.

Richard Henry Pratt

Richard Henry Pratt

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the brainchild of Captain Richard Henry Pratt. A Civil War veteran, Pratt believed that all men were born as blank slates and could be educated to become anything they wanted to be. When he looked at the Native Americans of the west he saw impoverished, uneducated savages that could be saved. The school that he built in Carlisle was, in his view, a humane and positive way to give Native American children a far better chance in life than he thought they were getting with their own people.

So beginning in October of 1879, Native American children from ages 6 to twenty-five (most of whom were teenagers) were relocated to Carlisle to be educated. Other schools followed, but Carlisle was the original and the model. The students were dressed in white man’s clothes, had their hair cut, were made to speak English, and given American names. Life in the schools was regimented and disciplined, but the education was good. Many graduates went on to successful careers, in the east and back home in the west.

From the Native American point of view, the Indian school phenomenon was an entirely different beast.

While some children were sent to the schools of their parents’ free will, from what I’ve read it seems to me that there was no real understanding of what these parents were sending their children off to. These were not informed decisions. More than that, many if not most of the children were taken forcibly from their families through either kidnapping or bribery or as concocted punishments. The separations were traumatic for the children one way or another.

Just about everything at the schools was traumatic for the children. They were stripped of their culture, their traditions, their languages, and their names. Punishments for speaking anything but English or holding to any part of their culture were severe. We’re talking sanctioned beatings here. Children who failed to excel at their studies were punished. But as educational psychology clearly shows, it is extremely difficult for children to learn when they are under stress.

carlisle class

A beautiful and chilling photo of one of the Carlisle school’s graduating classes

And then there were the children who died. Yes, many of them died of natural childhood diseases that killed a great number of children in all families, states, and living conditions of the time. Others just faded away and died, pining for the homes they had been taken from, never to see again. I have a coworker who grew up in Carlisle who has toured the school (now a military base) and who commented about the graveyard outside of the school that it is chilling. So many tiny graves in such a small space.

Of course, you could almost say that the bigger problem came from the children who survived, who made it through the program, graduated, and went back to their tribes. The mission of the Indian schools was successful for these poor souls. Their heritage had been educated right out of them. I am not exaggerating or making anything up when my heroine, Lily, remarks that she is not accepted by white society but she no longer fits in with any Native American society. In fact, some of the greatest problems of the Native American cultures of the early twentieth century, problems that reverberate today, are because a huge chunk of an entire generation was changed forever and could not reintegrate into their heritage.

It was a tragic business, really. I have a hard time believing that the American missionaries involved had anything but good intentions, but the results of those intentions was devastating. It’s a sad case of what a little bit of knowledge and a blindness to anyone’s way of seeing things but one’s own can do. The whole story of the Native Americans of the west is one that breaks my heart with its complexity and destruction. But as a friend recently said when we were discussing this sad chapter of history, hopefully we can learn from the mistakes of our past when we interact with other cultures. I wonder if we can.

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2 thoughts on “The Sweet Tragedy of Indian Schools in the Late 19th Century

  1. It was everywhere. In VA as recently as the early 1900’s, the Native American population was lumped together with the black population and they were all listed as ‘people of color’ it’s is referred to as ‘paper genocide’ In effect, the VA tribes ceased to exist. Check out RM Brown’s newest book. And what was done in Hawaii-well that’s another nasty story.

  2. We must not forget that childhood was brutal for most children in the late 1800’s–white’s included. Children died at alarming rates and in any given year NYC alone had 30,000 orphans wandering the streets. But here’s the real interesting thing to me: Darwin’s theories on natural selection addressed the problems of “less developed peoples”–they would naturally become extinct–not just their cultures. While not ideal the Christian missionaries still believed in helping and saving the weakest people and did their best. The social Darwinists would have had the tribes long gone if it wasn’t for the missionaries and other Christan based organizations. The Darwinists were responsible for mass exterminations in Europe and Russia only a few decades later. If you really take Darwinism and relativism for what their proponents say and do it’s very scary indeed. Thank God for the missionaries! Whenever we say that the Indians didn’t know where they were sending their kids aren’t we also saying they weren’t quite bright enough to figure things out? I’ve taught many groups of ethnically diverse kids who’s parents prefer that their kids lose their old culture in order to succeed in America. I’m not saying that this is great, I’m just saying that even the Indians tended to scoop up modern technology and ideas. We often hear only about the nomadic tribes who didn’t assimilate so easily but many Indians did. I’m part Indian myself.

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