What happened to the Native American children from the Carlisle School?

Anita Durairaj

Dance bonnet and scalp lockPhoto by Boston Public Library on Unsplash

US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is one of only two Native American women who has been elected to the US Congress. She is also the first Native American Cabinet Secretary in US history.

This month (June 2021), Haaland has initiated the preparation of a report that will identify federal boarding school facilities and the locations of possible burial sites of Native American students who died while they were at school.

According to Preston McBride, a scholar at Dartmouth College, there were over 500 schools that were established in the 1870s for the sole purpose of taking in indigenous children. One such school was located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and was called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. (Today, the school is no longer in existence but it is the site of the Carlisle Barracks which is a part of the U.S. Army War College).

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School

The school was first established in 1879 and lasted through 1918. It was founded by US Army Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt for educating Native American children off the reservation. The school was maintained by the US government and its express purpose was to educate the children in the ways of the white man and reject their own culture. White Americans believed this was the only way for the Native Americans to assimilate into the culture.

Pratt was a cruel teacher and taskmaster. He used a military regimen for the children but he also used corporal punishment when the children resorted to behaving according to the culture they were born in. The children changed their dress and hairstyles to fit in with the dominant Euro-American culture.

Over 10,000 Native American children are believed to have attended Carlisle. However, what has remained hidden until now is that many children died while they attended the school. The cemetery at the Carlisle School contained 180 graves of Native American children from over a century ago and there could be other unknown graves too. What happened to these children?

What possibly happened

It is believed that the children were subject to abuse and poor treatment. At the time, there were also many infectious diseases and conditions were harsh resulting in the deaths of many children over a short period of time. Some children were even killed on purpose and their parents were not allowed to visit while they were in school.

Preston McBride, the Dartmouth Scholar, has now opened this case up wide open and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is motivated to understand and address the trauma of these missing children. In addition to finding out the burial sites of the children, it is hoped that their identities and tribal affiliations can also be determined. It is one step forward towards healing for generations of Native Americans today.

Sources: AP News, Wikipedia - Carlisle Indian Industrial School, The Daily Mail

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