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Cultural Genocide and Education: The Story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

1 Introduction

Once the so-called “Indian Wars” came to an end, many Native Americans faced an unknown way of living. For them, the reservation system was a new, controlled existence. At the same time, the United States government continued to take lands from the natives and attempted to destroy their cultures. This was the process of assimilation.

Reservation schools and boarding schools were used to “civilize” native children. The school that started this all was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, begun by Captain Richard Henry Pratt. Supporters referred to this movement and its schools as a “noble experiment” to turn native children into mirrored images of the “white man.”

2 The Leaders, the Parents, and the Students

From 1879 to 1918, approximately 12,000 native children were sent to Carlisle – some by choice, others by force. The vast majority of the children who were sent to Carlisle came from one of the 140 American Indian tribes or nations.

In 1879, eighty-two children pulled into town in a train late at night. On their first day at Carlisle, the native children were forced to sit in the barbershop, for the “first lesson about their new identity.” Every young male’s hair was chopped off. For many American Indian cultures, hair was an important part of one’s identity. To cut hair off was to instantly redefine them. This process cut them off from their identity and replaced it with an identity that mirrored “civilized” life.

Carlisle’s assimilation of Native Americans also served two other purposes:

  1. to prepare Native people to surrender tribally controlled lands and accept individual land allotments
  2. to train them to enter the lower positions of the domestic and manual labor markets

3 The Classroom and Beyond

Boys were made to dress in military uniforms, while girls had to wear Victorian-style dresses. Half of the children’s day was spent working while the other half was spent studying, and then the two would switch.

From the moment children arrived to Carlisle, English was their new – and only – language.

Native children were also systematically renamed; their identities stripped from them and replaced with new, “white” ones.

4 The End of Carlisle and the Remaining Legacy

Carlisle closed its doors in 1918. Of the over two million Native Americans that currently live in this country, the majority had some connection to Carlisle or similar boarding schools.

The Carlisle experiment teaches us about the history of racism and the genocidal beliefs in United States history. Education was used to further the oppression and cultural extinction of entire peoples. This movement used schools as weapons for the dominance and subordination of Native Americans.


Source: Cultural Genocide and Education: The Story of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School
By Brian Van Slyke, CC BY-N-SA 3.0

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