A questionable legacy


CARLISLE, Pa. - In the shadow of a weeping cherry tree, amid the rows of small, white gravestones, Michael H. Trujillo found her. He knew of her from his grandfather and great-uncle, the girl's brothers. Together the two boys and their sister had journeyed thousands of miles from an Indian pueblo in New Mexico to this place called Pennsylvania to attend a school.

They spoke no English. But they would learn to form the sounds and words of this language so unlike their own. They would learn what it meant to be a citizen of the United States. They would learn by learning to forsake all things Indian because that was the way at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the largest, government-run boarding school of its kind, whose past reflects the sad history of American-Indian relations.

William and Ulysses Paisano, Trujillo's great-uncle and grandfather, eventually returned to their village of Casa Blanca, where they prospered as English-speaking merchants and tribal leaders. Their sister, Mary, died at Carlisle in 1890, a girl buried under a stone that bears neither her tribe nor the correct spelling of her name.

This Memorial Day weekend, Indians from various tribes will gather at the cemetery on the grounds of the old Carlisle school. They will place silk flowers on the graves of the 186 students who died there between 1879 and 1918, the years the school operated. They will burn sage sticks, pray to the four compass points and attend a powwow to remember the Carlisle school in this, the 250th year of Cumberland County, Pa.

The legacy of the Carlisle school is a troubling one, a history born out of its founding principle to educate and "civilize" Indians by their "total immersion" in white society.

Trujillo's family reflects the dichotomy of the Carlisle experience. The alma mater of Olympic great Jim Thorpe, Carlisle epitomized an educational philosophy that failed the group but not necessarily the individual. By today's sensitivities, Carlisle was an abomination. But the experience instilled in Trujillo's ancestors the importance of education.

"Good or bad, somehow or another, some individuals got a good education and carried it forward. Just as my family did," Trujillo said.

But, while his great-uncle and grandfather became governors of their Laguna tribe and advocates for their people in Washington, the remains of his great-aunt were never returned to her homeland.

A physician and public health specialist, Trujillo heads the Indian Health Services, a presidential appointment that also carries the title of assistant surgeon general. His first and only visit to the old Carlisle school grounds took place last year. He jogged on the track used by Thorpe. He read back issues of the Carlisle newspaper that featured accomplished former students - teachers, missionaries, ranchers, musicians, factory workers, and politicians. And he visited his great-aunt's grave.

Trujillo inscribed a picture postcard of the Laguna pueblo to the great-aunt he never knew. He placed it, along with a food offering in the Indian tradition, atop her gravestone. "I gave her a picture of her home," he said.

"That was an era where individuals, and the individual who started this school, believed that acculturation was a necessity, and that meant removing children from their living situation. As we look back with our eyes, our history, it was detrimental to the inherent composition of a family," said Trujillo. "... We have to look at the future and make sure our society doesn't do that again."

"The whole purpose of being educated is to give back. ... That is our sense of duty," said Georgeline Sparks, a Rosebud Sioux Indian from Randallstown who will attend the powwow.

More than 10,000 Indian children passed through the brick gate of Carlisle, the site of an old military barracks that now houses the U.S. Army War College. The school served as the model for other nonreservation boarding schools that were set up in the West.

The school's founder, retired Army officer Richard H. Pratt, proposed the establishment of a nonreservation, Indian boarding school in the East after he commanded a unit of blacks and Indian scouts in the former Oklahoma territory. The intelligence, civilization and common sense of the Indians "was a revelation" to Pratt because, he wrote, "I had concluded that as an Army officer I was there to deal with atrocious aborigines." But his service in Indian territory also led him to this observation:

"I do not believe that amongst his people an Indian can be made to feel all the advantages of a civilized life nor the manhood of supporting himself and standing out alone and battle for life as an American citizen. To accomplish that, his removal and personal isolation is necessary."

Carlisle's first students were "recruited" from reservations where parents spoke little or no English and may not have fully understood the extent of the Carlisle project. Spotted Tail, a Sioux chief, initially wanted nothing to do with the white man's cheating ways. Other Indian leaders, mindful of the hardships of reservation life in the late 19th century, felt differently.

In those early years, "the blanket Indians," as Pratt once referred to his charges, were assigned to dormitories with children from other tribes to discourage use of their native languages. The students were given Anglo names, some of which were chosen by pointing to an indecipherable word on a chalkboard.

The students were forced to cut their long, often braided hair. They were forbidden to speak their native languages. They traded blankets for uniforms and then Western-style dress and hairstyles. They spent half their day in school, the rest working in the laundry, dining hall and bakery or on school grounds. They learned a trade, such as carpentry, blacksmithing or sewing. They played sports, took art classes and participated in after-school activities, including band and drama society. Marianne Moore, the American poet, taught there.

The irony of Pratt's experiment was reflected in the school costume pageants. Indians portrayed a host of famous figures, Columbus, George Washington, the Statue of Liberty, and even the Indians who attended the first Thanksgiving dinner. Carlisle stressed athletics, and its students played football, baseball and lacrosse. It also emphasized native Indian art and crafts - the school sold rugs hand-woven by its students.

A broad and varied educational experience, one might conclude, but as many as 2,600 students ran away during Carlisle's 39-year history. Marie Le Sieur, a teenager from Idaho, was one of the runaways.

"I was so dissatisfied while in Carlisle," the girl explained in a letter to another Carlisle student. "The rules were so strict. ... I hate the employees and even when they would say anything I was determined that they should know that I didn't fear them and they couldn't dog me around."

Le Sieur's trip to Philadelphia landed her in jail, a place she seemed to prefer to the Carlisle school:

"It's just great here. We don't get up until 7 and have hardly anything to do all day. In the evening we play the piano or phonograph and dance and sing."

During the summers, many students were sent to live with white families in neighboring Pennsylvania towns and New Jersey, where they worked. Pratt called the summer outings "The Supreme Americanizer." He also saw it as a hedge against prejudice.

"As boys and girls they will be coming into the same class with white boys and girls and will so learn to know each other and this will take away their prejudice against the whites and take away the prejudice of the whites against your people and it is the only way to remove such prejudice," Pratt said in persuading the Sioux chief Spotted Tail to send his five sons to Carlisle.

But Pratt's theory conflicted with the experience of many Carlisle students after they left school, historians and researchers say.

"When you look at the scope of it, 10,714 children, and you look at the conditions of the reservations today, and you know most went back, you wonder what kind of influence there was," said Barbara Landis, a researcher at the Cumberland County (Pa.) Historical Society and a Carlisle school specialist.

In letters to their alma mater, former Carlisle students let their old classmates and teachers know how they were faring in the white man's world.

"Anyone who has ever heard the Wheelock's United States Indian Band play will testify that I have brought before the public a strong contradiction to that old saying, 'that the only good Indian is a dead one' and proved that an Indian with proper training is capable of mastering the highest art - music."

If he can prove himself an equal to his white brother in music he can do anything is what I PREACH and to the best of my ability I try to practice what I preach," wrote James R. Wheelock, an Oneida Indian from Wisconsin who directed the Hagerstown Municipal Band in 1917.

Chauncey Yellow Robe, who denounced the use of Indians in Wild West shows to the Society of American Indians, was among the teenagers recruited to Carlisle by Pratt.

A Sioux whose Indian name was "Killed in The Timber," Yellow Robe arrived at Carlisle in 1883 in "full Indian costume, long hair, painted face, feathers, moccasins and blanket and not knowing a word of English."

"Yet in a few years, I was able to pass out from the silent walls of the school house as an independent American citizen," he wrote from Rapid City, S.D., where he taught at an Indian school.

Yellow Robe chastised school officials for including aspects of Indian history, customs and traditions in "The Red Man," a school publication.

"What the new generation of the Indian race today wants to know is 20th century progress," he wrote in 1916. "Publishing and teaching the Indian children their own people's history and customs in this present age means that they will always be Indians in mind. We will never forget the history of our forefathers."

Andrew Cuellar, a Shawnee, arrived at Carlisle in 1913, a year after Thorpe won his Olympic medals. The decision to go to Carlisle was an easy one for him. His mother dead, his father remarried and gone from his reservation in Oklahoma, Cuellar saw it as a chance to continue his education.

"I wanted to go further in school besides the sixth grade. Most everyone wanted to go there because it had a good reputation," said the 102-year-old retired accountant who lives in Davidsonville. "It meant better jobs."

Like his schoolmate Thorpe, Cuellar played football and earned his varsity letter. He played trombone in the band, learned a plumbing trade and served as his graduating class's president and treasurer.

But moves were afoot to close Carlisle. The government's policies toward the Indians had changed. Fiscally conscious bureaucrats preferred to fund schools in the West, which were closer to Indian reservations. A congressional investigation into a Carlisle superintendent's mishandling of funds revealed low morale among students. Defense officials wanted to reclaim the Carlisle property to house soldiers injured in World War I.

In 1918, Carlisle closed its doors after graduating its last students, Cuellar among them.

"Carlisle left no one untouched who went through that place," said Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist from Portland, Ore., who has done extensive research on the school. "What do you say about the fact that one of the physical reminders of this school is a cemetery on the grounds of a military barracks?"

For Brent Michael Davids, the legacy of the Carlisle schools is one of survival. A 40-year-old composer and flutist of Mohican ancestry, Davids will be among the performers for this weekend's Carlisle powwow.

"After Carlisle died, something grew out of the ashes, like me," said Davids, who was raised in Chicago. "Now, out of the ashes something else can grow, like a memorial of who we are. Natives can go to Carlisle and make some decisions about their own culture, [about] what it means to be native now."

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