Excerpt: Boarding School Voices

Arnold Krupat is a professor emeritus of global studies and literature at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of numerous books, including All That Remains: Varieties of Indigenous Expression (Nebraska, 2009) and “That the People Might Live”: Loss and Renewal in Native American Elegy. He is the editor of Companion to James Welch’s “The Heartsong of Charging Elk” (Nebraska, 2015). His newest book, Boarding School Voices: Carlisle Indian School Students Speak (Nebraska, 2021), was published this month. The following is an excerpt from chapter one.

Chapter 1

“I talk white nicely”

 The 1890 Letters of Returned Students from Carlisle

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first federally funded Indian boarding school, “opened on the 1st of Nov., 1879 with 147 students,” as Captain Richard Henry Pratt wrote in his “First Annual Report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs,” published in the Carlisle newspaper, Eadle Keatah Toh or the Morning Star for November, 1880 (4). The school’s first graduation took place ten years later, the graduating class of 1889 being made up of seven young men and seven young women: three Wyandottes, three Wisconsin Oneidas, a Chippewa, a Miami, a Gros Ventre, an Omaha, an Ottawa, a Sac and Fox, a Cheyenne, and a Winnebago.

The following year Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Mor[1]gan wrote to Pratt suggesting that he contact the recent graduates and other “returned students” to learn what and how they were doing back home or wherever they might be. Morgan asked Pratt to request that “each Carlisle returned student . . . address a letter to [the commissioner] giving information concerning themselves.” I take this description of Morgan’s letter from a reply to it dated April 10, 1890, by Assistant Commissioner A. J. Standing.

Standing thought more reliable information would be obtained by sending to those who can be reached, a series of questions to be answered by them, giving the information desired, and at the same time asking them to address a letter to Capt. Pratt embodying the same in substance; enclose both in the same envelope and return to Carlisle; the letters then to be forwarded to you, replies to questions filed at Carlisle. Morgan approved and instructed Pratt to do as Standing had recommended. We know that Pratt acted promptly, in that replies to the school’s communication began arriving by early June 1890.

But as Dickinson College Archivist Jim Gerencser informed me, researchers could “not find those original survey questionnaires among any of the extant Carlisle administrative records . . . so they likely were not preserved” (personal communication, July 11, 2019). This means that we do not know the actual questions posed in 1890, for all that we may infer from the letters on file what some of them may have been. For example, we know from Joshua Given’s letter (discussed later) that there were probably sixteen questions. Pratt never sent out another such questionnaire during his time at the school—he left in 1904—but later superintendents did. These have been preserved, and they provide hints as to what the earlier one had asked.

Although some former students probably never received it, and others chose to ignore it—a matter I take up shortly—103 responses to the questionnaire have been digitized and can be found at the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, under “Documents” carlisleindian.dickinson.edu. The students’ letters to the commissioner went first to Carlisle and from there were sent to him in five packets, from June 17, 1890 to July 22, 1890. In that Pratt “appears to have been out of town during the earlier period when the survey was conducted,” it was “Standing himself [who] forwarded along the first two batches of letters” (Gerencser, personal communication, July 11, 2019), with Pratt transmitting the remaining three. Some few of the students’ letters were published either in full or in part in the various Carlisle newspapers. But most of those printed here are appearing in print for the first time, and apart from ellipses for text omitted, they are completely unedited.

The majority of returned students—indeed, the majority of the 1889 graduates—did not respond to Pratt’s questionnaire and request for a letter. Some surely did not receive it, or did not get around to responding—although at least two former runaways, one of them in a Nebraska penitentiary, did receive it and chose to write. But it is entirely reasonable to assume that others who did not respond simply wanted nothing more to do with the school, having found their experience there anything from unpleasant to traumatic. We know a good deal now about what Native boarding school students suffered at the schools: loneliness, contempt, physical punishment, illness, and death, leading to a legacy of substance abuse, impaired relationships, and suicide. If former students who had suffered these things had responded, it is certain that their remarks would be far more negative than what is on record. But although the responses available are from a minority of the students, it is nonetheless a substantial minority. We cannot hear the voices of those many—the majority—who did not speak in writing, but surely it would be unwise not to listen to the words of those who did.

Of the 1890 respondents, most said that once home they had tried to maintain the “civilized” manners Carlisle had taught them, although some reported—proudly or with shame—that they had gone back to the Indian ways they had known before. Many, regardless of the manner in which they were living, expressed disappointment with conditions at their home agency. Some, whom I have called the “organic intellectuals,” had given considerable thought to these matters and wrote to Pratt, often at length, expressing anger at the appropriation of their tribal lands by whites or at their current treatment by reservation agents. Almost all nevertheless express fondness for the school and warm feelings for Pratt himself. Several address him as “Dear School Father,” something they had been encouraged to do—pure colonial paternalism, on the one hand, yet a recognition of the importance of Native filial relations, on the other.

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