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Home » Daily News Updates » 2 Day in Civil Rights: The Carlisle Indian School 2 Day in Civil Rights: The Carlisle Indian School

From 2018 EJI Calendar

1831:  Choctaw people begin “Trail of Tears,” a forced march from Mississippi to Oklahoma, during which nearly a third of the Choctaw nation perishes.

1879:  School to assimilate Native American children opens in Pennsylvania

From EJI Timeline

Carlisle Indian School Begins Assimilating Native American Children into White Culture

Carlisle Indian School students. (Americans and Natives had difficulty agreeing on what it meant to have a good education.)

Carlisle Indian School students. (Americans and Natives had difficulty agreeing on what it meant to have a good education.)

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States Congress established the Civilization Fund to provide financial support for programs intended to “civilize” native people, and created the Bureau of Indian Affairs to oversee those efforts. In the following decades, U.S. policy became increasingly focused on eradicating Native youth’s tribal ties and assimilating them into the culture so that they would grow into adults supportive of the American economy. Indian boarding schools were an outgrowth of this goal. Initially, students were only compelled to attend schools on their tribal reservations, but eventually children were forcibly sent to off-reservation boarding schools.

The Carlisle Indian School, opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on November, 1, 1879, was the first school of its kind. The school was founded by Captain Richard Pratt, who described his philosophy for educating Native children thus: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The federal government used Carlisle as a model for other boarding schools to forcefully assimilate Native children into mainstream culture. Young children were taken from their families to attend these schools, and parents who resisted were forced to flee, hide, or face imprisonment. Many parents voluntarily sent their children; because Native children were not permitted to attend local public schools with white students, assimilation boarding schools were often seen as the only available educational opportunity.

Carlisle Indian School campus and student body.

Carlisle Indian School campus and student body.

The federal government viewed educating Native children as a wholly different project from educating white children. While the government believed a white youth’s “moral character and habits are already formed and well defined” when he leaves for school, a native youth, “born a savage and raised in an atmosphere of superstition and ignorance… lacks at the outset those advantages which are inherited by his white brother” and “if he is to rise from his low estate the germs of a nobler existence must be implanted in him and cultivated. He must be taught to lay aside his savage customs like a garment and take upon himself the habits of civilized life.” To implement this goal, the children were given English names, forced to cut their hair, and forbidden from speaking their native languages. Students received vocational training but very little academic instruction with the expectation that they would make their living as farmers or manual laborers. Conditions in many schools were poor and students were often the victims of extreme physical and sexual abuse.

Support for the schools began to decline after reform proponents submitted The Meriam Report on February 1, 1928, detailing the schools’ poor conditions and unreasonable focus on assimilation, discipline, and vocational training. When one of the report’s authors, John Collier, became Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933, he took steps toward dismantling the assimilationist agenda of the Indian boarding schools.

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