by Kandace Kohr
If you walk through downtown Carlisle, it’s easy to see that many aspects of Dickinson's hometown have changed over the years. Digital marquees have replaced handcrafted paper advertisements; niche and specialty shops pepper the main drag with bright, quirky patterns; places that used to host individuals responsible for molding the nation are now filled with those who are likely unaware of Carlisle's extensive history.
But you can't truly understand the present if you don't understand the past. And that's why Dickinson students, faculty and staff are using new digital tools to shine a light on a dark piece of Carlisle's history that can help refocus our understanding of a troubling chapter in the nation's history.
The U.S. Indian Industrial School, otherwise known as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (CIIS) was the flagship boarding school for Indians from 1879 to 1918. It was founded by Captain Richard Henry Pratt as the first federally funded off-reservation Indian boarding school and served as a model for those that would follow.
A stereoscopic slide of a group of CIIS students. Image courtesy of Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.
Over the years, the school brought nearly 10,000 indigenous children from some 150 nations, including Sioux, Lakota, Cherokee, Apache, Six Nations and more to be immersed in the Euro-American-centric culture, thereby stripping them of their native culture in hopes of a better future. Students learned to speak English, enhanced their trade skills and were introduced to Euro-American customs.
Some students went on to become lawyers, politicians and athletes, while others found themselves caught between two worlds. But all suffered a sense of dislocation and their accounts and the legacy of intergenerational trauma are a tragic reminder of our country's past. In the last five years, many more of these stories have been brought to light after being stowed away for so long.
Many documents and materials from the school have been preserved in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., for some time now, but as College Archivist Jim Gerencser ‘93 knows, that presents a significant hurdle for anyone trying to access these resources. Like many Dickinsonians, he was determined to change that.
With Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology Susan Rose ’77 and Special Collections Librarian Malinda Triller-Doran helping to lead the project, he assembled a student group to tackle the enormous undertaking of digitizing the National Archives' CIIS records. Once Dickinson received funding from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Digital Humanities grant in 2013, efforts began with a team of undergraduate collaborators, one of whom was Frank Vitale ’16, now a library digital projects assistant at Dickinson, to create what is now known as the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center (CISDRC).
The CISDRC contains thousands of historic documents, such as images, student files, publications, lists, rosters and even cemetery information. Photo courtesy of Carl Socolow '77.
As a history major, Vitale discovered a unique interest during his archival work, which served as the inspiration for his senior honors thesis and set the stage for him to pursue a one-year master’s program in science and medicine at the University of Oxford this fall.
“As I continued my studies at Dickinson and focused on the history of medicine, I saw how medicine at the Carlisle Indian School was rarely discussed by scholars and felt that researching that topic would be valuable," says Vitale. "My work with the CISDRC is a perfect pairing with my research interests and allows me to help contribute to our understanding of the CIIS while simultaneously serving descendants and other researchers who rely on our content and expertise.”
Among project collaborators and contributors, many feel the same way: By making these resources more freely and easily available, historians can begin to piece together a story very different from what's been told before.
“It’s both about Native American history and Native American educational history and also colonial history,” says Susan Rose, who feels the CIIS story is an important part of not only local history, but also national history. “While we often focus on the Founding Fathers, we don’t think about the lands that were once Susquehannock, Conestoga, Lenape. … It’s really a recognition of a much earlier history of people whose lands we now walk.”
Thanks to a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Rose and Gerencser were able to organize a summer Teachers’ Institute on the Carlisle Indian School to engage people, mainly educators, in using these newly available resources for research and teaching in both native and non-native classrooms across the country.
But for Rose, a burning question remained: “How do you teach a complex and contested history that’s also very emotional and is often a counter-narrative to the official narrative?”
Participants attended a workshop led by Lakota/Kiowa Apache storyteller, cultural educator, author and recording artist Dovie Thomason to learn how to utilize the CISDRC and storytelling in their teachings. Photo courtesy of Carl Sander Socolow '77.
From July 30 to Aug. 4, twenty educators from across the nation explored that very question. Over the course of the institute, educators from varying backgrounds discussed the history, reviewed countless documents through the CISDRC and created lesson plans based on their learnings.
The institute was initially developed to help people navigate the web of information on the CISDRC, but it has since blossomed into a more sophisticated analysis of the data and has received much praise from attendees, living descendants and anyone who wishes to feed their curiosity. One attendee says that they gained "a sense of seriousness and enormity of the boarding school experience from across the country. Intellectually, I knew about Carlisle but being here has made it very real."
“We’ve had tons and tons of email messages thanking us from living descendants of students who attended Carlisle—messages like, ‘Wow, I had never seen my great-grandmother’s handwriting before,’ " says Gerencser. "It has that kind of personal impact. And for other scholars, they can be able to ask new questions as they discover resources that they didn’t know existed.”
The project also recently played a part in reconciling the past atrocities against the Native Americans in this area when the Northern Arapaho Tribe got approval from the U.S. Army for the disinterment of three native children—Little Plume, Little Chief and Horse—who were buried in the Carlisle Barracks Post Cemetery. With the help of information provided by the CISDRC, they were returned to the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming to be buried on sacred tribal grounds.
A group of Northern Arapaho and Shoshone children who arrived at Carlisle on March 11, 1881. Image courtesy of Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.
Where the CISDRC goes next is a question that Gerencser gets quite frequently. Looking at the long-term goals, he says, “there’s still so much more—not just in the National Archives, but around the country—and in that way, the project is never really over. As long as there is more information out there to be added, there is no ‘end.’ Richard Henry Pratt’s collection of personal papers is at the Beinecke [Rare Book & Manuscript Library] at Yale University, so we would love to have those digitized at some point and have them added to the project.”
Within the next year, the team also aims to add a portion to the site that will allow family members and living descendants of CIIS students to share any photographs, documents and stories that have been passed through generations.
In tandem with the CISDRC’s efforts and the publication of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Sites of Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations co-edited by Rose and Jacqueline Fear-Segal (UNP 2016), Rose will continue to teach this new history by leading a First Year Seminar course next year, but Dickinson's commitment to diverse education doesn’t stop there. Recently, Dickinson hired the first Native American studies professor on a two year professorship, which could possibly turn into a tenured position. Next year marks the centennial anniversary of the closing of the CIIS, which will feature native artists working in collaboration with the Trout Gallery, with prominent Native American academic and author Tsianina Lomawaima as a keynote speaker.
“What I love is the collaboration and the interaction. All of these little pieces just keep coming together and moving forward," she says "That’s one of the things that’s really cool about this place: It’s small enough and people are engaged, which means you can have a project like this just blossom.”
Published August 30, 2017