Jim Thorpe is a name synonymous with heroism and athletic prowess, and for those who live in Central Pennsylvania, with a village all decked in holly over the Christmas season. But less known is the dark underside of this Native American’s education at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
On November 19, 2015, the Undergraduate Research Symposium in Philosophy and Religion toured what remains of the school on guarded military grounds and attended a lecture at the Carlisle Historical Society. Spanning a forty-year period, over 10,000 children from various tribes across the entire United States were sent to the boarding school in an effort to “civilize” the natives to European ways. Captain Pratt, as he was known, and considered at the time to be one of the more humane reformers, founded the school in the belief that forced assimilation would lead natives to effectively integrate into society, and in this way, the “Indian problem” could be solved, avoiding the costly bloodshed of wars and deportations. “Kill the Indian, save the man” couldn’t have been more literally applied at the school whose founder coined the haunting phrase. Forbidden to speak her native tongue, to return home over her five year boarding period, each child was taught to reject her culture of origin as uncivilized, taught to adopt western ways, taught proper domesticity and the value of the nuclear family, if female, and if male, the skill of a trade and the value of hard labor. But for each, the transformative promise of education delivered the redoubled blow of a “double consciousness.” Once out into the world, most of the Carlisle school graduates were nevertheless still perceived to belong to a lesser race for not being white enough—and could not find proper employment, but upon returning to their native homes, their “whitewashed” ways made of them strangers.
Over 180 children died while under care at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Today, we can see stone markers with the lapidary inscriptions of their white names and year of death at the school’s relocated cemetery, which borders the Carlisle military base.
If Jim Thorpe’s story can be (erroneously) touted as one of “success,” the scars of this forty-some year failed “experiment,” as it is euphemistically referred to, are still felt today. But the problem, the ailment, is mostly a kind of blindness—the same kind of blindness that would have a Pratt assume the superiority of his civilization over against another’s he could not even see to see.