The Great White Father’s Little Red Indian School


There was an intense rivalry between the student-run societies, and they competed with each other in the preparation of programs for the student body. One such program, the product of the Mercer Literary Society, lists a variety of entertainment: “piano and vocal solos,” “declamation,” “humorous recitations,” “a parasol drill byten girls,” “a one act farce, ‘My Aunt from California,’ ” and finally—a sole reference to the ethnic background of the students—an “Illustrated Indian Song.”

The great event between the “Invincibles” and the “Standards” was the annual debate, attended by the entire student body and preceded by songs and cheering. The Invincibles won in 1916, and their yearbook recalls, “from the actions of some of them anyone would have believed that a bomb had been thrown into their midst.” It is doubtful that the enthusiasm resulted from the emotions aroused by the question, which was: “Resolved, that the adoption of a ship purchase bill is essential to our commercial prosperity.”

Every aspect of student life was a subject for the “civilization” process. The school paper in 1899 offered pungent advice on etiquette: “If a person grasps his fork at table as one would a spike through a catfish head while skinning it, there is something wrong with his bringing up. Nothing tells so much against a person’s early training as the awkward manner of holding the fork.”

The civilization process was viewed with dismay by some visiting Indian elders. Spotted Tail, chief of the Brule Sioux, objected to the use of military uniforms for the boys. Hc protested that the boys were in training to become soldiers. He cited further complaints concerning the food and the living accommodations, but, worst of all, he found that his son had been confined to the guardhouse for a week.


Pratt explained that the boy had been punished by a student court for stabbing a schoolmate with his jackknife. Spotted Tail was unmollified. He withdrew his nine children and relatives from the school and returned them to the reservation at his own expense.

The nature and the level of academic instruction varied during the history of the school. The age of the pupils ranged from the early teens to the mid-twenties. Some were almost completely unschooled, and others had been at various agency schools for several years. Although Carlisle was popularly believed to be a college-level institution, it never attempted to teach even through the high-school level.

At first, courses to the tenth grade were taught. Eventually, the academic program was restricted to the fourth through the eighth grades, with admission limited to those who had the equivalent of the first three grades.

Carlisle was a vocational school, and when the academic program interfered with vocational training, the academic requirements gave way. The real meat of the school programs was a three-year sequence in agriculture, mechanical arts, and home economics. The academic subjects were ruthlessly trimmed to essentials. Arithmetic was taught mainly through the medium of problems bearing on farm work and industry, and reading was taught from such readers as the Riverside Readers, Stepping Stones to Literature , and the Farm Life Readers . These solid works were supplemented by reading from such books as Franklin’s Autobiography and Black Beauty .

An important aspect of the Carlisle educational scheme was the “outing” system. Under this system an attempt was made to place each pupil in a Pennsylvania home for at least one year. During this year, in addition to performing regular farm or other work, the Indian pupil attended local public schools.

The outing system was, of course, a logical extension of Pratt’s firm belief that the Indian could achieve success only by leaving the reservation and by abandoning the tribal pattern. The year’s residence with a Pennsylvania Dutch family could be counted upon to blur the tribal association.


Critics have attacked the outing system as part of a ruthless “de-Indianizing” program that alienated the young Indians from their people. Oliver La Farge, writing many years after the school closed, said: Carlisle Indian School was founded in Pennsylvania for a purpose of inspired and brutal benevolence. Indians of high-school age were taken—often almost literally kidnapped—from the Western reservations and sent there, to remain for four, six or even more years. The idea was to break them completely away from their families and their tribes, forbid any speaking of their native languages or any manifestation of their native culture, and put them through a course of sprouts that would make them over into white men.