The Great White Father’s Little Red Indian School

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The autobiography of the old Apache warrior Jason Betzinez, on the other hand, recalled with nostalgia his life on a Pennsylvania farm in the iSgo’s. This reluctant pupil was later to remember his days at Carlisle as the happiest ones in a long life. He wrote years later: During the First World War our old Carlisle superintendent made his last visit to Fort Sill. Several of his former students went to Anadarko to meet him at the train. The train arrived very late but we waited there patiently for it because we were as anxious to see General Pratt as if he were our own father. When the cars rolled in and the General stepped on the platform the Indians stood there with the tears rolling down their cheeks, overcome with happiness to see their old friend.

The poor health of some Indian pupils caused disheartening problems. Medical examinations of prospective students, when given at all, were sketchy, and a high incidence of disease occurred after arrival at the school. Adding to the difficulty was the susceptibility of the Plains-reared Indians to the common diseases of civilization. Young Indians not previously exposed to the childhood diseases endemic among the whites, such as measles, chicken pox, and mumps, were unlikely to avoid them in the East.

The startling excellence of the Indians in athletics provided the Carlisle school with more publicity than the more important but less dramatic aspects of the educational program. The Indians learned the white man’s sports in a well-organized intramural program.

Although the Carlisle school was on an almost primary level and was concerned mainly with vocational training, the Carlisle teams played such teams as Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, West Point, and the United States Naval Academy. Pratt was determined that the Carlisle football teams would play with the best on equal terms. He wrote to the famous football coach Walter Camp and asked him to recommend the best coach in the United States. Camp named Glenn “Pop” Warner, then coach at Cornell. Warner was promptly hired for Carlisle at what seemed to Pratt to be “an almost impossible figure.”

By the early 1900’s the Indian football teams had become the darlings of the sportswriters. Jim Thorpe, the almost legendary star athlete of Carlisle, was responsible for reams of publicity. The entire nation sympathized when he was forced to return the gold medals he won at the Olympic Games at Stockholm in 1912. Thorpe, a Sauk and Fox, was disqualified when it was discovered that he had once played professional baseball.

Pratt was never happier than when showing off either his school or its student body. In order to get his boys and girls to a parade or exposition he would haggle without shame over railroad fares, room charges, and meal costs. In 1893 he took over five hundred students to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He bartered for free admissions by promising to show off the whole group in a series of military parades, complete with band. He found a restaurant that let the young Indians provide their own table service at reduced prices. His economies saved enough money to hire a steamboat for a nighttime excursion to view the fireworks. The trip was a huge success for the young Indians, other fairgoers, and officials of the fair.

Alien though they were, the Indians came to be an accepted element of society in southern Pennsylvania. Old Jason Betzinez remembered lounging on Carlisle street corners on Saturday night, “just like the young white farmers.” Devil-may-care Jason even patronized the seafood stands in Carlisle and ate oysters in flagrant violation of the Apache taboo against eating food originating under the water.

The townspeople of Carlisle remember the Indians even today with affection. Almost half a century after their departure the town still considers itself “the home of the Indian School.”

By 1910, although over four thousand Indians had attended Carlisle for varying periods, there were less than six hundred recognized as graduates. At that time, a survey showed that over half of the living graduates were employed away from their reservation. Of the nongraduates, or “returned students,” a high percentage were found to be successfully earning a living.

Still, it is not possible to claim complete success for the Carlisle experiment. Many of the students returned to their reservations alienated from their tribal society but still unfitted to lead an independent life among the whites. Some of these reacted with an angry renunciation of everything they had been taught. Others maintained a livable equilibrium between the two societies.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School operated for thirty-nine years. Pratt was superintendent for twentyfive of these years. He never deviated from his original idea that the country and the Indians could best be served by the complete absorption of the Indian into American society. He fought the reservation concept, and more dangerously, he fought the Indian Bureau. As his work at the school progressed, he became increasingly outspoken, and in 1904, after his retirement from the active list of the Army, he collided head-on with the bureaucracy.