CARLISLE, Pa. — The old photos show young faces; all of them are Native American children. They are the children of Carlisle.
“They would cut their hair immediately,” said Susan Rose, a sociology professor and author of a book about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. “They weren't allowed to speak their own languages when they came here. They would take off their clothing and end up in military garb.”
Starting in 1879, over the course of four decades, nearly 8,000 Native American children ended up at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
It was the first off-reservation boarding school in the country and set the standard for hundreds of others that would follow.
Some of the students there were thousands of miles away from their homes.
“That's about as separated as you can be,” said Jim Gerencser, an archivist at nearby Dickinson College. “The purpose of the Carlisle Indian School was to turn Native American children and young adults into white, Victorian-era children of America.”
It was a philosophy pioneered by the school’s founder, former U.S. Army General Richard Henry Pratt. His image remains engraved on the site of the former school, which is now home to the U.S. Army Barracks in Carlisle. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though, the school was well-known.
“Carlisle is in the public eye because Pratt is operating his own kind of propaganda machine,” Gerencser said. “So, you see articles about Carlisle in the popular press all the time.”
Eight years ago, Gerencser and a team launched a massive undertaking: the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.
“The idea for the project was to digitize all of the known remaining records related to the Carlisle Indian School, and all the students who were sent there, and to make those documents easily discoverable and accessible online,” he said.
They found that the students came from more than 100 Native American tribes, from Florida to Alaska and nearly every state in between.
Some of the buildings of the former Carlisle Indian School now make up the U.S. Army barracks and are still in use today, like a gymnasium, which was built by the very Native American students who were forced to attend the school.
One of the school’s earliest students was Robbie Paul’s grandfather. He was 10 years old at the time.
“When he arrived at Carlisle, he had his Nez Perce name: Black Raven,” she said. “And while he was there, Pratt changed his name to Jesse Paul, and that's how we have the Paul family name.”
The experience for her grandfather and others wasn’t pleasant. Children were punished if they spoke their native language. Yet, Robbie Paul’s grandfather held on.
“Even though he's there eight years at Carlisle, where you're punished for speaking the language, somehow he hangs on to his language because he still speaks Nez Perce eight years later and comes back home to the reservation,” Paul said.
Not all the students came home. At least 235 children died at the Carlisle School.
“In some communities, those stories are really told, and in other communities, there's been a great silence,” said Susan Rose, co-author of Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations. “This isn't just Native American, American Indian history. It's part of our history.”
From the 1870s until the 1960s, there were more than 350 taxpayer-funded, and often times church-run, Native American boarding schools. The exact numbers of how many students attended those schools are hard to come by, but estimates range in the hundreds of thousands. Many experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse, according to the National Native American Boarding School Coalition.
How many died within the entire Native American boarding school system across the country remains a big question. Now, there’s a formal effort to get to the bottom of it.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is the first-ever Native American cabinet member.
Her grandfather also attended the Carlisle School and she recently ordered an investigation into the Native American boarding school system.
“It was a really complicated sort of philosophy and an experiment that now many would definitely consider as genocide,” Rose said.
The investigation’s goal is to get an accounting of what the children experienced, how many died at the schools and how many may still be buried in unmarked graves at the sites.
Recently, hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children were found at two schools in Canada, which had a similar boarding school system for Native children.
Just this month, the U.S. Army brought in a forensic team to disinter 10 Carlisle students buried in marked graves and returned them to their Native communities in Alaska and South Dakota. Those children had been previously buried in a cemetery elsewhere at the school, which was later moved to the current site in the 1920s.
“We looked at the cemetery and we looked at an area where the original cemetery was,” said Dr. Michael “Sonny” Trimble, an archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist. “Most of the original cemetery is beneath buildings now. You know, time has moved on. We found no signatures.”
Time hasn’t moved on for everyone, though. Robbie Paul thinks about her grandfather often and says trauma like that can be felt through the generations.
“This is truth-telling,” she said. “It is acknowledging the harm, transforming history, to begin repatriation, before we can start to reconcile and reconciliation.”
It’s a reconciliation that faces a long road ahead in the search for answers.