A questionable legacy

Carlisle: The government-operated Indian school was intended to turn Indians into Americans. It offered opportunity for some but at a cost.

May 26, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CARLISLE, Pa. - In the shadow of a weeping cherry tree, amid the rows of small, white gravestones, Michael H. Trujillo found her. He knew of her from his grandfather and great-uncle, the girl's brothers. Together the two boys and their sister had journeyed thousands of miles from an Indian pueblo in New Mexico to this place called Pennsylvania to attend a school.

They spoke no English. But they would learn to form the sounds and words of this language so unlike their own. They would learn what it meant to be a citizen of the United States. They would learn by learning to forsake all things Indian because that was the way at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the largest, government-run boarding school of its kind, whose past reflects the sad history of American-Indian relations.

William and Ulysses Paisano, Trujillo's great-uncle and grandfather, eventually returned to their village of Casa Blanca, where they prospered as English-speaking merchants and tribal leaders. Their sister, Mary, died at Carlisle in 1890, a girl buried under a stone that bears neither her tribe nor the correct spelling of her name.

This Memorial Day weekend, Indians from various tribes will gather at the cemetery on the grounds of the old Carlisle school. They will place silk flowers on the graves of the 186 students who died there between 1879 and 1918, the years the school operated. They will burn sage sticks, pray to the four compass points and attend a powwow to remember the Carlisle school in this, the 250th year of Cumberland County, Pa.

The legacy of the Carlisle school is a troubling one, a history born out of its founding principle to educate and "civilize" Indians by their "total immersion" in white society.

Trujillo's family reflects the dichotomy of the Carlisle experience. The alma mater of Olympic great Jim Thorpe, Carlisle epitomized an educational philosophy that failed the group but not necessarily the individual. By today's sensitivities, Carlisle was an abomination. But the experience instilled in Trujillo's ancestors the importance of education.

"Good or bad, somehow or another, some individuals got a good education and carried it forward. Just as my family did," Trujillo said.

But, while his great-uncle and grandfather became governors of their Laguna tribe and advocates for their people in Washington, the remains of his great-aunt were never returned to her homeland.

A physician and public health specialist, Trujillo heads the Indian Health Services, a presidential appointment that also carries the title of assistant surgeon general. His first and only visit to the old Carlisle school grounds took place last year. He jogged on the track used by Thorpe. He read back issues of the Carlisle newspaper that featured accomplished former students - teachers, missionaries, ranchers, musicians, factory workers, and politicians. And he visited his great-aunt's grave.

Trujillo inscribed a picture postcard of the Laguna pueblo to the great-aunt he never knew. He placed it, along with a food offering in the Indian tradition, atop her gravestone. "I gave her a picture of her home," he said.

"That was an era where individuals, and the individual who started this school, believed that acculturation was a necessity, and that meant removing children from their living situation. As we look back with our eyes, our history, it was detrimental to the inherent composition of a family," said Trujillo. "... We have to look at the future and make sure our society doesn't do that again."

"The whole purpose of being educated is to give back. ... That is our sense of duty," said Georgeline Sparks, a Rosebud Sioux Indian from Randallstown who will attend the powwow.

More than 10,000 Indian children passed through the brick gate of Carlisle, the site of an old military barracks that now houses the U.S. Army War College. The school served as the model for other nonreservation boarding schools that were set up in the West.

The school's founder, retired Army officer Richard H. Pratt, proposed the establishment of a nonreservation, Indian boarding school in the East after he commanded a unit of blacks and Indian scouts in the former Oklahoma territory. The intelligence, civilization and common sense of the Indians "was a revelation" to Pratt because, he wrote, "I had concluded that as an Army officer I was there to deal with atrocious aborigines." But his service in Indian territory also led him to this observation:

"I do not believe that amongst his people an Indian can be made to feel all the advantages of a civilized life nor the manhood of supporting himself and standing out alone and battle for life as an American citizen. To accomplish that, his removal and personal isolation is necessary."

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