On this dayNov 01, 1879

Carlisle Indian School Begins Forced Assimilation of Native Children in Pennsylvania

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In the first half of the 19th century, the United States Congress established the Civilization Fund to provide financial support for programs intended to “civilize” native people and created the Bureau of Indian Affairs to oversee those efforts. In the following decades, U.S. policy became increasingly focused on eradicating Native youth’s tribal ties and assimilating them into white culture so that they would grow into adults supportive of the American economy. Indian boarding schools were an outgrowth of this goal. Initially, students were compelled to attend schools on their tribal reservations, but eventually, children were forcibly sent to off-reservation boarding schools.

The first such school was Carlisle Indian School, opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on November 1, 1879. The founder, Captain Richard Pratt, described his philosophy for educating Native children as: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The federal government used Carlisle as a model for other boarding schools designed to forcefully assimilate Native children into white culture. Young children were taken from their families to attend these schools, and parents who resisted were forced to flee, hide, or face imprisonment. Many parents sent their children because Native children were not permitted to attend local public schools with white students, making assimilation boarding schools the only available opportunity for formal education.

The federal government's views on educating Native children were rooted in racism and prejudice. While the government believed a white youth’s “moral character and habits are already formed and well-defined” when he leaves for school, a native youth was thought to be “born a savage and raised in an atmosphere of superstition and ignorance... lacks at the outset those advantages which are inherited by his white brother.” In the eyes of the government, “if [a Native American child] is to rise from his low estate the germs of a nobler existence must be implanted in him and cultivated. He must be taught to lay aside his savage customs like a garment and take upon himself the habits of civilized life.”

Reflecting these genocidal biases, Native American children attending boarding schools were given English names, forced to cut their hair, and forbidden from speaking their native languages. Students received vocational training but very little academic instruction, with the expectation that they would make their living as farmers or manual laborers. Conditions in many schools were poor and students were often the victims of physical and sexual abuse.

In February 1928, reform proponents submitted The Meriam Report, detailing the schools’ poor conditions and unreasonable focus on assimilation, discipline, and vocational training. Support began to decline for the school soon after, and when one of the report’s authors, John Collier, became Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933, he took steps toward dismantling the assimilationist agenda of the Indian boarding schools.

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