Museum Ludwig X Terra Foundation Blog

December 19, 2018

Kill the Indian, Save the Man: Settler colonialism and documents of transformation from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

The Chiricahua Apache students received more attention than other students and Pratt took full advantage of their presence at his school. He, like most of America, was well aware of their reputation as one of the wildest and most dangerous tribes. The Chiricahua’s numerous outbreaks from their reservation in Arizona, their battles with the United States and Mexican military as well as their raids of farms and ranches received just as much attention as their surrender. With each outbreak their reputation as being the most ruthless, most savage and most cunning tribes grew, in large part due to the press coverage they received. This was not only covered by the local press in Arizona Territory, but also by large national media outlets such as the New York Times and Harper’s Weekly. Geronimo, who had led many of the outbreaks despite not being a chief, came to be the embodiment of all their “evil”.1 Even today, more than a century after his death, in large parts, this reputation remains. The most recent example is the United States military’s decision to use “Geronimo” as the codename for terrorist and Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. When the Navy Seal who killed him, shot his second round at the dying Osama bin Laden, he reported over his radio: “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo. Geronimo E.K.I.A.”2 Enemy killed in action.

Chiricahua Apache as they arrived at Carlisle and 4 months after (April 1887 and ?), photo: John N. Choate

Pratt made it known that members of Geronimo’s tribe were at his school. The Chiricahua were mentioned regularly in both of the school newspapers, The Morning Star and The Indian Helper, over the course of their time at Carlisle. The Morning Star reported on the larger political and ethical issues surrounding their situation and both regularly reported on the group’s progress at school. The “before” photograph was featured prominently on the front page of the November 1886 issue of The Morning Star and as soon as the “after” photo was taken, he offered it for purchase in The Morning Star.3 From 1887 to at least 1894, the set was also sent as a thank you to new subscribers of the student paper The Indian Helper.4 The photos were also sent anyone who had donated to the school for a new dorm. They proved to be so popular that in the March 1887 issue of The Morning Star, Pratt had to print an apology for keeping people waiting; the photographer could not keep up with the demand.5 Furthermore, Choate, the photographer, also sold the photo-set (and many other photos that he took at the schools) through his studio in town. Yet, despite all this attention, we still know hardly anything about the groups actual experience at Carlisle.

In the 19thcentury, a photograph was treated like scientific evidence and was understood as an objective representation of reality. Today we view photography differently; we see it is a subjective medium whose meaning has been carefully constructed with the intent to convey a specific message or to evoke a certain reaction or emotion. Pratt, like many others back then, took them at face value or at least he used photography in this way. To show how successful Carlisle and his methods were, he had so-called “composites” made of students, that he presented as visual proof that his mission was effective. This made it easier for him to convince people to donate to the school and ensured continued government support.

Group of Male and Female Students; Brick Dormitories and Bandstand in Background (Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, 1879), photo: John N. Choate

Almost everything about the photographs was staged and was a conscious decision either made by Pratt, Choate, the photographer, or both; from the location to the poses to the decision of whom such sets were made. Mainly images of students from tribes that had a rather notorious reputation back then (or still did) were used for these sets. The Chiricahua Apache ticked all the boxes.6 The stark contrast between the appearances of the group in the two images makes their supposed transformation even more impressive. Furthermore, the classic portrait poses of the “after” photo were read by 19thcentury viewers as signaling proper manners, a dignified demeanor and a certain level of education. All this suggested to them that their transformation went beyond a superficial change in appearance. Pratt reiterates this when he replies to a reader of The Morning Star, the school newspaper in an attempt to dispel any assumptions that the photographs might have been staged: “[…] the representation of the difference does not show anything more than the real facts”.7 Thus, to viewers in the 19thcentury, the two photographs, especially when shown together, tell a story of transformation through education, hard work and the conversion to Christianity.

Looking at both photographs today, we see them in a completely different light. Just like a 19thcentury viewer, we ask ourselves what happened to Ki-ah-tel (Beatrice), Na-dah-sthil-ah (Margaret), Eskesejah (Fredik) and the others in the time between the two photographs that led to such a drastic change. But, we would most likely not come to the same conclusion. We see the images as disturbing and the stark contrast in appearance and demeanor as well as the forced staging of the second photograph is more unsettling than uplifting to us.

In 1895, the surviving Chiricahua Apache students from our photographs had returned to their families and their tribe that by then had been relocated to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. In 1914 the Chiricahua Apache were finally released from their status as prisoners of war. They were offered land allotments at Fort Sill or given the option to settle at the Mescalero Indian Reservation in New Mexico. Returning to their Arizona homeland was not allowed. Regarding the students that survived, we know that after leaving Carlisle, Pah-go-stat-um (Jeanette) married and that she was farming on a piece of land near Ft. Sill together with her husband.8 Ki-ah-tel (Beatrice) also married. She married another former Carlisle student, Allen Yuzos, with whom she had five children. The family split when Yuzos moved to the Mescalero Indian Reservation and she remained at Ft. Sill.9 Chee (Hugh) married Alice Longfellow with whom he had two children and enlisted in the Army Scouts. The family later moved to Mescalero.10 Se-an-il-zay (Clement) stayed at Carlisle until 1898 and took up an offer of employment from a local farmer.11

The long period of separation had a lasting effect on the students, their families, their communities and their tribe. Returning home was not an easy transition and led to feelings of frustration and disappointment on both sides. Parents struggled with the change in their children, just as they struggled with their “new” identities and both struggled to find a way back to each other. They had become strangers. The missing bond between parents and children had a negative impact on the following generations as well: Due to their boarding school years, the parents of the next generations often did not know how to be nurturing and encouraging parents to them and form tight bonds with their children, they were still healing from their own trauma and their children also often spent long periods of time away at school. They had never had this experience themselves and had no one to model such behavior after.

The former boarding school students often felt like outsiders in their own communities; the language was unfamiliar to them as were the customs and traditions of their tribe. Furthermore, the boarding schools had taught them, that these were “wrong” and “inferior”. Their community in turn did not understand the new ways that they had been taught at school and saw them as “acting white”. At the same time, they felt that the elders were stuck in their ways and were keeping their tribe behind. Former students were often met resistance when they tried to introduce new ideas or ways of doing things. They were caught between two worlds and often felt like they didn’t really belong to either. Their struggle to develop a sense of self and the continued trauma that boarding schools caused in indigenous communities up until the middle of the 20th century, put great psychological stress on them that still effects indigenous communities and families to this day.

We don’t know how tough the return to their families and tribe was for the Chiricahua. They left Carlisle for a place, Fort Sill, that was entirely unfamiliar to them. Many of them had been in their teens and early twenties when they entered Carlisle and still remembered much of their life in Arizona. They had a much better knowledge and understanding of their tribe’s culture and heritage than the younger ones. This might have made the transition back into their community easier for them. But their community was also struggling with the trauma of displacement and an uncertain future.

Pratt was released from his position as superintendent in 1904 and Carlisle was closed in 1918. 12 Carlisle and other off-reservation boarding schools were a traumatic experience for the students. They were forced in to a system that took control of all aspects of their being: it determined where they should be and when, how they should act, what language they spoke, what religion to follow and what role models and social conventions they should base their life on. The Indian boarding school was a total institution. Under the pretense of providing them with an education and other skills to succeed, Native American students were completely stripped of their identity and “reformed” in the ways that Pratt and white US-American society felt was the correct way to be and the right way to live. An in the end, Carlisle did not prepare its students well for their future; the majority did not graduate and very few went on to higher education. And even if Pratt’s intentions may have been better than most others, he still operated within and fully identified with the settler colonial society that he was part of. He didn’t recognize that everything he felt Native Americans lacked, they already had: civilization, education, religion and community. It just looked different. Carlisle is one of many examples of the United States measures to eliminate Native Americans through assimilation. Ultimately, we will never really know how much the students suffered.

Today the Chiricahua Apache are part of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, that live in both New Mexico and Oklahoma and the San Carlos Apache.13 Their Athabaskan language is barely spoken anymore, but the efforts are being made to revive it and ensure its survival. This short documentary made by Broadly shows a girl’s Chiricahua Apache coming of age ceremony and gives us a look in to their culture. The Chiricahua are also currently protesting the United States government, that in a land swap in 2013 enabled a mining company to access to them sacred land. For more information see the website of the Apache Stronghold, but also listen to Naelyn Pike’s speech about what impact this land swap will have. Pike is the co-leader of the Apache Stronghold and an advocate for her indigenous rights and sovereignty as enviromental protection.

[Image: Choate, John Nicholas. Group of Chiricahua Apache, Carlisle (Pennsylvania), 1886. © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, rba_d042444]




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  1. see Grinde, Jacoby und Parmenter
  4. 1894 is the last time that I found the photograph offered to subscribers per the digitized copies of The Indian Helper available through the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.
  6. Other sets were made of the first very first students at Carlisle; a group of Lakota and Sioux from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, as well as of the Pueblo, Navajo and Inuit at the school.
  12. A few boarding schools for Native American children and teens still exist today, but they bear no resemblance to Carlisle or other boarding schools from the late 19thand early 20th century.
  13. Please correct me if I am wrong here

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