Native American students
at the Carlisle Indian School, circa 1899. Library of Congress/Corbis
Historical Collection/VCG via Getty Images
As Indigenous community members and archaeologists continue
to discover unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the sites
of Canadian residential schools, the United States is reckoning
with its own history of off-reservation boarding schools.
In July 2021, nine Sicangu Lakota students who died at the Carlisle
Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania were disinterred and returned
to their homelands at Whetstone Bay in South Dakota.
Portrait of Ernest Knocks
Off. John N. Choate/Cumberland County Historical Society,
One of these young people was Ernest Knocks Off. Ernest, who came
from the Sicangu Oyate or Burnt Thigh Nation, was among the first
group of students to arrive at Carlisle, in 1879. He entered school
at age 18 and attempted to run away soon after arriving. He ultimately
on a hunger strike and died
of complications of diphtheria on Dec. 14, 1880.
My new book Writing
Their Bodies: Restoring Rhetorical Relations at the Carlisle Indian
School explores how Indigenous children resisted English-only
education at Carlisle, which became the prototype for both Indian
schools across the U.S. and residential
schools in Canada.
While digging into archives of Carlisle students writing,
I found that young people like Ernest were not passive victims of
U.S. colonization. Instead, they fought in Ernests
case, to his death to retain their languages and cultures
as the assimilationist experiment in education unfolded.
U.S. Army Gen. Richard Henry Pratt opened the government-funded
Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879. Following his model,
more than 350
government-funded and church-run boarding schools later opened
across the U.S. The National Native American Boarding School Healing
Coalition estimates that hundreds
of thousands of young Native people attended these schools in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first students were
by Pratt and sent by their nations in hopes that they could
learn English to continue fighting against treaty violations by
U.S. settlers. In 1891, attendance became compulsory
under federal law.
Boarding schools sought to assimilate Indigenous children into
Euro-Western culture by separating them from their communities.
The schools forced them to learn English and practice Christianity
and trained them to work in a capitalist economy often as
and laborers on farms and in the households of white people.
Students experienced physical
abuse, sexual violence and hunger, and hundreds died of diseases
like tuberculosis that spread rampantly in institutional settings.
Canadas national Truth
and Reconciliation Commission identified 3,201
children who died in Canadian residential schools. No such estimate
exists in the U.S., where a formal reckoning has yet to occur. However,
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a
member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation, has pledged to address
the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed
light on the unspoken traumas of the past.
Even as Indigenous students faced teachers and a government trying
to replace their cultures, languages and identities, they resisted
the assimilationist education. Their strategies were at times blatant,
but often covert.
A tombstone of a young
Oglala Lakota student buried at the old Carlisle Indian School
cemetery. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis News Collection via Getty
Ernest may have been one of the first boarding school students to
run away, but he certainly wasnt the last. Scholars have found
away was a tactic used by students in boarding schools across
the U.S. and Canada. It became such a significant shared experience
that celebrated Native authors such as Louise
Erdrich and Leslie
Marmon Silko capture this act of resistance in their writings.
Running away was a way for students to communicate their rejection
of assimilationist education and to fight their separation from
their homeland and community. Runaways sometimes succeeded and got
back home. But I believe that even when they were forcibly returned
to school, running away represented courage and reminded the other
students to keep fighting.
Plains Sign Talk
Sign Talk is a sign language that serves as a lingua franca
for trade and diplomacy among the Pawnee, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Arapaho,
Crow and Siouan peoples in the Southern Plains. It became a powerful
tool at Carlisle, where teachers demanded that students give up
their languages for another shared tongue English. Plains
Sign Talk was a way for students to communicate with one another
and across tribes that was unintelligible to their teachers.
Carlisle teachers underestimated the importance of Plains Sign
Talk, viewing it as a primitive form of communication that students
would leave behind as they learned English. When Pratt and his colleagues
witnessed students using it, they created a new
curriculum based on techniques used to teach deaf students.
They did not realize that students were using the sign language
circumvent the English-only policy.
Kamloops Indian Residential
School former student Evelyn Camille, 82, at a makeshift memorial
to the 215 children whose remains were discovered buried near
the facility in British Columbia. Cole Burston/AFP via Getty
Students also drew on Plains
pictography to tell their stories. Plains tribes originally
painted pictographs elements of a graphic writing system
on buffalo hides to document victories in battle and record
counts, or annual historical records. After increased
contact with settlers, many tribes began to document pictographic
histories in ledger books. These texts served as communal histories
that would prompt oral retellings of battles and other significant
Students at Carlisle regularly
used pictographs on slates or chalkboards. On June 25, 1880,
for example, a Cheyenne student who was renamed Rutherford B. Hayes
at school drew a pictograph
of a horse and rider on his slate. He labeled the image John
Williams the Carlisle name of an Arapaho boy who was his
classmate and friend.
I argue that these pictographic records show how some students
understood their time at school in the context of their developing
warrior identities, underscoring their desire to act bravely and
return home to recount their stories for their nations collective
When students spoke their languages, they faced
harsh penalties. This included corporal punishment, incarceration
in the campus barracks and public shaming in the school newspaper.
Pratt and his supervisors at the Bureau of Indian Affairs hoped
that they could break up tribes by disrupting the transmission of
language and culture from one generation to the next. By
destroying tribal identities, they hoped to take land in communally
held reservations and guaranteed by treaties. For U.S. settlers
to gain access, the land would have to shift to a private property
system. Boarding schools thus became part of the federal Indian
policy later codified as the 1887
Although students were supposed to speak only English, they began
to learn one anothers languages as well. Lakota, or Sioux,
became particularly popular, as it was a majority language in the
schools early years when many students came from the Rosebud
and Pine Ridge reservations.
In 1881, Pratt was troubled that students were still speaking their
languages two years into their term. When student Stephen K. White
Bear was found talking Indian, he received a common
punishment, which was writing a composition about his discretion.
In his essay Speak
Only English Stephen revealed that every boy and
every girl would like to know how to talk Sioux very much. They
do not learn the English language they seem to want to know how
to talk Sioux.
Seeds of pan-Indian resistance
As students met peers across nations as geographically far-flung
as the Inuit and the Kiowa, they sowed seeds for the pan-Indian
resistance movements of the 20th century. From the founding of the
of American Indians in 1911 through the American
Indian Movement of the 1960s and 70s, Native activists
unified for advocacy and cultural revitalization. Scholars
argue that these movements can trace their roots to intertribal
communities of solidarity that were built in the boarding schools.
The outcry against boarding schools that we see today across Canada
and the U.S. reflects not only a shared experience of trauma, but
a longstanding solidarity among Indigenous peoples working together
to maintain land, language, culture and identity in the face of
oppression at the hands of Euro-Americans.