A Canon of Works by Carlisle Indian School Students

In Spring 2017, students in the course “What Writers Matter? Multiculturalism in  American Literature” spent the semester reading works by multicultural writers, studying how the American literary canon was formed, and understanding the debates surrounding its radical expansion in the 1990s. For their final project, these students researched the archives of the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center in an effort to uncover the forgotten voices of the Native American students who attended the industrial school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, a soldier who fought in the Civil War and then against Native Americans on the frontier. Pratt determined that the best way to solve the “Indian Problem” was to take native children, remove them from their families and tribes, and send them to a boarding school education that stressed English language learning, Christianity, and assimilation to white ways. In so doing, the students would evolve from “savage Indians” to “civilized” members of American society.

The student voices included in this project were discovered in the digital archives. As part of the curriculum, the Carlisle Indian School published multiple periodicals over the years. The students served as writers, printers, and typesetters.  In addition, the school kept copies of letters written between students and parents, and parents and administrators. To compile this anthology, the researchers perused publications like The Indian Helper, The Red Man and Helper, The Indian Craftsman, and The Carlisle Arrow as well as personal letters saved in student files. As a result, this project includes writings in many genres: letters, a love story, a saint’s tale, origin stories, a trickster tale, a memoir, among others.

The researchers who created this website faced an interesting challenge.  According to literary scholar Amelia V. Katanski in her book Learning to Write “Indian”: The Boarding School Experience and American Indian Literature, the writings that were printed by the Carlisle Indian School Press were tightly “regulate[d] representations of Indian identity.” School officials constructed “an ‘Indian voice’ that ventriloquized the social evolutionism and assimilationism of Pratt and his cohorts.” As the researchers began this project, they were tasked with finding any voices that challenge, subvert, or complicate social evolutionism or assimilationism.

As the student researchers combed through the archives and shared their findings with each other, they soon discovered a range of voices, which they placed into four different categories.  Assimilators are writers who espouse Pratt’s philosophies and values. Resistors are writers — the rebels and runaways — who criticized the school and its methods. Tribal Educators are students who shared tribal stories, some of which resonated and dialogued with the Carlisle Indian School’s values and philosophies.  The Conflicted are writers who at times tried to fit into the school culture and at other times resisted.

Each link on this website includes direct access to the primary text, biographical information about the writers, historical and cultural context about the piece, critical commentary, and suggestions for further reading.

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