Critical Commentary

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, started by Richard Henry Pratt in 1879, was created with the intention of assimilating indian children into the culture of the European white settlers.  It was based on Pratt’s theory: “kill the indian, save the man” which tried to “civilize” Indians in hopes that they would eventually accept white ways, and would cease resisting the western expansion of settlers into their lands (Landis).  In some aspects, the experiment was a success, in that Pratt was able to transform indian children at the school so that they went on to become either productive members of white society, or to return home and pass on their cultural learnings to members of their respective tribes.  These “success stories” were used as propaganda to generate more donations from benefactors whose money was necessary to supplement the meager government funds used to fund the school (Landis).  Stories and writings from “assimilators” were included in the school’s publications (The Indian Craftsman, The Indian Helper and The Red Man) as evidence that Pratt’s method was working.  However, not every indian child responded in the manner Pratt was hoping for.  Many children can be labeled as “resistors” because they wrote in letters how much they longed for home and despised the school conditions.  Indian children of this group actively rejected the school’s assimilation efforts and clung to the practices and beliefs they were raised with.  However, there is also another category of students called “the conflicted” which refers to the group of children who did not purely identify with either the school or traditional Native American culture.  Joseph F. Tarbell, who wrote the “Story of Tekakmetha”, is one of these children.  Along with his records from the Carlisle Indian School, Joe’s writing shows that he was not fully assimilated into white culture despite identifying as a Christian.

Even though Pratt was not superintendent when Joe’s “Story of Tekakmetha” was published in The Indian Craftsman, it would have been a perfect piece of propaganda for him to use to raise funds for the school, which is something the administration was still trying to do at the time Joe’s story was published.  Written in the hand of a Native American, the story makes indians who have not embraced Christianity look heathenish and violent.  When Tekakmetha urges the traveling man to take her with him to another mission in which many converts lived, the man at first refuses because he is “afraid that her father might shoot him.”  The fact that the man jumps right to the conclusion that her father would kill him suggests that her father has been known to be violent in the past.  It makes him and other indians look rash and heathenish because they would so readily kill.  The man’s fears end up being validated because when he does finally give in to Tekakmetha and allow her to go with him, the father sets out to find him saying “if he saw the man with his daughter he would shoot him.”  Therefore, not only was the man worried about the possibility of her father’s retribution, but the fear actually came to fruition.  This further solidifies the notion that her father was immoral and in desperate need of the civility that Christianity and white culture would give him, and insinuates that other indians could benefit from them as well.  The story further shows Joe’s acceptance of Christianity as superior to the ways of non-Christian indians when he writes that upon the father finding the man he could not see his daughter “because she was to be a Christian God had protected her.”  It suggests that God is partial to Christians, and that His power is greater than the gods of the natives.  Further, Tarbell writes that upon Tekakmetha’s death “the stars shone on her grave for two weeks.”  This confirms that Tekakmetha did the right thing in becoming a Christian which suggests all indians should do the same.  As advertisement for the school, this piece is perfect because it seemingly shows how the school is effective in getting Native American children to accept Christianity and assimilate to white ways.  Even though Joe was already a Christian by the time of his arrival in Carlisle, the reader does not know this and might believe that this is a result of the education he received at the school.  To possible benefactors, this story suggests that if they were to donate their money it would not be going to waste.

Despite Joe’s seeming acceptance of Christianity and other aspects of white culture implied by the story, his school records indicate that he might not have been as assimilated to white ways as one would think.  During at least three of his “outings”, Joe ran away and was labeled in the records as a deserter.  This suggests that there was still a disconnect between his Native American culture and the culture imposed by the school and white culture in general.  This is why he is put in “the conflicted” category in our anthology.  This categorization is further supported by the last line of the “Story of Tekakmetha” in which he says that upon her death “the stars shone on her grave for two weeks.”  In Native American culture, nature is a central theme and natural events hold significance and meaning.  Despite being a Christian, it seems that Joe’s beliefs are still heavily influenced by his indian heritage.  Therefore, although it seems at first glance that he has the same beliefs as white European settlers, his beliefs seem to actually be more of a hybrid of the two cultures rather than pure assimilation and acceptance of white ways.

This work is included in our anthology “Voices from the Carlisle Indian School” because its addition gives readers a more comprehensive view of the cultural dynamic resulting from the interaction between the Carlisle Indian School and Native American children.  It allows readers to see one of the many cultural backgrounds that Joe and other children brought with them into the school.  Therefore, it offers a better understanding of how the schools assimilationist policies could contradict with, and affect students’ developing identities.  As Paul Lauter said, “every text inscribes the social ground against which it was created,” (Lauter 110).  Thus, by reading the “Story of Tekakmetha” and about Joe’s history at the school, one can gain a better and more comprehensive understanding of the cultural clash that he and other students experienced as a result of enrolling at the school and being submitted to its assimilationist policies.


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