Get behind any car in Pennsylvania, and you’ll see the state slogan on every license plate—“You have a friend in Pennsylvania”. Besides the promise of friendship, there is more to see in good ole PA. Eastern Pennsylvania falls within the Historical Hallowed Ground corridor, where most of this country’s history happened, from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were approved by our beloved Founding Fathers, where Betsy Ross designed our flag and the Liberty Bell lives for all to see to Valley Forge, the birthplace of the United States Army and where it honed the skills taught to them by Oneida warriors who suggested it might be a good idea to hide behind trees. Traveling west on the historic Pennsylvania Turnpike, we have Lancaster County, where time has frozen as the Amish cling to their cherished 19th Century culture. And then there’s famous Hershey, Pennsylvania, the chocolate capital of the USA. Finally, we have the dark history of Gettysburg—the site of a battle that changed the trajectory of the Civil War. These sites and many more draw millions of tourists every year to the Keystone State.
Just a few miles down the turnpike is Carlisle, home of the Carlisle Barracks—once the oldest U. S. Army Barracks in the country. Few know that the Carlisle Barracks was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and where the Battle of Gettysburg actually began. The town still wears the scars of Confederate bombs. The old Farmhouse, now located at the Carlisle Barracks, is where Confederate officers camped before marching onto Gettysburg. Because the Confederate Army set fire to several buildings of the Carlisle Barracks, it was closed for 5 years during the Antebellum period. This closing now ranks it the second oldest Army Barracks in the country—the first spot now belongs to West Point.
In 1877, when the Carlisle Barracks was being used for Cavalry Training, Captain Richard Pratt petitioned the Army for the use of the military post. Pratt was looking for a place to begin his radical new education experiment—a philosophy simply put as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was born from this philosophy on October 6, 1879 and became the first federally-operated American Indian boarding school—opening its doors to a class of 182 children from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Nations. By the time the school closed in September 1918, there had been an estimated 10,600 students who called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School their alma mater. Dozens of Indian boarding schools were built in Carlisle’s image, spread across the country and taking the Indian wars from the battlefield to the classroom.
At Carlisle, thousands of American Indian students were forced to stop speaking their languages, to exchange their traditional regalia for military uniforms, to cut their hair and to awake each morning to the sound of Reveille. Historians estimate that there were approximately 1,000 fatalities at the school. There were 186 students buried on its grounds.
Along with tragedy, there are stories of triumph out of Carlisle. Jim Thorpe would become the most beloved athlete in the world and helped change the game of American football. The school’s marching band performed at the Inaugural parade of Theodore Roosevelt and performed before leaders from around the world. Indian students from different tribes would become united to address their own issues in the political arena, forming the Society of American Indians in 1911, the National Council of American Indians in 1924 and the National Congress of American Indians in 1944. Ironically, it was the banned American Indian languages that saved thousands of American military lives in WWI and WWII.
It would be years before the impact of Pratt’s experiment would be analyzed and revealed to the public, but one thing is certain—the trajectory of Indian America was not oblivion, as was planned. These stories and the generation that lived this experience have been dormant for nearly 100 years. It’s time to acknowledge their many challenges and celebrate their achievements. We need to grieve the loss of our languages and cultures—and be inspired by the resilience of their spirits.
We welcome you to the beginning of our mission. We seek to build a heritage center focused on the boarding school experience to properly honor the many Native cultures who came to this place. We’re hoping you’ll stick a pin in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as a reminder that we’re working hard to recapture the lost stories of Native American history in the place where it was all intended to end while incorporating contemporary Native-owned businesses as a tribute to the continued resiliency of American Indian spirit.