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A Long Way From Home

By Michael L. Cooper
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 28, 2000

   


    Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pa. Campus quarters built by Indian students can still be seen on a tour of the school. Photo by Goodwin and Associates, Inc.
As I drove through the parklike entrance to Carlisle Barracks, I recalled the words of an 11-year-old Sioux boy who was brought here from the Dakota Territory in 1879: "I could think of no reason why white people wanted Indian boys and girls except to kill them."

That child was one of 84 young Sioux who were among the first students to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first federal boarding school for Native Americans, in Carlisle, Pa. I stopped by the old campus, about 10 miles west of Harrisburg, so that I could imagine what life was like for those young Native Americans "learning the white man's way."

Today, Carlisle Barracks, the country's second-oldest active military post, is occupied by the U.S. Army War College and the U.S. Military History Institute. A century ago, it was a school for nearly a thousand Indians from more than 70 tribes, the most famous of a network of boarding schools established by the federal government to prepare Native Americans to live with the white majority. Some Indians chose to send their children to these schools, but others were coerced, creating a bitterness that still exists today. The Department of War closed the school in 1918, in part because of a series of scandals, which included charges of student abuse.

Twenty-three 19th-century buildings, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places, form the heart of the War College. At Upton Hall, a three-story building housing the Military History Institute, visitors can pick up a brochure chronicling the school's 39-year history; it includes a map for self-guided walking tours.

I began my tour behind Upton Hall, near the front entrance, and the campus so familiar to me from old photographs soon came into view: a four-acre lawn shaded by tall maples and other mature trees, surrounded by white brick buildings, with a bandstand in the middle. I'd seen photos of new arrivals standing in front of that bandstand wearing buckskin, long braids and beads. The boys and girls, some as young as 4, are staring expressionlessly at the camera. Perhaps they knew that soon they'd be taken to have their hair cropped and then told to exchange their buckskins for stiff, gray uniforms.

At the top of the lawn is an imposing brick residence built in 1821, with a handsome Colonial Revival portico that was added nearly 100 years later. The house, which seems more worthy of a 19th-century mogul than a school superintendent, was the home of Capt. Richard H. Pratt, the "father" of the Indian school system, which grew by the turn of the century to dozens of schools with tens of thousands of students.

To my right were the old cavalry officers' barracks, which look essentially as they did in the 19th century, despite having been burned in 1863 by Jeb Stuart on his way to Gettysburg. Now called Coren Apartments, the building has an inviting screened porched along the length of the second floor. The school's white teachers lived here; in photographs, they're a stern-looking group of men and women dressed in black.

There should have been a matching building, a girls' dormitory, to my left, but it burned long ago, replaced by four tennis courts. But Thorpe Hall, a gymnasium built in 1884 by the students, remains. (Indian boys remodeled or constructed most of the buildings on campus as part of their vocational training.)

The gym was renamed for Carlisle's most famous alumnus, Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma who is best remembered for winning two gold medals in track during the 1912 Olympics. Forget about today's high-tech emporiums of sweat: Thorpe Hall is your grandfather's gym, featuring exposed brick walls and an oval running track hugging the walls some 20 feet above the basketball court.

I crossed the campus to visit the Hessian Powder Magazine, a small museum where drawings and photos provide a history of this old military post. Hessian prisoners helped construct the limestone-and-brick magazine in 1777 to store gunpowder for George Washington's Continental Army. A hundred years later, the windowless building with six-foot-thick walls was used as a jail for "difficult" Indian students--a fact not mentioned in the museum history or the booklet.

The last stop on my walking tour was the old school cemetery, relocated years ago to a spot near the War College's rear entrance, squeezed between a large PX and a busy road. An iron fence encloses some 200 graves divided into six rows, with simple markers lined up like soldiers standing at attention. Many of the dead are identified by their "white" names: Jack Martha, Susie King, George Harrison. Others have names evoking their heritage: Rebecca Little Wolf, Louise Thunder, Samuel Flying Horse. The headstones also note their tribes: Cheyenne, Nez Perce, Ute, Apache, Shoshone . . .

I walked along the rows of the plain, weathered headstones looking for the grave of a boy named Ernest, of whom I had a photograph. He looked about 14. A handsome, light-skinned boy with thick black hair, he showed no hint of the sadness consuming him.

Ernest was among that first group of students who came to Carlisle. The following year several Sioux chiefs, including Ernest's father, visited the school. Ernest wanted his father to take him back home to the Dakota Territory. His father said no. The boy must have been desperate, because he sneaked onto the train carrying the chiefs back west, but he was discovered and returned to the school. Ernest soon became severely withdrawn, stopped eating and died. Though many others died of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and scarlet fever, it was not uncommon for Indian students to die of "homesickness."

When I discovered his headstone, I was struck by the simple inscription: "Ernest, son of Chief White Thunder. Sioux. December, 1880." There was no hint of the boy's ordeal. But it was in keeping with the rest of my tour, as nothing about the old buildings on this shady campus explains why a young Indian boy would die of homesickness.

Michael L. Cooper, a Washington writer, is the author of "Indian School: Teaching the White Man's Way" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).


Ways and Means

GETTING THERE: Carlisle Barracks is 90 miles from Washington, about a two-hour drive. Take I-270 to Frederick, then Route 15 north to Pennsylvania. Several exits off 15 lead to Carlisle: Take the one for Route 94 at York Springs for the most scenic drive. Just east of Holly Springs, Route 94 joins Route 34, which leads into downtown Carlisle. Take North Hanover Street (Route 11) north for nearly two miles. On the right, just past the Harvon Motel, a large sign marks the entrance to Carlisle Barracks.

BEING THERE: The U.S. Military History Institute (717-245-3611) at Carlisle Barracks' Upton Hall is open weekdays from 7:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., except Wednesdays, when the hours are 11:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Paintings of Army chiefs of staff accompanied by biographical sketches hang along the institute's corridor, and an entire room is dedicated to Gen. Omar Bradley, one of the top commanders in World War II. Get a brochure at the hall for a walking tour of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

In downtown Carlisle, which was founded in 1751, the Cumberland Valley Historical Society (21 N. Pitt St., 717-249-7610) displays a collection of Colonial and early-American furniture and textiles. It also has a small exhibit on the Indian Industrial School. Around town, there's a large number of antiques shops, restaurants and Victorian- and Federal-style houses.

WHERE TO EAT: Downtown, California Cafe (38 W. Pomfret St.) specializes in California- and French-style food; Sunnyside Restaurant (850 N. Hanover St.) features American and Mediterranean specialties; and Piatto (22 W. Pomfret St.) serves Italian. More casual fare is found at A La Tarte (36 W. High St.), the Locker Room (204 N. Hanover St.), Market Cross Pub (113 N. Hanover St.) and 720 Cafe (720 N. Hanover St.).

WHERE TO STAY: The area near Interstate 81, on the eastern edge of town, is dotted with chain motels. The Pheasant Field Bed & Breakfast (150 Hickorytown Rd.) is an inviting, early-19th-century brick farmhouse with four guest rooms; rates are $70 to $100 per night. Other local B&Bs are listed on the Cumberland Valley Bed and Breakfast Association Web site, www.cvbednbreakfasts.com.

DETAILS: Greater Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce, 717-243-4515, www.carlislechamber.org.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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