The Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Assimilation with Education after the Indian Wars (Teaching with Historic Places)

A large building with lines of people outside

Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections

They came from the farthest corners of the United States and its territories: Thousands of American Indian children, some barely teens, boarded trains, stagecoaches, and ships bound for Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the wake of the 19th century’s Indian Wars. Children from over 100 distinct cultures left home to live at an off-reservation school at Carlisle Barracks, an old military base.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in 1879 and operated for nearly 30 years with a mission to “kill the Indian” to “save the Man.” This philosophy meant administrators forced students to speak English, wear Anglo-American clothing, and act according to U.S. values and culture. The Carlisle model spawned 24 more off-reservation schools. The Carlisle campus today is occupied by the U.S. Army War College, but it continues to be a place to study and reflect on those assimilation policies and to honor the memories of those students.

About This Lesson

This lesson is based on the National Register of Historic Places nomination file for “Carlisle Indian Industrial School” (with photos) and resources from the Library of Congress, U.S. Army War College Library, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections, and National Archives and Records Administration. The lesson was written by Maria Lee, Historical Anthropologist, and Katie Orr, Historian and Education Coordinator at NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation & Education. Published in September 2016, it is one in a series that brings the important stories of historic places into classrooms across the country.

Where it fits into the curriculum

Time Period: Late 19th century, Early 20th century, Gilded Age, Progressive Era

Topics: This lesson could be used in middle and high school units relating to American Indian and Native American history, 19th century frontier history, American Indian culture, the history of education in the U.S., and Pennsylvania state history.

United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Assimilation with Education after the Indian Wars relates to the following National Standards for History:

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

  • Standard 1B: The student understands federal and state Indian policy and the strategies for survival forged by Native Americans.
  • Standard 4A: The student understands various perspectives on federal Indian policy, westward expansion, and the resulting struggles.

Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

National Council for the Social Studies

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Assimilation with Education after the Indian Wars relates to the following Social Studies Standards:

Theme I: Culture

  • Standard B: The student explains how information and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference.
  • Standard C: The student explains and gives examples of how language, literature, the arts, architecture, other artifacts, traditions, beliefs, values, and behaviors contribute to the development and transmission of culture.
  • Standard D: The student explains why individuals and groups respond differently to their physical and social environments and/or changes to them on the basis of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs.
  • Standard E: The student articulates the implications of cultural diversity, as well as cohesion, within and across groups.

Theme II: Time, Continuity, and Change

  • Standard B: The student identifies and uses key concepts such as chronology, causality, change, conflict, and complexity to explain, analyze, and show connections among patterns of historical change and continuity.
  • Standard C: The student identifies and describes selected historical periods and patterns of change within and across cultures, such as the rise of civilizations, the development of transportation systems, the growth and breakdown of colonial systems, and others.
  • Standard E: The student develops critical sensitivities such as empathy and skepticism regarding attitudes, values, and behaviors of people in different historical contexts.

Theme III: People, Places, and Environments

  • Standard B: The student creates, interprets, uses, and distinguishes various representations of the earth, such as maps, globes, and photographs.
  • Standard G: The student describes how people create places that reflect cultural values and ideals as they build neighborhoods, parks, shopping centers, and the like.
  • Standard H: The student examines, interprets, and analyzes physical and cultural patterns and their interactions, such as land uses, settlement patterns, cultural transmission of customs and ideas, and ecosystem changes.

Theme IV: Individual Development and Identity

  • Standard B: The student describes personal connections to place--associated with community, nation, and world.
  • Standard C: The student describes the ways family, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutional affiliations contribute to personal identity.
  • Standard E: The student identifies and describes ways regional, ethnic, and national cultures influence individuals’ daily lives.
  • Standard F: The student identifies and describes the influence of perception, attitudes, values, and beliefs on personal identity.
  • Standard G: The student identifies and interprets examples of stereotyping, conformity, and altruism.

Theme V: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

  • Standard B: The student analyzes group and institutional influences on people, events, and elements of culture.
  • Standard G: The student identifies and interprets examples of stereotyping, conformity, and altruism.
  • Standard E: The student identifies and describes examples of tensions between belief systems and government policies and laws.

Theme VI: Power, Authority, and Governance

  • Standard H - The student explains and applies concepts such as power, role, status, justice, and influence to the examination of persistent issues and social problems.

Theme X: Civic Ideals and Practices

  • Standard F: The student identifies and explains the roles of formal and informal political actors in influencing and shaping public policy and decision-making.
  • Standard J: The student examines strategies designed to strengthen the "common good," which consider a range of options for citizen action.

Objectives for students

1. To describe the ways the U.S. Government tried to erase native culture after suppressing indigenous nations in the 1800s;
2. To explain the Indian Boarding School system’s goals and its methods for assimilating American Indian children;
3. To list ways Carlisle Industrial School was connected to military culture and the U.S. military response to Native Americans;
4. To report on the preservation and recovery of Native American cultural heritage today.

Materials for students

The materials listed below either can be used directly on the computer or can be printed out, photocopied, and distributed to students.
1. Two maps showing American Indian reservations in the United States in the late 19th century and the building layout of Carlisle’s campus;
2. Two primary source readings and one secondary about the philosophy of the school’s founder, the history and operation of the school, and the school’s student newspaper;
3. Four historic photographs of the campus, a student before and after attending Carlisle, and male and female students attending classes.

Visiting the site

The site of the historic Carlisle Indian Industrial School is now the U.S. Army War College, at Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, PA. The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks is open from 10am -5pm Mondays- Saturdays, Noon-5pm on Sundays. The center closes for federal holidays. Carlisle Barracks also offers a self-guided walking tour of the historic school grounds and lodging accommodations on site. Carlisle Barracks does not charge admission but a driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance are required to enter. Visit the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center website for more information.

Getting Started

Inquiry Question

Portrait of a young man wearing traditional Native clothing and a portrait of a young man wearing Western clothing

National Archives and Records Administration

Do these photos show the same person?

Setting the Stage

Indigenous people across North America have had and continue to have their own education systems. For over 15,000 years, American Indian and Alaskan Native nations passed down their cultural traditions and languages from generation to generation without European interference. Parents, grandparents, and tribal elders teach their children how to care for and survive off of their ancestral lands, plants, and animals. They educate and celebrate their young ones through storytelling, ceremonies, prayer, and everyday activities and responsibilities. Children’s’ educational upbringing reflect the social, political, and economic needs of each tribe.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the government of the United States began planning how indigenous groups might coexist with the young nation. Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the U.S. Continental Congress invested in ‘educating’ and ‘civilizing’ Indians. They wanted indigenous groups to assimilate; that is, forego their tribal existence and accept European American cultural, economic, political, and spiritual values.

By the early 1800s, several American Indian nations incorporated both native languages and the English language into their education systems as a response to assimilation policies. They wanted to communicate with incoming settlers and U.S. government officials in order to maintain tribal sovereignty and protect themselves from exploitation. At the same time, Christian missionary groups and the federal government opened day schools to impart Euro-American values.

In the late 19th century, surviving American Indian nations struggled to maintain their rights to selfgovern, keep their ancestral lands, and sustain their cultures. They waged wars with the United States and ultimately lost. The United States government forced survivors of the so-called Indian Wars to move to reservations. Many died during these relocations through exhaustion, starvation, and exposure to European diseases.

Even without land or political power, native peoples were able to pass on culture to their children. But by the late 1870s, the War Department and the Department of the Interior developed off-reservation boarding school system. The school administrators’ mission was to remove indigenous children from the families and communities to assimilate them and stop the passing-on of indigenous culture. The boarding schools forced indigenous children to adopt Euro-American culture.

During the 1930s, federal education policy became more accepting of indigenous cultures and languages. In 1934, the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act gave tribes more autonomy on how and where their children were taught.

By the 1960s, American Indian nations became more involved in providing a formal, European-style education for indigenous youth. Tribal representatives served as commissioners of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In the 2010s, three off-reservation boarding schools continue to be operated with the mission of reviving indigenous traditions and instilling pride in its students.

In September 2000, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Grover issued an apology to Indian people for the emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual violence committed against children at off-reservation boarding schools. In December 2009, President Obama signed a written apology on behalf of the United States to all Native Peoples for the violence, maltreatment, and neglect caused by U.S. citizens.

Locating the Site

Map 1: Indian Reservations and American Indian Boarding Schools, 1892.

Map with reservations and American Indian boarding schools marked

Library of Congress, United States Office of Indian Affairs

Red or shaded regions show Native American Reservations.

Map 1 Key
1. Chemaya Indian School Salem, Oregon
2. Fort Bidwell Indian School Fort Bidwell, California
3. Greenville School & Agency Greenville, California
4. Stewart Indian School Cason, Nevada
5. Perris Indian School Perris, California
6. Fort Mojave Indian School Fort Mojave, Arizona
7. Phoenix Indian School Phoenix, Arizona
8. Fort Shaw Industrial Indian Boarding School Fort Shaw, Montana
9. Grand Junction Indian School Grand Junction, Colorado
10. Fort Lewis Indian School Hesperus, Colorado
11. Santa Fe Indian School Santa Fe, New Mexico
12. Albuquerque Indian School Albuquerque, New Mexico
13. Rapid City Indian School Rapid City, South Dakota
14. Pierre Indian School Pierre, South Dakota
15. St. Joseph’s Indian School Chamberlain, South Dakota
16. Flandreau School Flandreau, South Dakota
17. Genoa Indian Industrial School Genoa, Nebraska
18. Haskell Indian Industrial School Lawrence, Kansas
19. Chilocco Indian Agricultural School Chilocco, Oklahoma
20. Morris Indian Boarding School Morris, Minnesota
21. Pipestone Indian School Pipestone, Minnesota
22. Tomah Indian School Tomah, Wisconsin
23. Wittenburg Indian School Wittenberg, Wisconsin
24. Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
25. Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Questions for Map 1
1) In what parts of the United States are most boarding schools located? Why might they be clustered in those parts of the country?
2) What boarding school is located farthest east? What state is it in? Why might the U.S. military want an Indian boarding school to be so far from Indian Reservations?
3) American Indian children traveled from reservations all over the country to attend school at Carlisle. What kinds of 19th century transportation might they have used to travel from their homes to the school? How often do you think they visited their families? Why?
4) If each reservation has its own language and culture, what does that tell you about the student body at Carlisle? What language and culture do you think they adopted when they got to the school? Why?

Locating the Site

Map 2: Carlisle Indian Industrial School at Carlisle Barracks

Map of a boarding school campus

U.S. Army War College Library

Questions for Map 2
1) Who lived at Carlisle? What evidence supports your answer?
2) What buildings at Carlisle were for students? What buildings were for teachers and staff?
3) What kinds of skills might students learn at Carlisle? Why do you think so?
4) Why do you think Carlisle needed a cemetery? Does your school have a cemetery? Why or why not? Where is the city’s baseball stadium? How can you tell? Provide evidence to support your answer.

Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Excerpts from “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man,” 1892, presented by Richard Henry Pratt

Captain Richard Henry Pratt fought for the United States against Native American Tribes including the Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa. After the U.S. won the “Indian Wars,” Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He presented his thoughts at the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction in 1892. He is famous for his philosophy: “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.” Complete version.

Carlisle has always planted treason to the tribe and loyalty to the nation at large. It has preached against colonizing Indians, and in favor of individualizing them. It has demanded for them the same multiplicity of chances which all others in the country enjoy.

Carlisle fills young Indians with the spirit of loyalty to the stars and stripes, and then moves them out into our communities to show by their conduct and ability that the Indian is no different from the white or the colored, that he has the inalienable right to liberty and opportunity that the white and the negro have.

Carlisle does not dictate to him what line of life he should fill, so it is an honest one. It says to him that, if he gets his living by the sweat of his brow, and demonstrates to the nation that he is a man, he does more good for his race than hundreds of his fellows who cling to their tribal communistic surroundings. . . .

…. When we cease to teach the Indian that he is less than a man; when we recognize fully that he is capable in all respects as we are….—

Then the Indian will quickly demonstrate that he can be truly civilized, and he himself will solve the question of what to do with the Indian.

Questions for Reading 1
1) What was “Carlisle”? Explain.
2) Who is the speaker and what audience did he address? What identities do you think the speaker might claim (gender, race, nationality, etc)?
3) What is Pratt’s argument? In your own words, explain what he believed Carlisle could do for American Indians.
4) What do you think Pratt meant by the term “truly civilized”? Describe traits and activities you think Pratt would view as civilized.

Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Building the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

The students arrived at the school at midnight on October 6, 1879. They traveled by horse, steamboat, and train from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian reservations in South Dakota to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. They came at night so white Americans would not come to stare at them, but even in the darkness a crowd waited. They were the first of thousands of young American Indians to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School and Carlisle was the first of many American Indian boarding schools.

The United States founded the Carlisle school in 1879 at the site of an old military base, used during the colonial era and the Civil War. Soldiers also used it as an army training school from 1838 to 1871. The same buildings were used for the Indian Industrial School. One reason the government chose this site was because it was on a railroad line. Students could travel there by train. The school was also a far distance from the western Indian reservations. The distance kept the students away from their families’ cultures and influence for long periods of time. Some students never returned home.

Richard Henry Pratt was a U.S. military officer who founded the school. He went into education after leading troops to fight American Indian nations during the Indian Wars and is famous for his boarding school philosophy: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Pratt believed American Indian children could become successful American citizens if they abandoned their heritage. He wanted to change what made them different from Americans descended from Europeans, including their clothing, language, and beliefs. After opening the school at Carlisle, Pratt and his supporters forced young people to attend the school for three to five years. Some chose to stay as long as 10 years.

Carlisle Barracks was in good condition when the school opened. Students lived on the north end of the campus. Teachers, staff, and the superintendent lived on the southern side near the entrance. A large green space or quadrangle separated the grounds from the north and the south. Students and teachers moved across the center of campus while using crisscrossing through footpaths, a bandstand, and a stone guardhouse.

In the early 1880s, the American Indian students and the white staff expanded the school campus. They built a chapel, three-story dining hall, classroom building, girls’ dormitory, warehouse, boiler house, laundry, hospital, printing shop, an art studio, and a cemetery. They also added a six-foot fence around the perimeter of the campus.

Civilian school officials enforced military-style discipline at Carlisle. Students marched across the grounds to and from their classes, the dining hall, extra-curricular activities, and for regular inspections. They marched in groups like soldiers in military drills. When officials rang a bell, they shifted to new movements. If a student disobeyed a rule, they went to the guardhouse for punishment or were sentenced to hard labor.

School officials tried to make the American Indian students look and dress like white Americans. Carlisle staff cut off the long braids of male children, took away the children’s personal or tribal clothing, moccasins, and family belongings. Students could not keep medicine bags, jewelry, or ceremonial rattles. These items often had special meanings to tribes. While at Carlisle, boys wore uniforms from morning until night and girls wore long, confining Victorian dresses. The school administrators also assigned a new English name to each child and did not allow native languages to be spoken. Administrators took “before and after” photos of students. These photos showed children in the style of their home cultures “before” and in the style of Anglo Americans “after.” People who supported assimilation used the photos as propaganda to show politicians and the American public that cultural assimilation was working.

Pratt and his teachers taught American school subjects as well as hands-on training. Their goal was to prepare American Indian students to work jobs outside of the reservation. Students studied English, math, geography, and music. Boys learned industrial skills. They were taught to build furniture and work with wood, iron, steel, tin, and other materials. Girls learned home skills. They learned to cook, do laundry, bake, and perform other caretaking skills. Students also participated in an “outing” system where they lived and worked with white American families in eastern Pennsylvania. They had to speak English and hold jobs to earn money while they were away from school.

Students at Carlisle were in sports teams, debate clubs, and marching bands. The school teams competed against prominent non-Indian schools and in regional championships. One of the greatest athletes of the 20th century attended Carlisle: Jim Thorpe of the Sac and Fox Nation. Thorpe won athletic competitions as a Carlisle student, won two gold medals in the 1912 Summer Olympics, and went on to be a professional football player. The Carlisle band was famous, too. It performed at presidential inaugurations while the school was open.

Over ten thousand children attended Carlisle between 1879 and 1918, with roughly 1,000 on campus in a given school year. They came from over 142 Indian nations. These nations had many different languages and cultures. Most students were Sioux, Chippewa, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Menominee, and Alaskan Native. Some students graduated in their late teens or early twenties but others left early due to illness or homesickness.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs founded 24 more American Indian boarding schools after Carlisle. Under the same military-style discipline, students at these schools learned domestic and industrial skills. The staff forced them to speak English and tried to destroy their ties to traditional cultures. In 1928 the U.S. government reported findings that children were abused, overworked, and underfed. Most off-reservation schools closed by the 1930s when Americans learned about how students were treated. Politicians chose to stop or decrease funding to the schools. Three schools are still open as of 2016. These three schools have military-style discipline but also teach American Indian customs, languages, and skills instead of trying to erase them.

The Carlisle campus returned to U.S. Army control in 1918. It was a hospital for soldiers injured in World War I. The historic school buildings in the 21st Century are home to the U.S. Army War College. Descendants of Carlisle students and members of tribes represented at Carlisle visit the school to honor the memory of the students.

Questions for Reading 2
1) When did Carlisle Indian Industrial School open? What was the site used for before it became a school?
2) Carlisle students came from over 100 different American Indian nations and cultures. What did they have in common? In what ways do you think they were different from each other? Explain your answers.
3) Using evidence from Reading 2, list three ways that attending Carlisle was like being in the military. How did the buildings and landscape support a military culture?
4) Consider the effects of the boarding school system. How do you think the Indian Boarding School system affected the American Indian tribes and cultures? Do you think Pratt was successful or unsuccessful (did he “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”)? Why or why not?

Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Two Articles from March 9, 1888 edition of The Indian Helper newspaper

The Carlisle school newspaper, The Indian Helper, published this letter on March 9, 1888.


Dear Mother-Shah-Ru-Rah-Wah-Kee:

Today is home letter again I want to tell you something about our school. I think our school house will be torn down in this spring and rebuilt because Congress has promised to have new school house this coming spring, and I hope may be as large as our Quarters.

It seems too that the Carlisle is going on and on, as you know that I left you in 1883. And I came at this school, and saw the old dining room was too narrow and there was but one story high. The tables were standing close together, and the boys’ Quarters were only two stories high one great big doors on big hinges too, like horse stable.

The boys were sleeping in the same room sometime sixteen or eighteen boys each room. They made great noise and could hardly think something to study because too much noise. I don’t like it at all and so I did not stay a great while I went out on the country, and there I spent one year and a half. I returned in 1885 and I got back and I saw a great big dining room which had been built up since I was away.

Again I went out and stayed only six months and came back again. That was in 1886 Capt. Pratt and us boys began to think about it that our boys spent so much money foolishly and so Capt. Pratt’s disciplinarian called attention and all the boys were present, all the boys put some money in that collection.

Again I went into the country. I was very much surprised that I came back and saw a great big building extending toward west to east three stories high. Hallo! New Quarters I said, and I saw Little Boys’ Quarters, they just starting to build and was finished both Little Boys’ Quarters and a new Gymnasium last Nov. 1887. Now we are comfortable everything is going on all right. Big new gymnasium I think all the boys and girls like it because we are going to have a sociable once a month. -- LUTHER KUHNS

The front page of the newspaper included a note: “THE INDIAN HELPER is PRINTED by Indian boys, but EDITED by The-Man-on-the-band-stand, who is NOT an Indian.”

One of our subscribers asks this question: Will you please explain why you are called "The Man-on-the-band-stand?" If the questioner were at Carlisle, he would know why. The Band-stand commands the whole situation. From it he can see all the quarters, the printing office, the chapel, the grounds, everything and everybody, all the girls and the boys on the walks, at the windows, everywhere. Nothing escapes the Man-on-the-bandstand.

Questions for Reading 3
1) What is the source of Reading 3? Who is Luther Kuhns and what does he describe in his letter? Who do you think the “Man-on-the-Band-Stand” might be?
2) Make a list of the buildings and places at Carlisle that the newspaper described. Based on the description, does your school or community have a place like Carlisle? What is its purpose?
3) Who makes decisions about Luther’s life? Who controls where he eats, sleeps, and travels? How is it similar and different to your life?
4) Name two possible audiences for Luther’s letter. Explain why each audience might be interested in the contents of the letter. Why do you think Luther wrote the letter?

Visual Evidence

Photo 1: Indian School Band and Girls Quarters, Carlisle, PA, 1909.

Young men in military uniforms playing instruments

National Archives and Records Administration, via Dickinson College Collection

Questions for Photo 1
1) Who appears in this illustration and what are they doing? Where are they? Describe the action and the setting in 2-4 sentences.
2) Use Map 2 to identify the area of the campus the illustration shows. What buildings do you think are to the students' left? What might they be facing?
3) How does Photo 1 promote Pratt’s “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” philosophy? List three examples of how Pratt’s philosophy appears in the image. (Refer to Reading 1 if necessary)
4) In a short paragraph, give your own opinion: is what you see in the photo a positive experience or a negative one? Why do you think so?

Visual Evidence

Photos 2 and 3: Tom Torlino, Navajo student at Carlisle, in 1882 (left) and 1885 (right).

Portrait of a young man wearing traditional Native clothing and a portrait of a young man wearing Western clothing

National Archives and Records Administration,,

Questions for Photos 2 and 3
1) Describe Tom Torlino’s appearance in two short paragraphs, one for each photo. What did he look like in 1882 and what did he look like in 1885?
2) What do you think happened to Tom Torlino between 1882 and 1885?
3) How do the photos of Tom (primary sources) support what you read about in Reading 2 (a secondary source)?
4) What can’t you learn about Tom Torlino from the photos? Name two things the photos do not reveal about Tom’s life and then list three other sources of evidence a historian might study to find that information?

Visual Evidence

Photo 4: Furniture Building Shop, 1901

Young men building furniture

Library of Congress, Frances Benjamin Johnson Collection,

Photo 5: Home Economics class, 1901.

Girls cooking. They are all wearing aprons.

Library of Congress, Frances Benjamin Johnson Collection,

Questions for Photos 4 and 5
1) Who is pictured in Photo 4 and Photo 5? What are they doing?
2) Compare the photos with Map 2. Which buildings do you think appear in the photos? What evidence in the photos supports your answer?
3) How does what you see in photos 5 and 6 “Kill the Indian” and “Save the Man”? What future do you think Carlisle administrators planned for these students?

Putting it All Together

Use the following activities to deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.

Activity 1: Controlling Culture, Controlling History: The Power in Telling History
The United States and American Indian tribes waged formal and informal wars since the nation’s founding. Many of the children who attended Carlisle were from tribes that had just surrendered or were suppressed by the U.S. military after generations of conflict. Richard Henry Pratt discussed that his first students were prisoners of war from Indian Territory in the American Missionary Journal Volume 37, Issue 4.

One tool used to dominate a culture is to write or rewrite its history and the history of Native America can be hotly contested. In this activity, give students the power historians have to interpret the past.

Have your students create timelines to illustrate the history of a tribal nation or single American Indian culture represented at Carlisle. The timeline can include political, social, cultural, and legal landmarks and eras. Students can use arts and crafts to create a paper timeline or create a digital timeline online. A quick internet search will help you identify the best program for your students.

The timelines should include the tribes' own perspectives and histories as well as traditional U.S. narratives. Students should not limit their sources to Anglo-American authors. At least one source must be authored by a member of that tribe. After students complete their timelines, ask the class if they were surprised by anything they learned. Did the history from their tribal sources conflict with what they read in their textbook? Did it conflict with the other sources they used? Ask your students why Native Americans might tell a different version of 19th century history compared to the history a non-Native would tell.

Activity 2: Historic American Indian Boarding Schools Beyond Carlisle
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School became a model for many more off-reservation boarding schools across the U.S. in the early 20th century. These schools followed Richard Pratt’s “Kill the Indian and Save the Man” philosophy. Have your students learn more about the history of this movement by studying other historic boarding schools, the experiences of people who attended them, and how they compare to Carlisle.

Assign to small groups or each student one historic, off-reservation school for a research project and report. The report you assign can take the form of an essay, research paper, oral presentation, or poster presentation depending on time, resources, and ability. You may even want to give students the option to choose how they want to report, ensuring that students treat the material with appropriate seriousness and respect. Students should not demonstrate their knowledge of the material through skits, since acting out racism and violence can create an unwelcoming classroom environment.

You can find schools for your students to study with the National Register for Historic Places database (historic site descriptions are available as .PDFs) or through a web search. Then, ask your students to do their own research on the web or in the library to report on their school.

They should provide the following in their reports:

  • Official mission or philosophy of the school
  • Description of the campus, including architectural and geographical features of the school
  • Classes and extra-curricular activities the school offered
  • Year the school opened, closed, and explanation why it closed
  • Location and distance of the school from nearest reservations
  • The tribal identities represented at the school
  • An anecdote or description of what life was like for students at the school

Some of the schools listed on the National Register of Historic Places include Chemawa Indian School Site, Phoenix Indian School Historic District, Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, Pipestone Indian School Superintendent’s Residence, and the Haskell Institute (Haskell Indian Industrial School).

The students should end their report with examples of how their school was similar to and different from Carlisle. They should use at least one primary source as evidence and at least one source created by a Native American who wrote about the school and/or graduated from it.

Students may learn during this activity that some boarding schools did not close. If time allows, play the 2008 NPR story about modern school experiences in Sherman Indian High School, California: “American Indian School a Far Cry from the Past.”

Activity 3: Explore Disease at Carlisle with Science and Empathy
Disease was one reason why many Indian Boarding Schools closed. Though not the reason Carlisle shut down, at least 168 children who attended Carlisle died from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and the flu at the school. Another 500 students were sent home when they got sick and were too weak to study. A cemetery was built on the school grounds and remains today as a place to honor and reflect on the students who died.

Assign poster presentations to each student about one of the three main illnesses that spread among Carlisle students. Posters should provide a basic description of the disease including symptoms and how it is spread. It should also display images of the disease affecting a cell, or diagrams of body systems or organs affected. Lastly, have students incorporate artwork onto the poster that memorializes Carlisle students buried at the cemetery. Suggest that they look up images of the cemetery or news articles about recent visits to the cemetery by members of the public to aid in the visualization of the site.

Have students give a 2-3 minute oral presentation to the class with their findings and ideas behind their artwork. Wrap up the presentations with a brief discussion about the spread of disease at Carlisle. Have your students comment on ways a student might have been infected in a classroom or crowded dormitory at the school. Ask them how the spread of disease may have been prevented.

Activity 4: Preserving American Indian Past, Present, and Future
In the lesson about Carlisle Indian Industrial School, your students learned about ways Native Americans lost their culture. Ask your students to study the ways American Indians work to recover and preserve languages, sacred knowledge, and heritage sites today.

Explain to your students that while the United States government tried to erase American Indian cultures in the 1800s and during most of the 20th century, too, an American Indian and Indigenous Civil Rights movement in the 1970s led to greater visibility and political power for those groups. The Indian boarding school experience may have fed such political activism and the Pan-Indian movement. In the 21st century, the U.S. Department of the Interior supports Tribal Historic Preservation Offices that are operated by sovereign tribal nations and carries out the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to return sacred objects to tribes.

In this activity, as individuals or in small groups, have your students investigate either the preservation of a type of cultural knowledge (language, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, significant places, crafts and artisanal skills) in the United states OR a single sovereign tribe’s efforts to preserve their whole culture.

Your students may focus on a regional group to emphasize state and local history or a different region of North America, if they are studying U.S. history.

First, ask your students to develop a research question to focus their work. Next, have them search the internet to find examples of how American Indians work to recover the culture and traditions that schools like Carlisle and men like Pratt tried to “kill.” Tell your students to use only websites authored by American Indian tribes or websites that end in .edu, .gov, or .org to avoid commercial sources.

Have students present what they learn in an essay, oral presentation, or short video that they can play for the whole class. They should also submit an annotated bibliography that lists their internet sources and explains why each is a trustworthy source of information.

Activity 5: Making Global Connections at Carlisle
The United States’ efforts to dominate conquered groups’ lands and cultures were not unique in world history, and the U.S. Federal government did more to assimilate American Indians than create boarding schools. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the U.S. government tried to change American Indian society through other policies and laws. Another example is the Dawes Act and General Allotment Act of 1887, which divided traditionally communal tribal land among individual members of that tribe. Throughout human history, other global powers acted in similar ways toward people whose land they conquered. This activity has students study other U.S. policies intended to control American Indians and to compare/contrast those policies with the methods of control used by other colonial powers.

Assign different, specific colonial periods as research projects to your students working in pairs or small groups. Have each student group study their assigned colonial era and list the policies used by the colonial government to control the colonized culture. Then, have your students identify U.S. policies toward indigenous groups in the late 19th century and compare/contrast the policies of the two governments.

Examples of other colonial situations that you may assign are Portuguese rule in Angola, French rule in Martinique, Dutch rule in Southern Africa, Chinese rule in Tibet, British rule in Canada, Roman rule in Gaul, and Russian rule in Romania. If the colonial history is long, students may wish to narrow down to a specific period, such as 16th century Spanish colonial rule in Mexico.

Have your students document how the colonial government and the U.S. government controlled or tried to control the colonized culture through education, religion, style of dress and appearance, labor practices, land use, and family structure.

Have each group produce a table on their findings, outlining the similarities and differences of assimilation policies used by the United States and other colonial powers. Finally, have them write a paragraph to explain what might explain differences and similarities to the tactics the two governments used to control and/or assimilate the colonized groups.

If time and resources allow, have your students produce a poster board exhibit where each group displays their table and has an opportunity to present what they found in their research

More Resources Online

National Park Service
The National Register of Historic Places lists Carlisle Indian Industrial School. These records describe the physical site of the former school and its surroundings as well as their historical significance.

Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, Dickinson College
This resource offers a searchable database of digitized school records from the US National Archives, Cumberland County Historical Society, and other repositories. It includes Carlisle student files, photographs, publications such as The Indian Helper and The Red Man, and class lists and rosters.

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress features a collection of photographs and prints from the Carlisle Indian Schoo. It also offers a primary source set and teacher's guide entitled "Assimilation through Education". It features photographs, illustrations, newspapers, reports from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs about off-reservation boarding schools in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

TNT: Into the West
TNT produced a mini-series called "Into the West" about assimilation at off-reservation boarding schools, using Carlisle Indian School as the setting. A brief clip is available on YouTube.

Radio Lab
RadioLab features a podcast episode on the important role that Carlisle Indian School students played in the development of the modern sport of football in the United States. The hosts interviews local historians from the Cumberland County Historical Society, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, and Haskell Indian Nations University.

Libraries and Archives of the Autry
The Libraries and Archives of the Autry and the Cante Sica Foundation of Boarding School Stories shares oral histories of former boarding school students. The collection features audiovisual recordings and time index of each person's memories of boarding school experiences.


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Bear, Standing. My People the Sioux. 1928. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
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U.S. Congress. Senate. Carlisle Indian School: Hearings before the Joint Commission of the Congress of the United States to Investigate Indian Affairs. 63rd Cong., 2nd sess., February 6, 7, 8 and March 23, 1914. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office. Accessed September 1, 2016.

Last updated: July 21, 2023