News Monitoring Team: Indian Schools and Historical Othering

The News Monitoring Research Team works on archives and archivists issues in the news. This post, part of our Research Post series, was written by Steering Committee member and team coordinator Steve Duckworth.

For our last official News Monitoring Team post of the season, I thought I would step out of my role as the Coordinator of the News Team and talk a bit about something from a story that popped up last month. The article, turned up by one of the News Team members, focuses on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an “Indian” boarding school in Carlisle, PA that operated from 1879 to 1918.

This struck a chord with me as issues around America’s indigenous peoples and archives and cultural artifacts have been on my mind frequently in my career, ever since my first full-time position with the National Park Service in Alaska and lasting through to today as I work in the Pacific Northwest and hear about projects and programs around the historical mistreatment of these communities (not to mention the similar information coming from Canada). But I had also just read Kate Theimer’s recent post on the Carlisle Indian School and the text of her talk, “Archiving Against the Apocalypse,” for the Canadian-American Archives Conference. I also spent a good chunk of my life living in Philadelphia and Allentown, PA, so a confluence of things held this story in my mind.

While curating an exhibit on public health in the early 20th century last year, I stumbled upon the theory of eugenics, which I’ll admit I hadn’t really ever heard of (and I’ve spent a lot of my life in school). Turns out the U.S., during the later parts of the 1800s and early parts of the 1900s, was really into the idea of creating a purer race of people. Sound familiar? Yeah, American eugenics actually inspired Hitler and that whole Nazi race-purifying thing. Doctors, government workers, and regular Joes alike were all into the idea of weeding out “defective” and “undesirable” traits through controlling who got to reproduce through court-ordered sterilization and segregation, and with “child guidance” clinics that remind me of more recent gay conversion institutions. This didn’t end all that long ago; Oregon’s eugenics board lasted until 1983, having carried out its last sterilization in 1981.

Indian schools were a slightly earlier version of population control. White, European-Americans of the 1800s wanted to assimilate indigenous people into their culture. They thought if they removed youths from their families, language, culture, and traditions, and trained and educated them in European style, they could eventually breed out the “savage” aspects of their people. It was a way of exterminating the indigenous people of their new country that was considered more civil and socially acceptable than all out murder or war. Though, as you can see from recent reports, beatings, illness, and death were all common outcomes for these students.

The Carlisle school was America’s first, off-reservation boarding school, but it wasn’t the last. Twenty six boarding schools were established across the country, along with hundreds of private religious schools. Over 10,000 children attended the Carlisle school alone, with estimates of over 100,000 children total throughout the system. Canada’s similar system, the Residential Schools, lasted into the 1970s and had over 150,000 “students.” (Canada’s system was also more heavily documented and the government has been a lot more public about speaking out about it, most likely due to the unprecedented class-action lawsuit survivors brought against the government.)

So, first eugenics got stuck in my mind, and now I keep learning about more and more ways in which atrocious acts have been committed, for this reason or that (have you listened to the Seeing White podcast series?), which all really boil down to othering certain groups to keep the white people on top – assimilation, cleansing, separation, racial purity, etc. And I think, damn, we humans are really horrible (this, itself, is not really a revelation for me, but more of an expansion).

But humans can also manage to do some good here and there. So, and here I relate it back to archives, it’s painful to learn of this history, but it’s refreshing (in a way) to read stories of how archival records and cultural history are being used to return remains, artifacts, memory, and culture to people who have been wronged by our country (and others) – and perhaps even provide some healing to the wronged. These acts of restitution provide some concrete examples that can be used to influence archival ethics and practices today and perhaps encourage people to look up and out from their lives and small worlds, to see far afield and take in the big picture of all of us on this planet and what we’re doing to each other.

My goal here isn’t so much to bring about change through this short post, but more to add another voice to the education on happenings such as this and to help make connections between what we do in our daily work that could potentially have a huge benefit. Also I want to urge people with these types of historical records (or even more contemporary records), to not hide from the past. Face it and work to better the future.

 

Resources and additional information

Listed chronologically, starting with the most recent

 

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