Digitally Re-presenting the Colonial Archive: Resources for Researching and Teaching the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and the Native American Boarding School Movement

Frank Vitale IV, Susan Rose, and James Gerencser

The official story of the Carlisle Indian School as a progressive, benevolent experiment was originally told through documents and images used for public relations and fundraising. Pratt’s time serving in the U.S. Cavalry was reflected in the military manner in which he planned, documented, and operated the school. Casting these activities as supporting discipline and industry, Pratt purposefully molded a positive image of the school in widely-disseminated photographs and texts that belied ongoing challenges. This image often contrasts sharply with the thoughts and experiences of the students themselves, as well as the real challenges of operating the school. The Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center (CISDRC) has made both publicity materials and internal administrative documents freely and easily accessible so that the carefully crafted narrative of the school’s proponents can be reconsidered by those interested in learning more about Carlisle, its students, and the broader Indian Boarding School Movement.

The CISDRC is an effort to aid research by bringing together, in digital format, a variety of resources related to the Carlisle Indian School that are physically preserved in various locations.1 Through making these resources easily accessible, we seek to increase knowledge and understanding of the school and its complex legacy, while also facilitating efforts to uncover the stories of the many thousands of students who were enrolled there. With the CISDRC, the intention is not merely to share archival material, but to further build and develop the archival record by offering a space where descendants of Carlisle students may “talk back” to the official record by offering corrections and adding both their voices and their personal documentary collections to the conversation. Doing so enriches the preserved historical record while supporting increased opportunities for learning, understanding, and healing.

Research of any kind, including historical research, is limited by source availability. When studying boarding schools like Carlisle, scholars’ ability to access and compare information shapes the kinds of questions that can be asked and answered. Genevieve Bell, whose 1998 doctoral thesis provided the first detailed study of the Carlisle Indian School, spent months at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., reviewing student records and building a basic database to organize the information she gleaned from these sources.2 These same records and many more are now accessible from anywhere in the world, at any time, to anyone with Internet access.

The ease of access to this wealth of material often masks the effort required to collect, organize, and carefully describe this content, so it is worth highlighting how digitization helps to reshape the colonial archives of boarding schools. Aside from reducing research obstacles and access costs for descendants and scholars, digitization presents historical records in new and powerful ways. Enabled by the hundreds of thousands of pages of material that can now be easily read, evaluated, and compared, researchers have begun rewriting the history of the Carlisle Indian School. By representing these once-hidden analog records in digital formats, the CISDRC has helped to redefine how primary sources and colonial archives can be approached, understood, and utilized. Descendants have used this information to better understand the experiences of their ancestors who attended Carlisle. Teachers have begun using the school’s unique primary sources in classroom instruction ranging from the primary to post-secondary levels. Historical information has been used to guide efforts to return the remains of students from the Carlisle Indian School cemetery to their home communities. And scholars from across the globe are regularly accessing these resources to inform their research.

The Primary Sources Themselves

Initial planning for the CISDRC focused on the known extant school records, which have been frequently utilized and cited by scholars through the years. These core materials are publicly accessible in just a handful of repositories—the U.S. National Archives, the Cumberland County Historical Society, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. The types of records held by each archive, and thus the information that can be gleaned from them, is highly variable, depending on the original purposes of each document. By understanding the difference provenances and uses of these materials, their information becomes more powerful, as hidden factors including authorial purpose, inherent bias, and even historical chronology come to light.

When the Carlisle Indian School closed in 1918, the administrative files maintained by the school were shipped to the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, D.C. Documents within the Bureau’s archives show that these files were occasionally consulted to respond to research inquiries from the 1920s through the 1940s. Probably sometime in the 1950s, these records were then deposited at the National Archives. Once there, the files were inventoried, organized, and cataloged. These materials formed the foundation of the CISDRC’s digitization efforts, which began in 2013.3

The body of records at the National Archives includes thousands of individual student files and notecards, which school administrators had used to keep track of students and alumni during the school’s years of operation. Bound ledgers reveal additional student-centered information such as admission data, attendance, outing placements, financial records of earnings and spending, discharge from the school, and even death. Other extant school records include financial ledgers for the school’s operations, copies of outgoing correspondence, a handful of personnel files, a few magazines and programs printed by the school, and even meeting minutes for one of the student debating societies.

Interestingly, these records from the school reveal little about its day-to-day operations. Such information was found elsewhere through further research at the National Archives. One grouping of files from the BIA relates to Carlisle between 1907 and 1918, and these materials have been separately housed and organized by subject.4 These files include correspondence between staff at Carlisle and BIA officials dealing with individual student concerns, various operational matters, and even broader policy issues.

Information about daily operations dating between 1881 and 1907 was found in yet another location. These files are part of the incoming correspondence of the BIA, all organized chronologically by date received.’’ A rough subject index that was created at the time the letters were filed more than 100 years ago is still needed to identify individual items related to Carlisle from among the tens of thousands of documents received in any given year. The process to identify and then digitize relevant files is extremely laborious, but the records found in this manner reveal previously unknown information about the school, opening new avenues for research. Similar information is also being identified among BIA correspondence files dating from before 1881.6

Besides these Carlisle-related records found at the National Archives (and others yet to be identified there), a wealth of important materials can be found at the Cumberland County Historical Society (CCHS), located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. With a mission to preserve and provide access to material of local interest, CCHS has received numerous donations over the years that document the school and its students. Several thousand photographs and negatives provide a visual record of the school, and a large collection of newspapers and magazines printed at the school shed light on its activities and how they were shared with other audiences. Personal scrapbooks, oral histories, artifacts, and countless ephemeral pieces round out holdings that often reflect the more public aspects of the school, rather than the internal administrative files located at the National Archives.7

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University holds the personal papers of Richard Henry Pratt, donated by his children in 1959.s This large collection includes letters, speeches, photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, writings, student drawings, and other materials. The extensive correspondence with current and former Carlisle students, with students’ parents, with supporters of Carlisle, and with numerous government and military figures provides a detailed picture of Pratt’s ideas and activities. In addition, this material reflects the kinds of relationships he maintained with his students and his peers and provides some contrast to the more business-like nature of the administrative files at the National Archives.

Finally, a collection of loose photographs and photo albums is maintained at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC), along with other materials on the history of the Carlisle Barracks.4 The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center also holds papers that have been gathered together to document the activities of Richard Henry Pratt as well as papers that document the barracks cemetery. The collection even includes student attendance books for the paint and harness shops at the school.10 While somewhat less coherent than the archival collections housed at other repositories, some unique photos and documents provide valuable research potential.

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