Eventful Speech: A visit to Carlisle

PrattPupilsinFrontofPratts'QuartersCarlisleIndianSchool1885LThis post is about what ‘speech’ history takes note of– and what is left unheard and unseen. It is also about a detour in a road trip that I took 2 years ago, right after this blog was created, and which I’ve been meaning to write about ever since.

If you grew up in the US (or at least in the less-urban areas of the US) you’ve probably experienced a family or peer road trip or 2– to visit grandma, go camping, attend a music festival, etc. And chances are someone in the car wanted to detour somewhere along the way to go to a special place– to visit the birth place of that famous person, or that war memorial, or the best record store in the state, for example. There are certain destinations that are well-known, and no one will question your interest– if you want to go to the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech, or a civil war battle ground, you probably won’t be the only tourist there. Well-known events and well-known speeches create recognized places. There are other destinations (and events, and speech acts) that have not made it into the history books or popular consciousness, however. This is why I was greeted with a skeptical look when I told my mother that we had to make a detour to visit Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as we were embarking on a road trip one early summer. The conversation went something like this:

Her: “Why? What’s in Carlisle?”

Me: “It’s where the first government boarding school for Native Americans was built. The boarding schools were one of the most significant parts of the policy to assimilate Indigenous people– they were required to attend and were forbidden from using their languages, clothing, food, etc. The founder is famous for stating that the schools aimed to ‘Kill the Indian and save the man.'” [the philosophy and of legacy Lt. Richard Henry Pratt are discussed in this great piece]

Her: “Oh. There was an Indian school outside of Schubenacadie [Nova Scotia, Canada] when I was a kid, I guess I never knew the history of it or what happened there, we never went near it. Is this the same kind of school?”

Me: “Yes, more or less. There were both government and church-run schools all over Canada and the US, and the records of psychological and physical abuse are terrible. The Canadian government has officially apologized to ‘survivors’, but there hasn’t been any apology in the US. Carlisle was the first one, that others were modeled after.”

Her: “What’s there now?”

Me: “From what I’ve read there’s a cemetery and some buildings at the site still. I’m not completely sure. But it’s important to me to visit, out of respect for the people who were there. And it’s practically on our way.”

Her: “Well, if it’s not too far off the route… OK.”

The first of a type can usually catch the attention of history. The first solo voyage across X, the first female Y, or in this case the first Native American boarding school. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the beginning of a chain of places and practices that were a key part of linguicide and cultural genocide, or the intentional extermination of Indigenous ways of communicating and being (not to mention many Indigenous lives) in North America. It has a marked significance for me as a linguist and European/ Settler American, although I believe that it should be significant in the historical awareness of all North Americans, not just those of us in love with languages and/or critical of colonial history. For me the site holds heartbreaking significance similar to the WWII concentration camps, which are now regular destinations for tourists and school groups in Europe so as never to be forgotten, and never to be repeated. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School is the equivalent of a ruthless battle ground and an important speech event, rolled into one– it deserves to be remembered. While official US history continues to turn a blind eye, Canada has supported a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the boarding school history, and scholars in a variety of disciplines have studied this and other boarding school sites. It can only be hoped that their work will filter into school curriculums and popular consciousness across North America in years to come.


Central Pennsylvania today is calm, green, largely rural. Not a bad place for a peaceful memorial cemetery I thought while driving through it. As we neared the destination, turning off the highway onto a smaller road of clapboard houses and modest lawns, we began to see signs for the ‘US Army Heritage and Education Center’.

“Is that where we’re going?” my mother wanted to know.

I wasn’t sure, so we pulled in to the parking lot and found ourselves in front of a large brick building with a huge banner of combat soldiers.

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I went in to the building to ask, and was told that the site of the former Carlisle Indian school was a bit further down the road. “Turn left and follow the signs for the War College. It’s not far.”

“Oh. …OK. …Thanks.”

I began to realize that I hadn’t done my homework– I knew that the site of the school had been barracks prior to being a school and had become barracks for awhile again after the school was shut down in 1918 (while other boarding schools remained operational into the late 20th century). But I didn’t realize until arriving that it’s now the site of– yes– the US Army War College. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as the US Army War College, something that should surely be part of my civic/ historical awareness also.

We followed signs toward the entrance, past an expansive golf course, rounding a corner to suddenly find ourselves at a checkpoint of armed soldiers. My mother, who was increasingly uncomfortable with the situation, asked me quickly “Is this really a good idea, do we have to do this?”

“It’ll be fine” I reassured her, while feeling nervous myself.

We stopped and rolled down the window as an armed man in a helmet and full camouflage uniform peered in. “Hi… we’d like to visit the cemetery” I said in what I hoped was a casual tone.

“My daughter is just crazy about history” my mother added nervously, attempting to provide an a-political motivation and pass me off as a harmless eccentric.

“Sure, we just need to search your vehicle, ma’am. Could you please step out?”

Our automatic nervousness was perhaps unwarranted in the end; after using mirrors to look under the car and doing a brief search inside, the soldiers pleasantly gave us a brochure with a map of the grounds and some historical information. Reassured, we proceeded through to a parking lot. The cemetery was just through the checkpoint, bordered by a busy road and a large US Army War College sign.

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It was clear that the cemetery has had visitors, from the presence of shells, sage, feathers, and other respectful remembrances on some of the graves. Some of the gravestones have names, an ethnic affiliation, and dates– others are ‘Unknown’. The affiliations are from all over the country, from the southwest to the north, all the way to Alaska.

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Each stone has a cross carved in it, and a plastic flower stuck in the woodchips in front of it. A sign in the cemetery reads:

“This school was the model for a nation-wide system of boarding schools intending to assimilate American Indians into mainstream culture. Over 10,000 indigenous children attended the school between 1879 and 1918. Despite idealistic beginnings the school left a mixed and lasting legacy, creating opportunity for some students and conflicted identities for others. In this cemetery are 186 graves of students who died while at Carlisle.”

186 is a fraction of the students who actually died there, as many were returned to their place of origin and records are often incomplete (the Truth & Reconciliation report found that 1 in 25 children died in Canadian schools). Another sign informs that the cemetery was originally in a different part of the campus, and was moved here in 1931.

Driving around the campus there were signs on several buildings (still in use by the college) noting that they had been built by students at the Indian school.

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I couldn’t help but wonder what the experience of a ‘student’ from Alaska would have been like, arriving to build a brick building in the humid Pennsylvania summer, being given English-only orders. I wonder if there were any other students who spoke his language? I wonder how old he was and what his last words were when he passed away in September of 1905? Who was with him, and what were the last words that he heard? How (and in what language) was his family informed? And how long before “mainstream culture” (as the official sign would have it) tries to erase this event entirely under the shadow of new aggressions?

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