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Experiencing the Carlisle Indian Boarding School Cemetery

    Carlisle Indian Boarding School Cemetery

    On The Road To Carlisle, PA

    The time is 3:30pm on Sunday the 28th and I’m itching to get on the road to the Outer Banks where one of my closest friends is getting married. I just looked at the route to the wedding two days before and saw that the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was on the way. I felt this was an opportunity to witness what I had only learned about 18 months prior, but has since had a profound impact on my personal journey. I wanted to get there before the sunset so I could get dusk photos, however that didn’t happen. I could make all the plans I wanted, but it was our Creator and ancestors who were guiding my steps.

    I arrived to Carlisle, Pennsylvania after 9pm and I was beat. The trip down there was intense regarding trying to not stop so much for bathroom breaks and scenic photos. I was also white knuckling the steering wheel most of the time because for one, my breaks were sounding and feeling really bad and I was going through mountains with cliffsides and river valleys, and two, many of the roads through the mountains ended up being incredibly dark and narrow roads with houses separated a distance from each other and my GPS kept going in and out. I couldn’t help but think about the children who were torn a part from their families and taken through these woods and mountains and river valleys, all to get to this school I was about to arrive at also.

    When I First Learned About Residential Schools

    The first time I heard about Carlisle was through a documentary screening for “Home From School: The Children of Carlisle“.

    Video Source: The Carlisle Sentinel – YouTube

    I was blown away by learning this information and then mass graveyards began being found in many residential schools all over Turtle Island. The Department of the Interior began an investigation that has identified over 500 deaths at 19 schools, though the Interior Department said that number could climb to the thousands or even tens of thousands. The federal investigative report can be read here.

    Children came from all corners of the country by the thousands. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened with one mission and that was to “Kill the Indian. Save the man.” Words by Captain Richard Henry Pratt in a speech he used the now well-known phrase to describe his philosophy of assimilation.

    Indian Reservations and American Indian Boarding Schools, 1892
    Map of Indian Boarding Schools 1892
    Image Source:

    Haskell Indian Nations University

    My Grandma attended Haskell, that once served as a Native boarding school and is now a university that focuses on maintaining Indian culture and traditions. Haskell opened in 1884, and was called United States Indian Industrial Training School. In 1887, the school was renamed as Haskell Institute and in1935 it was classified as a vocational-technical school. For years the school focused on assimilating Native people, until the 1960s, then students and activists wanted the school to better serve Native Americans and Indian Country. My Grandma attended high school at Haskell and graduated in the early 50s. Up until the 60s, they operated on a similar model to Carlisle Indian Industrial School. In the 1990s, my Grandma brought me to Haskell. I don’t remember why, but it just so happens that I have a picture of me outside the Haskell sign as a kid.

    Addressing Intergenerational Trauma

    From the folks at the Carlisle Indian School Project, “Carlisle closed in 1918, but its legacy and that of the many boarding schools modeled after it continues to impact Native American families today. From the generational impact of trauma to the loss of cultural identity, many Natives today still feel the pain of Carlisle.” My Grandma attended Haskell, and it was once residential school that was modeled after Carlisle. What was taught at Haskell was how to be Anglo-American. “Boys were taught skills in trades common to their mostly rural and small town environments of reservations such as woodworking and other trades. Girls studied cooking, sewing and homemaking.” Because the school was modeled after the semi-military system of the Carlisle Indian School, students wore uniforms to enforce conformity and end tribal identification. Hair was cut and children marched to classes. They were often punished if they spoke their own language or if they failed to follow the rules of the school. Many kids were emotionally, physically, mentally and sexually abused. At least 103 children died while attending the school.

    My Grandma was in active recovery for as long as I can remember. I do know as a child, my mother had threatened that she wouldn’t be able to see us kids anymore if she didn’t stop drinking. Grandma took me to my first AA meeting and my mother took me to my first Al anon meeting. I never stopped to think or ask “what happened to you” and now, the more I learn about residential schools, the more I am learning how intergenerational impact has impacted me and the generations that came before me. I am learning that I have the power to heal, recover, and change the course of history.

    A Visit To The Cemetery On Memorial Day

    The Carlisle Indian Industrial School Cemetery

    I knew I had to visit the school while I was on my way to visit my friend. The next day was Memorial Day and as I arrived to where my Google Maps directed me, I showed up on Jim Thorpe Rd. The white headstones were all the same size, shape and color and lined up. They were peeking through black tall iron bar gates. A historical sign for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was on one side of the street, and the cemetery on the other. I go take photos of the Jim Thorpe street sign. He is significant because he is a Sac and Fox, like me, although from a different band, he also attended Haskell, he is one of the greatest athletes of all time, and he has a movie coming out about him produced by Angelina Jolie.

    Jim Thorpe Rd Street  Sign

    I crossed the street to peek through the cemetery gates. It was being monitored by the military. I hadn’t done my research ahead of time to realize that I was going on a base and that this was ran by the Army or knew that I would have to have a background check before walking through the gated entrance. Once I was cleared to go in, I was able to get up close and personal with each headstone in that yard.

    Before entering there was a boulder that described the cemetery and that these children were part of a different graveyard and they had been relocated to this space. The school was no longer standing and the guard who did my background check didn’t know much about the school, the cemetery, or Jim Thorpe, and they didn’t have any brochures or information about the historical site.

    Empathy And Grieving The Children

    It was 7:30 in the morning when I finally arrived to the cemetery. It was slightly overcast but it was perfect for some dramatic photos. I was grateful to have made it on Memorial Day and though it was ironic, I quickly realized it was because I arrived on Indian time. I was taken back by all the gifts and sage and other items left behind for the children. I felt overwhelmed with emotion as I read the names and nations of those who had headstones identified and felt even more emotional over the ones who were labeled as Unknown and prayed that all of the children would someday make it home. I got overwhelmed thinking about my ancestors and then my children and what it must have been like for the parents and the children who were separated. I get overwhelmed watching documentaries now but they were movies. This was in real life and I was standing on hallowed ground, above spirits that their mamas and papas and siblings were crying out for. I was there on Memorial Day and I wondered who else would come to visit on this day. I hoped someone would and by the looks of all of the little trinkets left behind, I believe someone else did.

    During my visit I had to pause and reflect several times. My heart was aching with grief yet I was also experiencing awe. I had only learned about this place 18 months ago, but it has had a significant impact on my journey thus far. The more I learn about residential schools, and the more I go through my Grandma’s albums and letters and notes, I am discovering more of who I am and why I am the way I am. I’ve never been a fan of going to school myself, as I was teased for being Native and disciplined if I questioned history or chose not to stand to pledge allegiance to the United States. I carried that resentment through present day and now I’m trying hard to forgive and allow myself to heal. I didn’t want my kids going to school because I believed they were being trained up in a way that was more military style than based on the child’s learning needs. I fought my husband while pregnant about whether our kids would be homeschooled or not. They have done both homeschooling and gone to school and I’m still struggling with curriculum and how children with special needs get the attention they need. I am learning what integrational trauma is and understanding how I have the ability to break generational curses that were bestowed upon my ancestors hundreds of years ago.

    Gratitude And Hope

    Today I am grateful to have visited the cemetery. I’m grateful the children had someone there to keep them company and let them know they are worthy and they are loved and they are missed and are being sought after. I am grateful that I felt the presence of my Grandmother with me and that I am starting to learn more about who she was and how much alike we really are. I’m hopeful that someday with the increasing visibility of Indigenous people, initiatives and issues, that these children will return home someday.