Carlisle Indian School’s World War I Soldiers

November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information on related resources. Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Founded in 1879, the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (generally called the Carlisle Indian School) was a federally funded boarding school for Native Americans. 

Nineteenth-century White attitudes led to a belief that the only way to “save” Native Americans from rapid population decline was to rapidly and forcibly assimilate them into White American culture. The Indian boarding school system, of which the Carlisle School was a part, tried to “Kill the Indian: Save the Man” with strict military discipline and policies such as changing the students’ Native names to English ones, and punishing them for speaking their Native language or practicing their religious beliefs.

Because Carlisle students wore uniforms, lived under harsh discipline, and learned military-style drills, they were considered desirable recruits for the armed services. When World War I broke out, students were encouraged to join the Red Cross, military industries such as shipbuilding, and the Armed Forces; about 90 percent of Carlisle’s male student population volunteered. Historians have identified over 200 former Carlisle students who served in the military during World War I, including many who were able to earn a noncommissioned officer rank due to the military training and education they received at Carlisle.

In the weekly issues of the school’s newspaper, The Carlisle Arrow and Red Man, Carlisle touted the patriotic achievements of students who served, sharing news of alumni such as “William Goode, who joined the Navy, is at Great Lakes, Ill.” 

American Indians were part of the first American combat units to arrive in France in 1917, and they fought in every major battle until the end of the war. Like many other Americans, they fought to prove themselves in battle and defend democracy, but they also fought to escape from the punishing rigors of Indian boarding schools and prove their patriotism.

They also fought for another reason: to become U.S. citizens. Until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, the federal government used the existence of separate nations within the United States on reservation land to deny many Native Americans the benefits and protections of citizenship. After the war, many Native Americans lobbied the federal government to reward their service and loyalty by granting them birthright citizenship. The Indian Citizenship Act changed the status of about 125,000 out of 300,000 American Indians who had previously not been classified as American citizens.

Carlisle Indian School closed in 1918 due to low enrollment and became the property of the U.S. Army. The Army transformed it into Base Hospital 31, which rehabilitated soldiers wounded during the war. 

From 1879 until its closure in 1918, more than 10,000 Native American children from 140 tribes attended Carlisle, often with little choice. The federal government justified forced removal out of prevailing White beliefs that Native American parenting practices were inferior to White ones, resulting in a multi-generational loss of culture and other untold damage.

 

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