Carlisle Indian Industrial School

Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide: Day 8

Carlisle Indian Industrial School

“The people at the school cut his hair and made him wear scratchy cloth shirts with buttons. They also gave him the name of Joseph and would not let him speak his Indian language of Lakota. He was a quick learner and a good student. Now that he was a man with his own place, he grew his hair long and wore buckskin clothes. ‘Carlisle wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t all good, either,’ he said.” ~ Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux

"Tom Torlino, Navajo, before and after"
“Tom Torlino, Navajo, before and after”

As they build the soddy for Tomas’s mother, Joe Squirrel Coat tells Tomas about his time at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Carlisle was the first of several off-reservation boarding schools begun in the late 19th century designed not only to educate but to assimilate Indian children. The founder of Carlisle, Richard H. Pratt, famously said:

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” (“The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites“)

The Pennsylvania Center for the Book has an excellent overview of the Indian boarding school experience, including the controversies and criticisms, and NPR’s “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many” offers more personal stories.

Carlisle’s Most Famous Student

Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympics
Jim Thorpe, 1912 Olympics

In 1904, the year when Tomas and his mother got their homestead and while, as we will later learn, Oscar Micheaux was working as a Pullman Porter, Carlisle’s most famous student was boarding a train for the Indian boarding school. His father’s last words to Jim were “Son, you are an Indian. I want you to show other races what an Indian can do” ( study guide).

Jim Thorpe would go on to be named an All-American, to win gold medals in the 1912 summer Olympics for the decathlon and pentathlon  (later stripped amid controversy about his amateur status), and play professionally as both a baseball player and football player, with a two-year stint on a traveling basketball team. He is widely considered as one of the greatest–if not the greatest–athlete of the 21st century.

The study guide for the documentary Jim Thorpe: The Greatest Athlete of the 21st Century addresses a question that some readers may have about Oscar’s Gift: Why is the word “Indian” used instead of “Native American”?

“How should the descendants of the Americas’ pre-Columbian inhabitants be referred to: as Indians? Native Americans? Aboriginal nations? First peoples?

In the United States, the most frequently used terms are ‘Indian’ or ‘American Indian’ and ‘Native American.’ However, ‘Indian’ and ‘American Indian’ are most favored by native peoples. That preference is reflected by the fact that the two most widely distributed native newspapers are News From Indian Country and Indian Country News. Further, the name for the new national museum in Washington, D.C., chosen after consultation with tribal representatives, was not the National Museum of the Native American but the National Museum of the American Indian.

There are several reasons for this. Because there are hundreds of different indigenous languages spoken by the first peoples of what is now the United States, no one word or term from a single American language can be used to refer to all Indians. Even though the term ‘Indian’ is likely the result of a historical misperception, when Columbus assumed that the islands of the Caribbean were part of the East Indies, it has now been in use by both Native and non-native people for hundreds of years. ‘Indian’ also appears in treaties and legal agreements between various Native nations and the United States.

In fact, one could argue that American Indian is a more accurate term for referring to people of aboriginal ancestry than ‘Native American.’ Anyone born in North or South America, of whatever ancestry, might be called a Native American.”


Click HERE for the full Reading Guide.

Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook.

New Oscar Cover


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