The Carlisle Indian School Student Publications as Government Propaganda

written by Frances Storey '22
edited by Joe Cataliotti '21 & Ava Cervini '24

“I will try hard to learn civilization white, because no more use for Indian civilization. I remain here, study hard. I get through, I return home, help you hard work. I was glad you want me to forget Indian ways”.[1]

From the arrival of Europeans in North American in the early 17th century, there have been various attempts to “civilize” the Indigenous population through education, religious conversion, formal treaties, and war. In the late 19th century, the United States policy towards Indigenous peoples shifted from extermination to assimilation. Policy makers saw education as their best chance to eradicate Indigenous culture, and day schools and mission schools began to open across the country with that goal. Off-reservation boarding schools, which removed Indigenous students from the families and homelands for months at a time, were the favored type of schooling, but they were expensive. The increase in Congressional appropriation for assimilation through education reflects this intent for eradicating Indigenous culture: from the end of the 1870s to the 1980s, the funds increased from $20,000 to $1,364,568, and the number of children enrolled increased from 3,598 to 21,568.[2] The most well-known off-reservation boarding school was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was founded in 1879 by Captain Richard Henry Pratt with 120 Indigenous students and the financial support of the Department of the Interior.[3]

The school was characterized by a half-and-half system in which the students spent half of their day learning an English curriculum and the other half laboring in various industries including tin-making, agriculture, and printing.[4] The students working in the printing office were responsible for reporting, writing, and printing weekly or monthly newsletters. Over the years, the school published various newsletters and pamphlets under different names, and while the students worked on the publications, the editing power lay in the hands of the school administrators. Given the expenses needed to maintain the school, the administrators were adamant on showing off their student’s progress in the best light. By the beginning of the 20th century the entire printing office was co-opted by school administrators who edited the articles to silence the voices of the Indian students in favor of promoting the assimilation policies of the federal government to the general public.

The evolution of this co-optation can be seen in the editorials in three different pamphlets throughout the 1880s and early 1890s. The first edition of School News was published in June 1880, and the editorial explains that the content was written by Indians alone: “We put every thing in this paper that the Indian boys write for us. Not any white man’s writing but all the Indian boy’s writing”.[5] The original intent of the pamphlets may have been to help students practice their English and learn printing skills, but as the school grew in size, the administrators began to insert their influence. The June 1883 edition of The Morning Star notes that the newsletter was “published monthly in the interests of Indian education and civilization”.[6] This newsletter differs from School News in that includes a mix of entries from Carlisle students reflecting their experiences and a copy of a letter written by Pratt to officers of the Indian Development at the Agencies. The takeover was not completed until 1891, when the January edition of The Indian Helper explicitly states that the newsletter was “Printed every Friday, at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, PA., by the Indian Printer Boys. The Indian Helper is printed by Indian boys, but edited by the-man-on-the-band-stand, who is not an Indian”.[7] This admission supports the idea that the administrators had the final say on all publications, and for good reason. The school sent out these monthly newspapers to local Pennsylvania newspapers, national newspapers, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and government offices, members of Congress, and anyone else who subscribed to it.[8] Therefore, it was important for these papers to display progress to garner support for the school from both the federal government and the American public for continued investment.

The publications reflect not only the progress of Indian assimilation efforts, but also a general rejection of Indigenous culture from the students in favor of American culture – regardless of whether or not these sentiments were felt by the majority of students. All of the alumni of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School have died, but there are a number of accounts that reflect student life and reactions. There were students who believed strongly in the school’s mission and sought to assimilate themselves in American society, but there were also students who were traumatized by the school’s policies and were never able to fully recover once they left the school.[9] The portrayal of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as successful in assimilating Indigenous students into American society not only validated the institution, but was also fundamental to its survival. What began as a way for Indigenous students to practice their reading, writing and printing skills turned into a propaganda machine for the school where the preservation of the school’s image was prioritized over the truth.

[1] The Morning Star. January 1884, Vol. 4, No. 6.

[2] Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1997, 26-27.

[3] Fear-Segal, Jaqueline and Rose, Susan. Carlisle Indian Industrial School. University of Nebraska Press — Sample Books and Chapter, 7.

[4] Adams, 149

[5] School News. June 1880, Vol. 1, No. 1.

[6] The Morning Star. July 1883, Vol. 3, No. 12

[7] The Indian Helper. January 30, 1891, Vol. 6, No. 21

[8] Beth A. Haller (2002) Cultural Voices or Pure Propaganda?: Publications of the Carlisle Indian School, 1879–1918, American Journalism, 19:2, 71.

[9] Adams, 281