Ohio State nav bar

Daniel Adamson | Education and Sovereignty

Daniel Adamson | Education and Sovereignty

Photograph of man standing in front of a brick wall wearing a red sweater

About the Author

Daniel Adamson is an undergraduate research apprentice in the Global Arts + Humanities’ 2021-2022 cohort. Adamson is pursuing a major in history with minors in world politics and German. His research focuses on American political history, specifically regarding resistance and radical political movements. In the future, Adamson plans to pursue graduate study and a PhD in history.

Thousands of students seated in front of a white, two-story school house

Project Overview

By the time Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1979, residential schools were well-established in the United States and North America as assimilationist institutions. In some respects, Carlisle retained elements of older residential schools, including their emphasis on teaching English language skills and spreading Christian religious teachings to Indigenous students and communities. However, Pratt’s Carlisle School set a new model for residential schools, with emphases on relocation, military discipline and government administration, which proliferated after its founding. Abuses and coercion were common between older models of residential schools and Carlisle, as recent reckonings with the history of North American residential schools have demonstrated. While Pratt’s model of residential school administration and assimilation were hailed as visionary by white politicians and government leaders in his own time, the residential schools were part of a large-scale, settler-colonial program, intended to not only obtain Indigenous people’s territories but to replace their languages, cultural practices, social bonds and lifeways.

Carlisle as a Site of Struggle

In her article “Necropolitics, Carlisle Indian School, and Ndé Memory,” Ndé author Margo Tamez described the Carlisle School as a site of “necropolitical crisis,” in which sovereignty was expressed when institutions and groups have the power to decide “who may live and who must die.” By memorializing the violence Indigenous people experienced at the residential schools and “reclaiming their heritage and challenging white power structures,” Tamez argued, contemporary Indigenous people can overcome that necropolitical crisis and the institutional, settler-colonial “usurpation” of the past.

Engaging with the concept of “necropolitics,” Tamez made a strong case for efforts to memorialize the victims of the residential schools and to reclaim the linguistic, social and cultural practices the residential schools attempted to eliminate, as a way to “achieve social and economic justice” [1]. In this way, Tamez connected sovereignty to both territory and social and cultural practices. To obtain Indigenous people’s land and material resources, the state and its institutions attempted to eradicate the group ties provided by this “heritage”; to reobtain the former, contemporary Indigenous people must reestablish the latter. Therefore, according to Tamez, to be sovereign over their groups and territory, Indigenous people must also be sovereign over their social and cultural practices.


The goal of this research is to understand how the Indigenous people affected by the Carlisle school – the students and their families and communities – attempted to maintain this sovereignty in their own time.

Indigenous people’s accounts of Carlisle often included mention of resistance, on and off the school’s grounds. Notable examples included students’ clandestine usage of Indigenous languages on school grounds; communities hiding their children, whom government agents attempted to transport; and runaways, whose experiences have been powerfully represented by contemporary artists and writers. As Carlisle’s schoolwide rules mandated European dress and use of the English language, and government policies mandated the off-reservation transport of students to residential schools, these behaviors represented conscious acts of resistance. Indeed, these acts were done in reaction to widespread reports of commonplace deaths and tuberculosis outbreaks at Carlisle, as well as to preserve family and community ties and what Tamez calls “heritage.”

The period between 1879 and 1892 marked Carlisle’s establishment as a model for government-run residential schools and the use of education to progress an American settler-colonial project. However, these years were also marked by resistance by Indigenous people and groups to overcome a “necropolitical crisis” with the U.S. government and its attempted eradication of their social and cultural bonds.

Pratt’s system of residential school education was closely tied to the aftermath of the U.S. expansion and the U.S. government’s conflicts with Indigenous tribes between the 1860s and 1870s. In the wake of Red Cloud’s War in the Dakotas, and as conflicts between Indigenous people and increased numbers of white settlers proliferated throughout the Plains, the Treaties of Medicine Lodge (1867) and Fort Laramie (1868) tightened reservation borders but also envisioned increased efforts to assimilate the treaties’ signatories. Both treaties compelled tribes to send their children to government-constructed schoolhouses, as politicians and government officials began to suggest policies that “endeavor to conquer by kindness,” with social and cultural assimilation being the immediate goal. However, as scholar Jennifer Fear-Segal has demonstrated, total assimilation “into the body of…citizenship” was not assumed. Figures like Indian Affairs Commissioner Francis Walker envisioned a system of reform schools, intended to teach “industry and sobriety” that would enable Indigenous people to participate economically in American society; however, Walker urged that tribes be restricted to heavily policed reservations and that “tribal bonds” not be broken [2]. These government-administered, reservation-based schools, according to Walker, were part of a program to prevent Indigenous people from resorting to raids on railroads and infrastructure, out of desperation. However, even if reservation-based education allowed for some baseline of participation by encouraging Indigenous people to learn certain skills, “education had been made an integral part of pacification,” when it was combined with increased surveillance and restrictions on reservations [3].

After the Red River War of 1874-1875, education was again expected to play some role in the peace between the U.S. government and the Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes. However, now education was to follow Pratt’s preferences, rather than those expressed by Walker. Pratt was placed in charge of prisoners of war, taken from the tribes that fought the Red River War and imprisoned at St. Augustine’s Fort Marion. There, Pratt ran a sort of educational experiment, dressing the prisoners in military uniforms and placing them in classes in which they learned English, trades and art – all of which would mark the curriculum of the Carlisle School. Exhibiting his adult students to white visitors, Pratt eventually gained enough support for his programs to open a school at the Carlisle Barracks. Writing to military leaders like General William T. Sherman, Pratt suggested that his prisoners mastered language and trade skills so much that they could be enlisted in the U.S. Army; he suggested they could return home and spread their skills to their tribes. Between Sherman and Pratt, discussions even turned to how the Fort Marion students could be used as a police force, “against the lawlessness of their own people” [4].

As tensions between Indigenous tribes and U.S. settlers often became violent, Pratt expected education to alleviate them by providing Indigenous people the skills to communicate and even engage economically with settlers. Indeed, Pratt readily blamed the “hatred and greed” of settlers for the “lawlessness” he referred to and violence between the groups [5]. However, as Pratt’s curriculum demonstrated, there was still an expectation that Indigenous people bear the burden of adjusting to white settlement, rather than settlers adjusting their behavior to respect Indigenous people’s territorial and personal rights.

Unlike figures like Francis Walker, Pratt did believe Indigenous people could become American citizens and subject to constitutional rights as such. But Pratt also believed linguistic, economic, social and cultural assimilation were necessary first. Moreover, to be assimilated, Pratt suggested Indigenous people needed to be removed from the influences of their families, tribes and communities – a practice he credited for the education of his Fort Marion prisoners [6]. In this way, Pratt’s system of education prioritized and even benefitted further expansion by U.S. settlers. So long as Indigenous people remained unassimilated, they would be unable to work with white settlers and U.S. institutions, according to Pratt. This would lead to continued impoverishment and harm as Indigenous people were displaced, as well as violence as they attempted to resist displacement. Pratt’s often referenced doctrine, “kill the Indian…to save the man,” illustrated his solution: Indigenous people’s survival could be ensured by disconnecting them from what seemed to separate them from their white counterparts [7]. Not only did Pratt dehumanize Indigenous lifeways in suggesting this policy, but he effectively justified the removal of Indigenous people from their territorial, cultural and social ties. In fact, Pratt made this removal central to his educational system, evoking Tamez’s concept of “necropolitics” by staking Indigenous people’s survival on it.

When recruited students arrived at Carlisle, they immediately experienced many of the assimilationist policies Pratt had instituted at Fort Marion. As Luther Standing Bear described, as “the first boy inside” the school in 1879, the first days included choosing new names, receiving old military uniforms for clothing, haircuts and students’ first English lessons [8]. Rules regarding dress and English language usage were rigidly enforced. In fact, Jennifer Fear-Segal described Carlisle as a space of surveillance, citing the use of a centrally-located, panoptic bandstand and an invented figure called “The Man-on-the-Bandstand” – a Carlisle faculty member who observed the behavior of students and reported their misbehavior in the school-wide newspaper, Indian Helper [9].

Students varied in ages and tribal origin, leaving them relatively isolated at Carlisle. Although many students were children, some were adults who were held as prisoners of war; members of the Sioux, Lakota, and Kiowa were among the first students recruited and most well-represented at the school. While English eventually enabled these students to communicate, their early days at the school exhibited distinct, linguistic divides. Luther Standing Bear recounted that students’ ability to communicate with one another in English often required months or years of study and, as more students arrived in that interval, “we had a hard time to get along.” Moreover, requirements to learn a trade – “half school and half work” – meant students had less time to study the language, perhaps exacerbating the issue [10]. As a result, accounts of student life at Carlisle often featured heavy use of Plains Sign Language among students, when they met in impromptu councils to discuss issues or simply to communicate interpersonally. Originally used by tribes to facilitate trade between themselves, the sign language increasingly became a way for students to socialize and converse, without incurring punishment for speaking their first languages. Faculty at Carlisle were aware of the use of sign language between the students and, in some respects, were lenient toward students who used it. However, the school required the students to use English when communicating to their parents back home, further disconnecting them from their non-English-speaking families. Moreover, in many instances, Carlisle published accounts that praised students for writing to their families in improved English, while deriding Plains Sign Language for garnering too much reliance from students and preventing their education in English [11]. Still, Plains Sign Language remained a common feature of school life for Carlisle’s students.

By forming impromptu councils, Carlisle students demonstrated some elements of self-governance, and by using Plains Sign Language, they used a social tool that facilitated communication among their tribes in their home territories to facilitate connection among themselves at the school. For all its military discipline – and its disconnection of students from their families, tribes and one another – life at Carlisle spurred students to reclaim their tribes’ linguistic practices to make relatively autonomous decisions and socialize with one another. In the long-term, historian Hazel Hertzelberg argued, these practices led to greater intertribal awareness and cultural exchange at the residential schools, then ultimately to intertribal political efforts throughout the twentieth century [12]. In this way, students resisted a major aspect of Carlisle’s assimilationist and disciplinary regime by establishing linguistic and social bonds, drawn from their experiences prior to enrollment at the school.

As at all residential schools, disease and death among Carlisle’s student body was all too common and, often, not well communicated or disclosed to students’ families.

On the grounds of the Carlisle Barracks, 186 marked graves remain of Indigenous students who died while attending the Industrial School. The recorded causes of death were typically related to diseases like tuberculosis, contracted when students were transported to Carlisle or while they lived in the Barracks. Carlisle’s administration and faculty notified students’ families and tribes, but according to Luther Standing Bear, that communication could be delayed and late, sometimes even after students were buried. As Luther Standing Bear described, this delay was compounded by the “carelessness of the [U.S.] Indian agent at the reservation,” who might have received a timely letter but failed to pass it on to students’ parents [13]. As a result, Carlisle’s recruitment efforts were less effective; when recruiters arrived on reservations, parents refused to allow them to take their children to Carlisle. In some cases, students like Luther Standing Bear were deployed to their home reservations as recruiters. When Standing Bear returned to his reservation and discussed Carlisle’s benefits with his Sioux tribe, at one point, a man he called Sitting Around showed how he shaved his head in mourning for his daughter who died at Carlisle. In Standing Bear’s My People the Sioux, Sitting Around said, “My nephew, if anyone else from that school had come for more children…I would have killed him right here.” This was followed by another Sioux man saying, “If the soldiers should come and force us to give up our children, I will fight them alone, if you women are afraid of them” [14]. Although education was imposed as a major aspect of peace between Indigenous tribes and the U.S. government, the tribes and their families recognized the danger government-administered education imposed on their children.

Compulsory education, in which children were forcibly transferred to eastern residential schools, was not required until the late 1880s, so many parents did have greater autonomy in deciding whether their children would attend schools like Carlisle. However, after the passage of bills like the Dawes Act (1887) and the Compulsory Attendance Law (1891),  again, the seizure of Indigenous people’s territory and assimilationist education were heavily intertwined.

The Dawes Act “Americanized” Indigenous people’s landholdings by dissolving reservations and placing Indigenous families on allotments of land with individual titles. This policy was suggested by figures like Commissioner of Indian Affairs John H. Oberly, who aligned with Richard H. Pratt by suggesting Indigenous people were not being prepared for citizenship on the reservations; it was justified as making Indigenous people “industrious and self-sufficient,” while they were only “demoralized by dependence on the government dole” [15]. However, in practice, the Dawes Act ended the U.S. government’s last remaining recognition that Indigenous tribes held any collective rights to territory, meaning former reservation lands could also be taken by U.S. settlers and citizens. Since the allotments were often unsuited to productive farming, many Indigenous landholders were often in danger of losing them to debt [16]. As Indigenous groups’ claims to land were made ever more precarious, the U.S. government further imposed requirements for their children to be transported eastward to Carlisle and the rest of the rapidly-expanding, government-run residential school system.

Pratt’s system of education proliferated as his concept of assimilation and citizenship for Indigenous people did, too: it was assumed Indigenous people would lose their collective territory so they should instead learn to participate in the U.S. economy and its social and cultural life; their relocation and separation from their “old” lives was required to serve those ends. “Americanization” represented the final dissolution of the recognized legal rights to collective territorial claims made by Indigenous groups, with education intended to dissolve their social and cultural autonomy, as well.

Indigenous people’s resistance to these new government policies tended to center around a reclamation of their languages and social and cultural practices, citing dissatisfaction with the new economic, territorial and assimilationist policies imposed by the government. When government agents arrived in Indigenous communities to take their children, adults sent their children on extended hide-and-seek games to prevent agents from finding them. Many tribes also established their own schools, where students were taught traditional stories, skills and cultural practices [17]. Sometimes, as Jennifer Fear-Segal demonstrated, outwardly-assimilated leaders like Ogalala Sioux tribal court judge George Sword, synthesized Christianity with their tribes’ religious traditions, maintaining beliefs in their deities and afterlives [18].

At Carlisle, faculty grew frustrated with how students’ parents and tribes would use breaks and vacations, when students traveled home for weeks or months at a time to reconnect students with their tribal languages, religious and cultural practices. Government agents went so far as to suggest students would be better served if they spent their vacations with white families, with whom they could find a break from school discipline, but assimilationist expectations would remain [19]. At Carlisle, these frustrations were voiced in a book entitled Stiya: A Carlisle Indian Girl at Home, in which teacher Marianna Burgess portrayed a model Carlisle student beset on all sides by revivals of her Pueblo community’s dances, demands that she dress in Pueblo clothing, and the lack of English literacy in her community. Burgess claimed that the book was based upon her real observations, in which she asserted students returned home to families and communities that used unceasing pressure, coercion, shunning and even violence to make students act against their Carlisle education [20]. In reality, Stiya was an exaggerated, inaccurate account used by Burgess – who was also the writer behind the “Man-on-the-Bandstand” – to condemn deviations from Carlisle’s rules and regulations that occurred when students returned home [21]. Thus, Carlisle’s administration and faculty attempted to extend its rule over students’ behavior and practices to their own territories and homelives.

Stiya asserted that Carlisle students’ return to their tribes’ social and cultural practices reflected pressures and coercion they experienced in their families and communities. However, this assertion was inaccurate. Rather, these reclamations reflected continued poverty in Indigenous communities and a sense that the promises of assimilation were illegitimate. In Stiya, the main antagonist was a tribal governor, who Burgess portrayed as using a dance movement as part of a larger attempt to reassert older Pueblo practices. The titular protagonist resisted these efforts, sensing that her Pueblo community regressed to “follow the old Indian ways,” and experienced the governor’s violence as a result [22]. The account reflected the fears of Carlisle administrators and faculty, who often worried their students would only “go back to the blanket” when they left the school, or that they would be led “back to where they were before” [23]. As Luther Standing Bear demonstrated, “going back to the blanket” reflected residential school graduates’ lack of opportunity when they returned to their tribes and communities. Often, like Standing Bear, graduates only had enough skills and connections to work in ineffective Bureau of Indian Affairs offices, and income remained low for Indigenous people, despite the government’s desire to economically integrate them. By reclaiming their social and cultural practices, Standing Bear asserted, these students sought their “salvation,” after sensing their education led them to limited opportunity and further “subjugation.” After all, this education came at the great cost of disconnecting students from their communities and forcing them to adopt “the white man’s ways that are not [their] ways” [24].

Breaking with Carlisle’s teachings after leaving the school, Indigenous people effectively recognized assimilation for its costs, including how it disconnected them from their communities and tribes, rather than as a method to help Indigenous people peacefully transition into U.S. society. The government intended the latter, but without the material resources of their territory or of jobs where residential school training could be applied, Indigenous people sensed they were wholly powerless under the government’s regime. After graduating and returning to their homes, students were left to reclaim the practices that Carlisle forbade, as they contended with continued poverty and restrictions.

Assimilation became a tool for the U.S. government, as it sought to seize Indigenous people’s land. Through education the government claimed to allow Indigenous people to take part in economic life off their reservations, then to prepare Indigenous people for U.S. citizenship with training in English, religion, and trades. All the while, the government tightened and dissolved Indigenous claims to land, justifying it as part of this process of “Americanization.” Indigenous people therefore lost their ties to their social and cultural traditions alongside their tribes’ hold over ever smaller amounts of land. Moreover, the promises of “Americanization” offered no redress: Indigenous people became more economically insecure, and education did not improve those conditions. Rather, education threatened the safety and survival of many students, breaking their ties to their families and communities in doing so.

At Carlisle and in their home territories, Indigenous people resisted education within this system by seeking to reclaim their control over which practices and traditions they followed. At Carlisle, students covertly used Indigenous languages to circumvent a strict regime of restriction and surveillance, which enforced the dominance of the English language. Back home, parents sought to evade the threats of illness and restrictions on their children’s social and cultural ties by hiding their children from government agents and passing on their tribes’ skills and practices. As Margo Tamez suggested for modern-day Indigenous groups, during the proliferation of Carlisle’s residential school regime, Indigenous people attempted to reclaim their heritage in response to social and economic injustices – the attempted extinction of their social and cultural ties, as well as the reduction of their land rights and impoverishment. In sum, resistance to Carlisle and its model of residential schooling was an act of resistance against actions by the U.S. government to dissolve Indigenous territorial claims, and which threatened the survival of Indigenous people and groups.

[1] Margo Tamez, “Necropolitics, Carlisle Indian School, and Ndé Memory,” Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations, ed. Jennifer Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 233, 246.

[2] Jennifer Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggles of Indian Acculturation (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 4-5.

[3] Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club, 5.

[4] Richard H. Pratt to William T. Sherman, October 31, 1876, in Richard H. Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 176-177.

[5] Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 116.

[6] Richard H. Pratt to Thaddeus C. Pound, January 13, 1881, in Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 258-259.

[7] David Wallace Adams, Foreword, in Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, xi.

[8] Luther Standing Bear, My People the Sioux (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1928), 133.

[9] Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club, 207-211, 214-216.

[10] Standing Bear, My People the Sioux, 146.

[11] “A Letter by a Sioux Boy Who Knew No English When He Came,” The School News, January 1882, 2.

[12] Hazel Hertzelberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1971), 24-27.

[13] Standing Bear, My People the Sioux, 162-163.

[14] Standing Bear, My People the Sioux, 165.

[15] Edmund J. Danziger, Jr., “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America, ed. Charles W. Calhoun (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 177-178.

[16] Danziger, “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” 176-177, 180-181.

[17] Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club, 64-66; David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 212.

[18] Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club, 65-66.

[19] “Report of Hiram Price,” October 10, 1882, The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History, Vol. 1, ed. Wilcomb E. Washburn (New York: Random House, 1973), 333.

[20] Embe, Foreword, in Stiya: A Carlisle Indian Girl at Home (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1891).

[21] Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club, 227-228.

[22] Embe, Stiya, 60.

[23] Embe, Stiya, 60; Danziger, “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” 179.

[24] Quoted in Danziger, “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” 179.