UPDATE: I wrote a more recent reflection on this work for the National Humanities Alliance site, Humanities for All. You can find the article, entitled “Exploring the Carlisle Archive,” linked here:
Below is a portion of a talk I’ll be giving next month at MELUS on using archival material on the history of Native American schools, include Carlisle. In the rest of the talk, I discuss other secondary texts by Indigenous authors that use archival material as a primary source.
I gave an earlier version of this talk at the Digital Native American and Indigenous Studies workshop and received really helpful feedback which also contributed to the below post.
My initial attempts to incorporate archival work in the classroom involved reading various selections from the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center (hereby referred to as CISDRC). Carlisle’s founder, General Richard Henry Pratt, became famous for the school’s mission, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The saying signifies a change in Pratt’s approach from militaristic decimation to scholastic incorporation through erasures of Indigenous languages, cultures, and traditions. In a speech given in 1892, Pratt surmises, “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.” In other words, Pratt suggests, isolate the Native American child from his family and tribe, impose upon him the language, religion, and customs of dominant white culture, and he will then become capable of contributing to society, thus solving the looming question of what to do with “our” dwindling indigenous population.
Begun by Dickinson College in 2013. the CISDRC had only been around for two years in digitized form when I offered to pilot a lesson incorporating the student records into my curriculum. I introduced students to the archive and to Carlisle itself through supplementary firsthand accounts of Carlisle from authors such as Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Dakota) and Berenice Levchuk (Navaho) and a documentary film entitled Warrior Women about Lakota community organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk. Students also had assigned class readings of certain student files and publications of the time period put together by Carlisle teachers and students, such as The Indian Helper and The Red Man. Eventually, I instruct students to research the archive on their own by first finding one student and at least one element of personal connection—a shared instrument that both my student and the Carlisle student played, or someone who is from the same state or part of the country, for example.
Discussing her own experience with a digitized archive, Megan A. Norcia highlights how “technology enables students to find new meanings in old texts; offers a model of scholarly intervention in ongoing critical discussions; engages students of different learning styles by reinvigorating the writing and research process; and causes them ultimately to question how history is represented, framed, and processed in the present moment.” To say that all of this advancement occurs as a result of the medium is not a stretch. As much as the students and I discussed the contents of the archives, we also discussed the unstable nature of the archive and of archival research in general. They learn to see that the “official” record of history found in textbooks, government documents, and documentaries has been carefully edited, and is incapable of highlighting all perspectives, nuances, and experiences.
Buried within the archive’s minutiae, such as demographic information on a student information card that would make the CISDRC student records similar to other schools at the time, are often revealing alumni follow-up surveys indicating where the student has gone since leaving Carlisle. For example, over ten years after the school began enforcing Pratt’s mission in 1879, Shoshone tribe member Phillip E. Lavatta became a student there at age 17. Whether he chose to attend voluntarily or not is unknown; however, it is likely that, once he got there, he received the same treatment as other Carlisle students. As seen in John N. Choate’s photographs of fellow student Tom Torlino taken at his admittance in 1882 and then again three years later, Lavatta’s hair would have been similarly cut short, his more “culturally marked” clothing replaced with the standard Carlisle-recommended garb, which usually was Western civilian clothing or an Army green uniform. As another unwilling participant of a compulsory program to eradicate native cultures, he would have been forced to abandon his native language for English, answer only to his English name, and be placed with a white family rather than being allowed to go home.
Answering the questions on his former student survey, Lavatta took the opportunity to hold forth on his lack of rights as a Native American. Responding to the open-ended prompt of “Tell me anything else of interest connected with your life,” Lavatta mimics dominant rhetoric about Native American inferiority at that time, writing:
We have been having, and will continue to have trouble with gov’t officials regarding our “rights.” We are children and should not be taught to strike back in self-defense. We should be made to understand that whenever a mistake is made in Washington that it was the work of some “clerk.” …and still the cry in the Indian office is that the returned Carlisle student is a “kicker” – that is the name I have for now.
Lavatta’s reference to a “kicker” connotes in this instance neither a position on the famous Carlisle Indian School football team nor a member of the Kickapoo Nation, but rather appears to refer to the assumption of Carlisle students as rebels or protesters. Despite this reputation, Lavatta’s impassioned statement is quite unusual to see in the student records retained in the CISDRC given the straightforward nature of much of the information contained there. Lavatta ends the above diatribe in a jarring contrast typical of many of the student files when he concludes, “Could write more but will close, with best wishes for the school, yourself, and others under your charge. Respectfully yours, Phillip E. Lavatta, Pocatello, Idaho.”
The switch in tone could mean many things, whether it’s a mere recognition of the formality of letter-writing, or protection from the dangers that come with being a kicker or even with criticizing the school that may have treated one so harshly, and so on. It may also reflect the nature of the potentially conflicting experiences that Lavatta experienced there, a tension that was often difficult to pinpoint in the archive records themselves. Students found such expressions of personality and even protest to be the most exciting discoveries in the archive, however potentially suppressed, bowdlerized, and edited.
Overall, my students and I benefited greatly from what Susan Wells famously identifies as the “three gifts of archival work”: namely, a resistance to closure, a loosening of resentment (by productively facing the anxieties of our discipline), and finally, a reconstruction of the disciplines of rhetoric, composition, and—to Wells’ characterization I add—ethnic American literature, in order to “rethink our political and institutional situation, [and] to find ways of teaching that are neither narrowly belletristic [or solely aesthetic] nor baldly vocational.” Discussing her own experience with a digitized archive, Megan A. Norcia highlights how “technology enables students to find new meanings in old texts; offers a model of scholarly intervention in ongoing critical discussions; engages students of different learning styles by reinvigorating the writing and research process; and causes them ultimately to question how history is represented, framed, and processed in the present moment.”
To say that all of this advancement occurs as a result of the medium is not a stretch. As much as the students and I discussed the contents of the archives, we also discussed the unstable nature of the archive and of archival research in general. They learn to see that the “official” record of history found in textbooks, government documents, and documentaries has been carefully edited, and is incapable of highlighting all perspectives, nuances, and experiences.
 Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” 382.
 Norcia, “Out of the Ivory Tower Endlessly Rocking,” 93.
 These and other before-and-after photographs of Carlisle Indian School students when they first arrive versus their appearance several years after admittance are available at the CISDRC.
 “Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.”
 Wells, “Claiming the Archive for Rhetoric and Composition,” 58–60.
 Norcia, “Out of the Ivory Tower Endlessly Rocking,” 93.