The documentary 'Home from School' explores the dark legacy of Indian boarding schools in Pa.
The Centre Film Festival includes a screening Tuesday night of the documentary “Home from School: The Children of Carlisle.” WPSU’s Emily Reddy talked with the film’s director, Geoff O’Gara, about the topic of the film: a boarding school for Native American children that ran from 1879 to 1918 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. More than 10,000 Native American children attended the school during its nearly 40 years in operation.
Geoff O'Gara, thanks for talking with us about the film "Home from School."
Thank you, Emily. Good to be here.
So, "Kill the Indian. Save the man." That was the motto of the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, this boarding school for Native children. What did the school do to get the "Indian" out of them?
Well, let me give you a little background first on Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the school and where that phrase came from that he made rather famous, or infamous, I should say. Pratt was a military man. He'd served in the Indian Wars in the late 19th century. He did that and worked with various tribal members as scouts for the military, and then also with what they call the Buffalo Soldiers, Black soldiers who were recruited and served in the Army. So Richard Henry Pratt's conviction was, when he said, "kill the Indian in him and save the man," that Native Americans were as capable as European-Anglo children to learn and, you know, be effectively involved in society. But his idea of how you do that was to erase all the remnants of their own culture, their own history, and essentially teach them to be very much like the white children. So in a funny way, not funny at all, really, but in a serious way, he was a believer in the capabilities of Native Americans, maybe more so than a lot of others at that time in the late 19th century. But his idea of how to engage that was essentially to erase their own history and culture and turn them into the little model white citizens by putting them in uniforms, cutting their hair, taking away their traditional clothing, and, most essentially, not allowing them to speak their own language. That was kind of the core principle in the boarding school at Carlisle, and those that imitated it that sprung up around the country, primarily in the West.
Carlisle was the first off-reservation, Native boarding school. Some of these kids came days on the train all the way from the Western United States. Were their parents sending them? Were they abducted? How did they end up at the school?
It was a mixture of motives. There were some very coercive methods of getting children removed from the reservation or from their tribe to the school. There were, though, in many tribes, there was a motivation at their end as well, which was, they knew that they had to deal with this new culture. They knew that they had to deal with the government. And they wanted some of their children to have language skills. They wanted them to understand the shape of the culture, of the civilization, that was being imposed on them. So that they at the tribal end of things could negotiate with them, could get the best deal for their people possible.
And some of these Native children died at the Carlisle boarding school, often from diseases that they were more vulnerable to. In fact, 238 children died at Carlisle.
Yeah, and it's a number that is a little bit soft, because, as we found out when the Northern Arapaho went back to to retrieve the remains of the three boys that died there, some of those graves have a single marker and more than one body underneath them. I might add, too, that a lot of children when they got sick, they were sent home. So I think if you really wanted to crunch the numbers, you would find that a great many children who went to Carlisle died after they went back to the reservation. In addition, there's emotional deprivation. These are children who've been taken away. I mean, if you look at the pictures... You look at those faces, and you just think, well, there's a child who may have just traveled a week on a train, from a place he had never journeyed far from before and certainly never in a train, to arrive at a place where everybody is dressed differently. Everybody's hair is cut. Everybody looks differently. And then be expected to adjust. I mean, these are children. And their relatives today who went to retrieve the remains in the case of the Northern Arapaho, that was one of the first things they thought about. You know, what must it have been like for those children to have made that journey and to have arrived at this place, with no prospect of when they would go home? What was going to happen next.
And that story is one of the major focuses of your documentary, the Northern Arapaho tribe in Wyoming, who travel here to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to retrieve the remains of the three boys from their tribe who died there in 1882 and 1883. But the military, which now houses the U.S. Army War College there, tells them it's a historical site. Yyou can't have the remains. I actually want to play a clip from the promotional video about that struggle to get those remains back.
Yufna Soldier Wolf: We have letters from my grandpa who wrote here, and my dad who wrote here, my uncle who wrote here, requesting for our children back.
Dr. Jacqueline Fear-Segal: It is the first time, the very first time that any of the Native nations have succeeded taking ownership of this history and taking ownership of their students that they lost and taking them home again.
Millie Friday: We're not waiting no longer for anybody to come save us. We're gonna save ourselves.
Yufna Soldier Wolf: We're still rehashing this. Why can't we be focusing on science, math, engineering, you know. There's so many other things that we could be focusing on. But we can't do that until this has been... we've healed from it.
And the military did eventually agree to give them those remains for the first time.
Families have been trying for a long time to get the Army to release those remains. But Yufna [Soldier Wolf] and her crew at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, they just persisted. And every blockade, every hurdle that was put in front of them, they did it. But, you know, to the Army's credit, at least their eventual credit, they did finally say, "OK, you can come and take those remains, take those children home." And as Yufna says in the clip that you played, they're not just trying to kind of relive the past and talk about the greatness of the old days or anything like that. They're trying to resolve old issues that have caused pain and a kind of suffering within the tribe for generations, so that they can move on. And the ultimate hope that Yufna expresses over and over again, is children be free of those kinds of nightmares from the past, and able to look ahead and think, "What do I want to become, you know, I can be a lawyer, I can be a doctor, I can do all those things." So it's a matter of learning and then relieving the burden of that history so that they can have a future.
The screening of "Home from School" takes place Tuesday at 7 p.m. at The State Theatre or streamed online. Afterward, there will be a panel discussion with director Geoff O'Gara; Native American activists John Sanchez and Julia Whitebull; and Jim Fox, a survivor of the Indian boarding schools.
Tickets are free through the Centre Film website, but you must register in advance. The screening is sponsored, in part, by WPSU.