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This Day in Labor History: November 1, 1879

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On November 1, 1879, the Carlisle Indian School opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This school, central to the genocidal project to end Native American culture in the late nineteenth century, was replicated across the nation. It and other schools sought to eliminate Native languages, religions, and cultures. Central to all of this was replacing Native ideas of work with those of white Protestants. Forcing Native peoples to work like whites, though without any of the benefits of whiteness, was central to stripping Native rights, transferring Native lands to white hands, and ending the long-standing work cultures that every tribe had, each of which different from the others.

Native Americans had complex work histories. Each tribe had its own work history. Take the Comanches for example. When the Comanches acquired horses in the late 18th century, they made a conscious decision to give up their own cultural norms and adopt new ways. A new, gendered system of work developed with the transition to horses. By 1750, Comanche herds had grown large enough that they began moving around specifically to care for them. This meant they needed a large territory strictly for horse foraging, especially because the lack of water and need for wintering grounds limited the number of destinations that could sustain large herds, even for a short time. They began to look more like the Mongolians than other tribes in the United States. As is common in pastoral societies, strongly gendered notions of work developed. The daily herding of the horses was the world of teenage boys. Each boy, according to an 1849 account of a Comanche village, herded about 150 horses, with the most valuable of them rounded up each evening for a night watch and the others left to roam. Men were responsible for the decisions around the pastoral economy, such as when to move. They also were the warriors, which they saw specifically as an act of production, fueling a market-oriented pastoral economy with the necessary raw materials of horses, women, and children.

The status of women declined in Comanche society with the new emphasis on war and horses, both male realms. Women were responsible for raising children, cooking, processing bison meat, and constructing tipis. That grew to processing the bison skins for the Euro-American market and helping out with the horse herds. The practice of polygyny, a marriage system where men have multiple wives, grew rapidly with the horses as wealthy men began to acquire large horse herds and then needed women to process the bison and herding. In other words, marriage became a way to enlarge the labor pool (observers at the time noted that these wives were really servants) as well as introduced a sort of class-based division into Comanche society, as obviously not all men could do this. In many ways, Comanche polygyny and Southern slavery both were responses to labor shortages arising from market production that rested upon patriarchal systems that reduced women to objects of male honor and militarism. Of course, the Comanche also took slaves, and although their system of slavery was much more fluid than the chattel slavery of the South, it was brutal nonetheless (rape and torture with the intent of destroying their will and American/Spanish/Indian cultures and making them docile workers) and again was related in part to their entrance into the market.

This all came crashing down with the destruction of the bison and the inability to thus resist white domination. Thus came the reservation system and then the Dawes Act, which stole more land from the tribes by creating the system of allotment that gave each person a small amount of land and then the government could sell the rest of it off to white settlers inside reservation boundaries. Again, the idea was to force the tribes out of hunting and into being small farmers, despite the utter unwillingness of most to do this and the unsuitability of much of the land for farming. For white Protestant America, farming land was the truest form of work and all the way back into the early colonial era, they had framed their contempt for the tribes in terms of work and “waste,” especially focusing on what they considered lazy Indian men.

The idea for Carlisle came from Richard Henry Pratt, one of the great villains of American history. Much to the consternation of his old friends William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, President Grant wanted to pursue a peace policy with Native peoples as much as possible. So he wanted to hold Natives as prisoners rather than just murder them in a state of war. Pratt was highly intrigued by the idea of retraining Indians to be as white as possible. Grant was too. So Pratt was given the opportunity to go to Fort Marion, Florida, where many Natives were being held prisoner and engage in what might charitably be called Americanization campaigns but what really should be considered cultural genocide. Pratt had powerful allies in all this, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. Of course, Natives resisted–everything from trying to escape to cutting up their white clothes. The violence of the U.S. military was the gentle reminder of who was in charge. Meanwhile, Pratt wouldn’t let these people, many of whom were some of the fiercest warriors of peoples such as the Kiowa and Comanche, major tribal leaders, from seeing their families or engaging in any of their traditions.


Following this experiment, Pratt was given permission to engage this on a large-scale. He went to the U.S. military instillation at Carlisle, Pennsylvania and started the notorious Carlisle Indian School in 1879. In this, he had a mission–“Kill the Indian in him and save the man” as he notoriously stated. And how was the man to be saved? He would have to renounce everything about being Native. Converting to Christianity was essential, as was learning English, dressing like whites, getting haircuts like whites, and a lot of manual labor. So was farming in a way approved by white Americans. Jeffersonian agrarianism was the way to go. Did it matter that the reservations were largely very poor and dry land not given to Midwest-style agriculture? Of course not. What mattered was that Natives stayed on the reservation, stopped hunting, and renounced all their religious ceremonies. And what was the solution for this friend of the Indian when Natives refused to do this and, say, speak their own language? Beatings. Starvation. Sexual assault.

Again, work was at the center of all this. In fact, its full title was the Carlisle Industrial Indian School. Not so different from the Tuskegee Institute, the idea was to create little agricultural and manufacturing laborers who would play low-level roles in an American economy as defined by white supremacy as everything else in the country. When young children were sent to the school, a life of hard labor under the clock began in an attempt to separate them from any sense of the ways of working they had from their heritage, which according to whites was not real work anyway. Boys worked in manufacturing, often supposedly learning trades in leather, wood, or metal. Girls leaned housework and domestic manufacturing. During the summer, school was not in session. So the kids were contracted out to white families, usually on farms but sometimes as helpers in stores or other enterprises. There, anything could happen. Sure, some kids were treated with respect and gained mentors tht would help them survive in a white society after they became adults. Others starved, raped, or murdered the kids. Jim Thorpe, to give one example, was starved and abused by the farmer who he worked for, so he ran away and eventually ended up back at Carlisle.

None of this created a labor system by which the kids would thrive as adults. The schools created adults torn between two cultures and often accepted by neither. Some became pretty successful. Most remained impoverished. If Indians tried to go into industrial labor, they often faced discrimination on the shop floor. If they went back home, they had often forgotten much of the language, had no work there, and could not engage in their people’s traditional work norms even if they wanted to. Alcoholism, suicide, and domestic violence rose. This was the legacy of the Carlisle Indian School.

This is the 413th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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