Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In his celebrated 1702 book Magnalia Christi American (The Glorious Works of Christ in America), Puritan minister Cotton Mather described local Native Americans. “The men are most abominably slothful; making their poor Squaws, or Wives,to plant and dress, and barn, and beat their Corn, and build their Wigwams for them; which perhaps may be the reason for their extraordinary Ease in Childbirth,” he wrote. “In the meantime, their chief Employment, when they’ll condescend unto any, is that of hunting.”

Mather was not alone in his assessment of Native American culture. Numerous accounts by early European settlers echoed Mather’s estimation of Native American peoples, highlighting the differences in Native American and European gendered labor division. Such narratives constructed a gendered paradigm, situating Native American males as lazy exploiters and Native American females as overworked drudges. This perception continued through the late 19th and early 20th centuries as white reformers began advocating for forced Native American assimilation into white society. Central to this mission was the recalibration of gendered labor division.

When assimilationist reformer Captain Richard Henry Pratt established Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the Cumberland County seat, he did not solely focus on stripping students of their cultures by teaching them Anglo-American mannerisms, traditions and dress, Christianity and English. Pratt’s school was an industrial school, and the institution was structured around a curriculum “correcting” prescriptive gendered labor division in Native American communities in order to “uplift the Indian Race.” Special attention was placed on female students and their adherence to Anglo-American notions of women’s labor and true womanhood as they were viewed as the purveyors of culture within their respective communities.


Gendered Labor Division in Early America

Although both Native American peoples and European settlers divided their civilization’s labor based on gender, the ways in which each group constructed and understood such division greatly differed. According to early American historians, American Indians throughout North America generally delegated such tasks as farming, housing construction, food preparation, childcare and general home maintenance to women. Native men acted as hunters, gatherers and warriors in their respective societies. European settlers, conversely, assigned men the primary task of farming while women focused on taking care of the home and children.

As European colonists and Native Americans began to live alongside one another, they soon noticed the vast differences in the social organization of their societies. Colonists reported that the sight of European men in the fields, tending their crops, amused Native Americans so much that they often broke out in laughter. They believed such work was emasculating and dismissed it as women’s work. Likewise, as evidenced by Cotton Mather’s writing and other accounts by early settlers, colonists assumed Native American men were lazy because they did not see them working the land. The sight of Native women farming appalled European colonists. In 1824 one European settler explained that native women “were invariably the slaves of the men.” Such a portrayal of women as “drudges” and “slaves” stripped Native American women of their femininity.


Assimilationist Views and the Founding of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

More than 300 years after the first contact between Native Americans and European settlers, 19th-century Anglo-Americans held stereotypes of Native American labor divisions that resonated with those of their ancestors. Captain Pratt, a veteran of the Civil War and American Indian Wars, wrote extensively on the conditions and histories of American Indian peoples.

Pratt believed that it was Native American culture, not a hostile white society, that subjugated Native American peoples. He was not alone in his criticism of Native American culture. Many other reformers of the era agreed with Pratt’s stance that keeping Native Americans on reservations, immersed in their distinct cultures, was detrimental to any sort of “racial uplift.” Instead, he believed that Native Americans had to be stripped of their cultures and become a part of white American society. In an 1893 speech describing the reasoning for the founding of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pratt explained: “The Indians under our care remained savage, because forced back upon themselves and away from association with English-speaking and civilized people, and because of our savage example and treatment of them. We have never made any attempt to civilize them with the idea of taking them into the nation, and all of our policies have been against citizenizing and absorbing them.” In an 1892 speech he explained: “A great general [U.S. Army officer Philip H. Sheridan] has said that the only good Indian is a dead one…. In a sense I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian that there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” In Pratt’s estimation, it was the connection to their “backward” culture that kept Native Americans from entering “the civilized world.”

Notions of gendered labor division were central to Pratt’s critique of indigenous cultures. In an article published in the April 1881 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, he explained that Native American girls “from six years of age up to marriage are expected to help their mothers in the work. They are too valuable in the capacity of drudge during the years they should be at school to be spared to go. Another equally important obstacle is the fact that the girls constitute a part of material wealth of the family, and bring, in open market, after arriving at marriageable age, a certain price in horses or other valuable property.”

In a manner similar to Mather’s, Pratt stripped the young women of their femininity and their humanity through his depiction of them as nothing more than chattel to be traded and sold within their societies. Such notions of Native American gendered labor division framed Pratt’s curriculum as the founder and superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Reformer portrayals of Native American homes highlighted the importance of gendered labor. Reformers argued that Native American homes were filthy, smoke-filled, unhygienic, disease-ridden holes in which children died on a regular basis. This was best illustrated through a novel published in 1891 by the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Stiya: A Carlisle Indian Girl at Home. The novel tells the story of Stiya, a female student in Carlisle who had been away from home for five years. Over summer break Stiya travels west to visit her parents and is disgusted with what she finds. Her parents look to her like “filthy, uncivilized Indians.” The portrayal of Stiya’s mother as the drudge of her father, without a moment of rest, emphasizes the undermining of indigenous peoples through gender-prescribed labor practices. Moreover, the author scrutinized Stiya’s mother’s domestic practices throughout the novel, often describing Stiya’s parents’ home as “dirty”, “dangerous”, “filled with smoke” and “cramped.” The author also detailed the deaths of all Stiya’s brothers and sisters through illness and accident. Such depictions stressed Stiya’s mother’s lack of femininity, as she could neither take care of her children nor keep house. For these assimilationists, domesticity was something Native American girls could not be taught by their mothers as Native women’s housekeeping was backbreaking grunt work, not an artistic expression of their “true womanhood.”

Supported by many prominent 19th century Americans in addition to former abolitionists, Quakers and missionaries, Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School on October 6, 1879. It began receiving federal funding by 1883. The school was located at Carlisle Barracks, a vacated military base built during the American Revolution. As the nation’s first government-funded, off-reservation Indian boarding school, Pratt’s institution served as a model for similar schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Early on, Pratt decided to focus on schooling both male and female Native American youth. Often forced from their homes, students came from all over the country, representing various indigenous groups. From its founding until its closing in August 1918, hundreds of Native American youth attended the school.

Upon arriving at the school the matriculates were forced to hand over everything they brought. The items were burned in a ceremonial bonfire. They were bathed, given gender-appropriate haircuts and attire – military-style uniforms for the boys and Victorian era-style dresses for the girls – and assigned new “white names.” The male and female children were then placed in separate dormitories and shared rooms with children from different indigenous groups to force them to speak English once they learned it. They were to remain at the school for five years with limited contact with family.

In addition to the new and strange environment, students were directly impacted by lack of funding from the federal government. Food was scarce and poor in quality and variety. Furnishings were sparse.

Living conditions in general were found wanting. Illness and death among the children were common. Many of the children suffered from separation anxiety, depression, smallpox and tuberculosis that resulted in death because of inadequate medical treatment. The school’s cemetery holds the remains of 192 students, most of whom were Apache.


A Gendered and Radicalized Curriculum

Although the school was intended to train Native American children in both academic and vocational pursuits, Pratt made no secret that the institution was “primarily a vocational school for both sexes.” He did not see the need for higher education when it came to Native American students. These students were not being trained to enter white society but rather to serve white society as domestic laborers, nannies, cooks, blacksmiths and carpenters. As such, students would spend the first part of the day studying academic subjects. The school offered basic reading, writing, arithmetic, history and science to all students. The remainder of the day was spent studying a trade. The school provided more than 20 vocational programs from which pupils could choose.

The vocational programs were divided into male and female trades. Female students were limited to five vocations: cooking, housekeeping, laundering, nursing or sewing. Male students could choose anything from blacksmithing to carpentry,plumbing to shoemaking. Even though agriculture was the largest vocational department at the school, young women were barred from enrolling in the program. The administration wanted them to pursue a trade that corresponded to their gender within an Anglo-American framework and not “regress” to the labor their mothers performed.

Along with their extensive vocational and limited academic training, students participated in what Pratt called the Outing Program in order to supplement their vocational training. Through the Outing Program students spent their summers in eastern Pennsylvania and New England living in the homes of white families. While living with the family, the American Indian students worked for their white hosts, allowing them to further practice their trade and learn the customs of Anglo-Americans. Pratt and other reformers saw the program as particularly beneficial to female students because it taught them the art of Anglo-American housekeeping. In 1896 Girl’s Outing Program field agent Mollie V. Gaither explained, “The Indian girl comes to us from a home where her mother is the drudge and beast of burden, and if the daughter thinks at all on the subject she knows that this is the part expected of her in the life which lay before her; hence the most readily accepted training in our Indian Schools is that which is the province of nursery for true womanhood.”

The Outing Program was largely unsuccessful as many children were overworked and some reported that they were physically or sexually abused. For farmers, merchants and tradesmen, the Indians offered a source of cheap labor. Athlete Jim Thorpe’s first experience in the Outing Program was laboring on the farm of A.E. Bucholtz in Summerdale in eastern Cumberland County. Conditions were poor – he was made to scrub floors and eat alone in the kitchen – and so he ran away, back to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Despite unfavorable reports and complaints by students participating in the program, the issues of child labor and child welfare went unaddressed.


The Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s Legacy

Gendered division of labor became the battleground upon which notions of civilization and forced assimilation were decided. Pratt’s gendered curriculum continued through the early 20th century until the institution’s closing in 1918. The trauma experienced by many of the Native American youths was great and obviously ignored in the published literature put out by the school. Such stories included photographs of male and female graduates standing in front of their off-reservation Victorian-style houses, models of “true womanhood and manhood.” Unpublished documents, however, illustrate a different history of resistance and cultural preservation. Years after the school was founded, the administration sent out questionnaires asking alumni how they were progressing in life. These questionnaires were quite invasive, asking about the amount of money the individuals made, their level of hygiene and, in particular, the work they performed. In many of the returned questionnaires the respondents proudly and unapologetically admitted that they returned to their homes, and some individuals even critiqued the school system. In a very real sense, the scars of the American Indian boarding schools were deep and painful.


Caroline Radesky is a recent graduate of Dickinson College and PhD student at the University of Iowa. Her research now focuses the history of gender and sexuality in the late 19th century.