Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Impossible Rhetorics of Survivance at the Carlisle School, 1879–1883

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Impossible Rhetorics of Survivance at the Carlisle School, 1879–1883

Article excerpt

The observers participated in one of the most treacherous simulations of the tribal heart, a dance in chicken feathers to please the missionaries. Would we have been wiser to denounce the child at the time, to undermine the simulations of the dance in the presence of the superintendent? We should have told the child then and there our honest reaction to his dance, but we were his audience of solace. How could we be the assassins of his dreams of survivance?

-Gerald Vizenor

I have no friends to write to. I had an aunt once, but the bears eat her up.

-Ernest White Thunder

On June 25, 1880, photographer John Choate captured the slate of a student named Rutherford B. Hayes. The top of the slate shows a series of words (apple, get, grew, all, trees). Below appears a short composition about a boy, Frank, in an apple tree who plans to give an apple to Ann. Next, a letter composed to the student's father, informing him that "this here at Carlisle all the boys and girls like very nice school some boys and girls read in book every day work hard." At the bottom, a series of equations appear next to a pictographic rendering of a warrior riding a horse. These inscriptions, erased for other lessons, have been preserved for 130 years in Choates print.

The slate is a snapshot of the processes whereby the Carlisle Indian Industrial School attempted to assimilate Native children into cultural norms of whiteness. Everything from the students assigned name to the composition about apples to the letter home indicates what, for Richard Henry Pratt and his colleagues, could "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." Simultaneously we glimpse another semiotic system-one that signifies in the student's culture. He depicts a horse, a technology of war introduced by the Spanish in 1540, and long since an integral part of life for the Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapaho, and other western tribes. While he learns alphabetic literacy then, this student produces pictographic literacy beside his newly acquired words. Just as his ancestors incorporated the horse into the fabric of tribal life, a student at school thousands of miles from home attempts to do the same with English.

This student's composition is not well known. He did not become a famous essayist writing against US colonization. He did not go on to publish a memoir of his time at boarding school. His ephemeral text is only preserved through the lens of a photographer who viewed it as a cultural curiosity. But if we want to understand how the history of composition has been intimately, even inextricably linked with colonization, then this student's work illuminates the complex processes whereby well-intentioned educators became tools for the dispossession and deculturation of Native peoples. In what follows, I enumerate the dynamic routes of assimilation and resistance at the Carlisle school. My goal is not only to emphasize the colonialist history of writing education in the United States but also to demonstrate how students found and exploited multimodal, embodied rhetorics to resist alphabetic literacy. Indeed, as scholars engaged in the teaching of writing today, we cannot ignore the past and ongoing assimilationist motives of writing education. By grappling with this history, we can refuse to be well intentioned yet complicit in ongoing processes of cultural erasure in our writing classrooms.

As I have pored over the texts produced during Carlisles early years (photographs,1 periodicals, letters, government reports, autobiographies), I have been struck again and again with the impossibility of what I find- students like Rutherford B. Hayes resisting and surviving the cultural genocide imposed upon him. For one thing, these are children still forming tribal identities. It is their youth and developmental stage that led the government to choose them for an acculturation experiment. The first students ranged in age from seven to young adulthood. For another thing, their texts are not only coerced but highly mediated. …

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