RadioLab “American Football” Podcast: Carlisle Indian School Abuses and Football as an Expression of Humanity

Guest Commentary

Superbowl Sunday is upon us and, as I winded down last night, I scrolled through the news headlines from around the world. Along with what’s going on in Washington and abroad, there was also a number of features on today’s game – stories of Marshawn Lynch’s off-the-field demeanor and predictions of who will come out on top. I also found that NPR’s RadioLab Podcast produced a story entitled “American Football” and started listening, hoping that it would break the crass consumerism that tends to come to a yearly climax around this event.

To my surprise, however, the countercultural stories explored in this episode led me to a misleading account of the experiences of Native Americans and the realities of the Carlisle Indian school.

I should mention, I am a longtime listener and have always enjoyed RadioLab for in depth explorations and commitment to the highest standards of integrity in storytelling. Podcasts like RadioLab and This American Life, as well as emerging series such as Serial and Invisibilia are often the center of productive conversations with my wife and friends.

So, when listening to the first part of this week’s episode, entitled “Ghosts of Football Past,” I was filled with puzzlement and came to an unsettling feeling –does RadioLab even know what happened at Carlisle Indian School? It were as if I had just listened to a story about Jewish prisoners at Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, and was only told about the prisoner’s interest in the game of chess.

For the record, I am not Native American. I am, however, a human being – one interested in acknowledging wrongs of those who came before us and who believes that we must hold ourselves to standards of justice and truth. I finished the podcast disturbed that RadioLab opened up the suggestion that the Carlisle Indian School had, in some way, contributed to the wellbeing of Native Americans.

This why I write this article.  

Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich visit the Carlisle Indian School, in Carlisle, PA, to trace the beginnings of the game – its twists and changes, the emersion of the modern game we now know today, and the conception of aerial passing. At the site of the first thrown spiral, those in the audience that September day “may have noticed something that they never had before: a ball traveling through space traces a profoundly elegant path – they may have noticed something else, that it was beautiful.”

carlisle_012215_indianschoolAt the Carlisle Indian School, many founding innovations of football were born. Jad and Robert took us to 1882 to hear about these beginnings, back to the founder Col. Richard H. Pratt’s public mission to “kill the Indian, [and] save the man” and his tormented legacy of wanting the “best” for Indian youth, while at the same time being a stage-setting force in brutal cultural assimilation policy.

To be fair, “Ghosts of Football Past” does mention the complexity of the mixed legacy of Carlisle; suggesting, “for all his [Pratt] forcible assimilation methods, which remain truly cruel and destructive, he truly believed in the concept of racial equality” and “on the one hand, there were truly students who thought Carlisle was a prison… kids would even set fire to the buildings.” It doesn’t, however, forcefully underline the sordid role that this school plays in the tearing apart of a proud and powerful people.

In terms of football history, Jad and Robert describe Carlisle Indian School as progressive and liberal, though in terms of the important lens of morality, there should be no question where Carlisle falls – it is a physical space that represents of the most cruel and inhumane periods of American history, one that caused suffering and death and has led to decades of dysfunction, alienation, and sadness.

Carlisle Indian School plays a central role in the genocide and cultural assimilation of our Native brothers and sisters – a process that continues today through acts of racism and prejudice. Not to mention issues over NFL mascots and the ongoing insensitivity of certain team owners and fans.

Understanding “Ghosts of Football Past” without the proper historical and cultural context can be deceiving and detrimental. Allow me to address the downplaying of genocidal practices of the Carlisle Indian School by noting assertions made in the episode, followed by contextual information.

The podcast begins in 1882 and continues through to 1907 – Carlisle was open from 1879 to 1918. Two points taken from the “Ghosts of Football Past” episode that will be addressed further are: (1) native children and families chose to go to Carlisle Indian School and (2) children “forgot” their language.

  1. Native Children and Families Chose to Go

Jab (host): Pratt basically made that pitch, “kill the Indian, save the man”, not just to congress but directly to American Indian families all over the country.

Robert (host): I want your son? How does that work?

Barbara Landis (Carlisle Indian School Biographer): I want your children because white people are going to keep coming… they want to settle in your lands, they want to take your lands, and you need to learn how to deal with these people, so we need to teach your children how to speak English,

Jab: we need to teach them how to communicate with the white man […]

Joe American Horse (Chief American Horse’s grandchild): “He [Chief American Horse] had the idea to try to send his kids to school so they can intermingle, intercept or whatever.

Jab: Basically Joe says that his grandpa had this realization.

Joe: We cant go back, we have to go forward.

Jab: And it seemed to him that Carlisle was the way forward.

Native children were taken and placed into boarding schools like Carlisle. In 1895, 19 Native fathers from Arizona were sent to Alcatraz for refusing to send their children. Boarding school policy was formalized under President Grant’s Peace Policy of 1869, allowing Federal funds to organize schools on reservations. Carlisle became the first off-reservation school. This means it was Federal policy for Native children to be sent to boarding schools, not a civil conversation between a military colonel and Native families (as suggested).

Carlisle Indian School was located in an isolated area of central PA. At the boarding schools located on Indian reservations, children would escape to easily and return home.

In terms of displacement, by the time Carlisle opened, Sioux land had been diminished to nearly 90% of its original 134 million acres – prior to1851 the Sioux roamed free. Today, there is less than 9 million acres, 6% of its original size.

Death at Carlisle. In Carlisle’s 39-year history, more students died than graduated. Allow me to repeat: in the nearly 40 years of the school’s existence, more students died than graduated. Only 158 students graduated (Hunt 2011) and, in the Carlisle graveyard, there are 186 graves of Native students. These graves, of course, were only of Native students on record.

“It was a little bit like walking among ghosts,” suggested host Robert while he and Jab walked onto the Carlisle football field. The original cemetery was right next to the field and was later excavated and moved so to construct additional buildings and a parking lot. The remains of the Native children were relocated to the furthest corner of the grounds, far out-of-site of the original school.

I would suggest that it is not the “ghosts of football past,” as the title of this episode indicates, that Robert was sensing; rather, it was the spirit of many indigenous Nations who’s children were taken, who’s culture was brutally beaten out of them, and who were made to feel as if they were savage and subhuman.

  1. Children “Forgetting” their Language.

Jab (host): Joe American Horse said that his family saw that transformation first hand,

Joe (Lakota): “Sophie was there in Carlisle for five years and when she came back, she looks like a white woman. She had a real tiny waist and a bonnet and everything, and she can’t speak Lakota”

Jab: She forgot?

Joe: Uh huh.

Children at boarding schools were forbidden to speak Native languages, wear their customary clothes, eat traditional food, and practice native religion. This was reinforced through physical punishment – even contact with family members left back home and with siblings at the same boarding school was a punishable offense.

The notion of “forgetting” your language, as Jab suggests, takes on a different spirit when you realized she would have been beaten and tortured if she would have attempted such a thing. Physical and psychological abuse and violence were common amongst Native boarding schools.

Allow me to give excerpts from Andrea Smith’s (2005) book “Conquest”: “Some colonists supported boarding schools because they thought cultural genocide was more cost-effective than physical genocide… Administrators of these schools ran them as inexpensively as possible. Children were given inadequate food and medical care, and were over-crowded in these schools. As a result, they routinely died from starvation and disease” (37-38).

Native Americans were not permitted to express themselves. Native religions were forbidden under Federal “Civilization Regulations” in 1882, making those who engaged in traditional rites liable to be imprisoned, facing jail time of up to 30 years. Natives were not permitted to pray at their sacred places and many practices became extinct (Zielske 2010).

This is to speak nothing of the rampant sexual abuse, sterilization, medial experimentation, and torture. In 2001, the Canadian Truth Commission on Genocide concluded over 50,000 Native children were murdered through the boarding school system.

The Native American did not choose to “forget,” they were forced to forget, they were forced to leave their ways behind.

* * *

Native Americans have resisted and endured for two centuries of violence, genocide and cultural annihilation. The RadioLab episode “American Football” highlights a few of the ways that Native Americans have made the best out of terrible situations.

This is where Gerald Vizenor term “survivance” is useful. Survivance combines survival, resistance, and endurance; it is an “active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry” (Bernet 1993: 144).

Natives constantly renegotiated how to survive in the face of repression and colonialism, “Back in those days you’re talking about survival over here,” said Joe American Horse in the episode. This notion explains how Eric Anderson (professor from Haskell Indian University) closes the “Ghosts of Football Past” segment: “Clearly its more than a game, the stakes are higher than that, will we as Indian people be accepted on our own terms? And also in our ability to meet you half way, will we be accepted through this as the vehicle? It’s clearly more than a game.”

Just as football is more than just a game, RadioLab is more than just a radio show – it is more than just sharing stories. These are important ways that we expend our time and energy, ways in which we express who we are and how we are.Football and RadioLab are meaningful ways we can express our humanity. In order for this to happen, honest and open explorations of history are needed.

Thank you RadioLab for shining light on this complex legacy and as an avid listener and continued fan, we look to your example to maintain the high standards of justice.

 Justin de Leon is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware and his research focuses on militarization and security from indigenous perspectives. He is a documentary filmmaker and former Rotary World Peace Fellow. 

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