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A private liberal arts college with strong ties to the nation’s flagship Indian boarding school is looking to right a historic wrong by opening a center devoted to contemporary Native American and Indigenous studies.

Dickinson College, the first college founded after the formation of the United States, is just miles away from the site of the nation’s first federally funded off-reservation Indian boarding school, the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School. During Carlisle Indian School’s 39 years of operation under the direction of the Department of the Interior, the US government forcibly assimilated 7,800 Native American children from tribal nations across the country through a mixed-model of Western education and hard labor. Many children died of sickness—caused by disease, poor living conditions, and abuse—and were buried at the school’s on-campus cemetery.

When the school closed in 1918, the cemetery was transferred into Army control. The Carlisle Barracks are currently part of the U.S. Army War College, where more than 170 Native youth are buried under headstones that mark (and often misidentify) their names and their tribal affiliations.

Since 2017, tribal nations and lineal descendants have exhumed and brought home more than two dozen ancestors who were buried at Carlisle in a process many family members have described as the first step towards healing: repatriation.

Dickinson College — due to its proximity to the former boarding school, and its overlapping history — is taking its own steps to aid in the healing.

Earlier this year, the Mellon Foundation approved an $800,000 grant to fund the creation of The Center for the Futures of Native Peoples over the next three years. The man at the center of the center, founding director and Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies, Darren Lone Fight, a federally enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and a citizen of Muscogee Nation, spoke with Native News Online about the vision behind the center, how its location is tied to its teachings, and affecting change from the inside out as an Indigenous scholar. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Native News Online: Let’s start with an introduction. Who are you in your home community, who are you at Dickinson College, and who are you in academia?

Lone Fight: My name is Darren Edward Lone Fight. I’m a member of the Dripping Dirt clan, I’m a Child of the Low Cap clan, and I’m originally from Fort Berthold. I went to the University of North Dakota, and I got my bachelor's degree in philosophy and religion. I went to grad school for American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, where I took my master's and PhD. I have had a few different teaching gigs, including teaching at UMass during grad school and at other colleges in Western Mass. I took a visiting position at Tufts University in Medford, which is near Boston. From Tufts, I came here to Dickinson [in 2020].

As far as I’m aware, I'm the first Indigenous tenure track faculty that Dickinson College has had.

Tell me about the inception of the Center for the Futures of Native Peoples from the beginning. When was it dreamt up, by whom, and why?

So I came in 2020, and one of the first things that I did was write up this statement (about) what I'm here to do, and here's what I think the college should do. And here's the direction I think we should go.

(Photo: Daniel Loh)Darren Lone Fight (Photo: Daniel Loh)The Mellon grant was built up from a seven-page-vision document that I handed to our administration (when I came to the college). Part of that is because Dickinson College, unlike just about any other college or university in the country—with the possible exception of Hampton University— has a really deep and complicit history with the origination of federally funded off-reservation Indian boarding schools. The first sermon that was ever given at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was given by the President of Dickinson College at the time. Faculty at the college would pick up and transport students to and from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, sometimes to the Dickinson College campus. Some students quote-unquote ‘matriculated’ from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School to Dickinson College.

The school is a five-minute drive, at most, from the college. One of the reasons I took the job, frankly, was because there’s good work for Indigenous Peoples that needs to be done in Carlisle. But the other reason was (that) Dickinson College needs to turn towards that history. I came here to help lead them in that direction.

The Mellon grant came out of translating that initial vision document into a grant proposal (that we submitted in fall of last year).

So there are several different layers to the center and programming that will be offered there. What programming, classes, and opportunities will be offered there? 

Part of my job is to make sure that we're plugged in and giving back to tribal communities that have lost so much because of what this place represents and because of the support that this college gave to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. So as part of that, we have a tribal advisory council that I'm assembling of people who are not just academics, but leaders and other people of influence across multiple tribal nations who will help direct what the center should do.

There will be a physical location (for the Center for the Futures of Native Peoples) on campus starting next fall. That will include an office space.  I'm the founding director of the center, but I'm also the interim director at my own request, because we need a full time director for this. We're looking to hire (an executive director for the center) by the middle of the summer. I’m chairing that search committee. We'll also be looking to have a postdoc in the middle of summer, who will offer one class per semester as well as share their research with the college community once per year.

The other thing that we're doing is, we want to bring in— and already have—Indigenous scholars, Indigenous thinkers, Indigenous artists, for those that are interested in these topics. The idea is to have these mini-residencies be here for a couple of weeks, be in an academic community, share their knowledge, and gain knowledge. 

Can you talk about the name for the center?

I know that there's an irony here as a lot of the Center’s focus seems to come out of the Carlisle Indian Boarding School, but I'm significantly more interested in contemporary Indigenous culture, contemporary Indigenous politics, and Indigenous activism. I’m a forward-looking person, so the design of this is to be something that is looking ahead instead of only looking back. To take people out of this idea that when they see or think of an Indigenous person, they see a sepia tone Indian riding into a setting sun, probably on horseback.

We're not forgetting this past, (but) it's very important that this college turns towards its history. And I also think that it's very important that this country turns towards its history; and shoulders the burden of looking at it and reconciling with it. 

Can you speak to your decision to affect change from the inside-out, as it seems you're doing with spearheading the center, rather than deciding never to step foot in Carlisle because of this history that surely has affected your own family’s lineage? 

By 1920, something like 76% of all Indigenous Peoples in the United States had gone to a boarding school. So it's the lineage of almost any Indigenous person in this country. And of course, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was also the model for the residential school system in Canada.

Aside from the Lakota and the Dakota, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish (Arikara) were pretty heavily recruited, or kidnapped. We were on the other side of the tip of the spear when it came to the Carlisle project, as well as the federally funded reservation boarding school system that grew out of it. So it's close to home, and it's very close to my people's history.

My grandfather, Edward Lone Fight,  worked to help reform some of these formerly federally funded assimilation camps, which is more or less what they were, to make them more Indigenously serving.  I was born in Oregon, partially because he was at the Chemawa Indian School. It serves a very different purpose now, and he was one of the people that was working to help make that happen.

I don't necessarily see (the center) as a direct legacy of his work, but I certainly recognize that my grandfather was doing something similar, which was (to) try to figure out ways in which we could re-function something that has been damaging. 

Is there any connection between the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center and the Center for the Future of Native Peoples?

Absolutely. Jim Gerencser, the lead archivist of the (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center), is also on the search committee. One of the things that is built into the grant is also support for his digitization project, which I think is incredibly valuable. It's the central archive on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School that is available anywhere you are if you've got a computer, which I think is just wonderful.

Honestly, I think the center owes a lot to that project because that's been going on for about a decade now. They've been working diligently, slowly, sometimes quickly, but consistently, for that entire time, and it's been an incredibly valuable resource for tribal communities. 

I want to better understand how the program's location will influence its teachings. 

It's kind of inextricable. I tend to focus beyond the school, but it ends up being partially about that, it’s unavoidable. We want to help lead a conversation about how to turn towards this sometimes irreconcilable history.

So that seems to be central to the project. One of the things that the center is intending to do is also start initiating more conversations within the local community. So even though it is in Carlisle, my experience with people in the town is that the history of the Carlisle Indian School is ‘those Indians got a good education, and they had a great football team.’ There's still a very flat  understanding of what the Carlisle Indian School represented for tribal communities. 

Who is the center for, and what percentage of the Dickinson College student body identifies as Native? 

We've got 2,400 undergrads, and I would say less than one percent is Indigenous. I’ve had a total of 4 Indigenous students. It’s a very hard sell to say ‘Hey, do you want to go to school in Carlisle?’ I think one of the things that the center wants to do is to bring in more Indigenous students, but I'm very adamant that if we're going to do that, we have to bring them in as a cohort. They can't come in one at a time and feel like there's no place for them. 

Will the center cater exclusively to Native students, or will non-Native students participate, as well?

There's a lot of interest in Native studies. So the major and the minor are ultimately going to be serving non-Indigenous students. It’s just how it is because of the demographics of the school. So it's certainly going to be partially serving both students and the faculty and staff that we have in our college right now.

What is your vision for this center? What do you hope Indigenous communities can get out of it?

I would really like it if there was an entity in Carlisle that is actively and proactively looking to, while staring at that history, say ‘there are clear things that we can do to work against what was done.’ There's not really anything here for that.

There's not a strong countervailing force that has been formalized that is looking to do work with tribal communities, that is looking to take direction from tribal communities and looking to prioritize Indigenous peoples that are looking towards their future, while still influenced by this past. That's what's valuable about this (center).

I introduce myself in Hidatsa every day in my classes. That would have gotten me beaten not too long ago. (I want to) start challenging that history a little bit by kind of planting a flag, by saying, ‘We're here, we're back. But now we're on the teaching side. Now we're on the directing side.’  We're pushing to force the community and these institutions to stare at the past that we've had to stare at for so long. 


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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.