This Month in Lakota History - September

September is the month when many children go to school. But September is also the month when a well-known American Indian boarding school closed. The United States Indian Industrial School, commonly called Carlisle Indian School, had officially opened on November 1, 1879, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was founded by U.S. Army Captain Pratt, who served as superintendent until 1903. His famous educational motto was, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” by which he meant forcibly erasing all vestiges of tribal culture in the children. Carlisle Indian School, the first federally-funded boarding school for American Indian students outside an American Indian reservation, closed its doors on September 1, 1918.

The first students at Carlisle Indian School were Lakotas from Rosebud and Pine Ridge Agencies in the Great Sioux Reservation. To attend their first day of school, they had to travel by horse or wagon from their homes to the Missouri River, then go by steamboat and train to the Carlisle depot, and then walk the final two miles to campus. Their four-day journey was an ordeal for middle and high school age boys and girls, most of whom did not speak English.

The first student through the campus gate in 1879 was Luther Standing Bear, a 10-year old Sicangu Lakota boy from Rosebud Agency. Nearly fifty years later, in his book, My People the Sioux, he recalled making the decision to leave his home and go east to Carlisle: “I was thinking of my father, and how he had many times said to me, ‘Son, be brave! Die on the battle-field if necessary far from home. It is better to die young than to get old and sick and then die!’ When I thought of my father, and how he had smoked the pipe of peace, and was not fighting any more, it occurred to me that this chance to go East would prove that I was brave if I were to accept it.” 

Standing Bear recalled that, in 1877, just two before he went to Carlisle, Crazy Horse visited their home. “He was a little man of slight build. He did not carry anything with him, and he was dressed very poorly. There was nothing ‘fancy’ about him in any way.” The next day, September 5, 1877, in U.S. Army custody, a soldier ran his bayonet twice into the back of Crazy Horse, mortally wounding him.

Twenty-two years and two days earlier, on September 3, 1855, the United States Army massacred innocent Lakota children, women and men at Blue Water Creek, near the present-day town of Lewellen, Nebraska. Eighty-six persons were killed by the U.S. soldiers that day under the leadership of General Harney, approximately half of them children and women. After surviving that atrocity, 70 non-combatants, mostly children and women, were taken as prisoners and force-marched 137 miles to Fort Laramie. 

Perhaps Standing Bear’s father had these September killings in mind when he told his son to be brave and, if necessary, to die fighting for the people. Standing Bear remembered thinking after the first night of his long journey from his Rosebud home to Carlisle Indian School: “It did not occur to me at that time that I was going away to learn the ways of the white man. My idea was that I was leaving the reservation and going to stay away long enough to do some brave deed, and then come home again alive. If I could do that, then I knew my father would be so proud of me.” 

One other important September event that occurred during the lifetime of Standing Bear’s father was the signing of the first Fort Laramie Treaty, on September 17, 1851. Together with the killing of Crazy Horse, the Blue Water Creek Massacre, and the closing of Carlisle Indian School, these are the major September events in Lakota history.

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)