Portraits of American Indians Before and After Entering Carlisle Indian School

By | April 2, 2017

The Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania has boxes upon boxes of photos and archives from the Carlisle Indian School - including the controversial "Before and After" student portraits.

The Carlisle Indian School was founded in 1879 by Colonel RH Pratt, a complicated figure with a quite a controversial legacy. While he is all about racial equality, his idea of equality was still quite 19th Century-ish - he aimed to prove that American Indians were the equals of whites by making them as white as possible.

"Kill the Indian, save the man" was his slogan at Carlisle. Students were not allowed to speak their own languages. They were given new haircuts, and were dressed in suits and ties and corseted dresses. They were taught common trades, like baking and blacksmithing, which were meant to give them a start in the white world after graduation.

They didn't go home for years at a time. Yet many students had good experiences, and remembered Pratt as a good man... the "father of Indian education," as one student describes him in our story.

Pratt wanted to prove that American Indians still had a place in a world that was destroying their homes and cultures, so he held up examples of students succeeding on his terms. Pratt commissioned the "Before and After" photos below to demonstrate the transformations happening at Carlisle.

Tom Torlino - his portraits are two of the most striking and best-known "Before and After" images. Taken by photographer John Choate in his Carlisle studio in 1882, the "before" photo was taken when Tom first arrived at school, just a few years after it opened in 1879.

The after photo was taken three years later, in 1885. Notice how much lighter Tom's skin appears in the second photo. Experts believe Choate manipulated the lighting to help make a point: with the proper education, Carlisle students could literally blend in with white society.

Here's another set of before and after photos: The first photo from 1882 were that of twelve Navajo Students - including Tom Torlino, sitting in the front row, bottom left. And the man looking on from the bandstand was RH Pratt

Then we have the after photo of "Navajo Group who entered Carlisle October 21, 1882 after some time at the school." Once again, there's Tom Torlino -- sitting in the center row, third from left.

The photo on the left were of three Sioux boys. According to Richard Tritt, the CCHS photo archivist, during these studio photo shoots, Choate had props and costumes ready. It's not clear how 'scripted' were the students' garments were, but it's worth bearing in mind. The caption on this photo reads "Three Sioux students as they arrived at the Carlisle Indian School in 1883"

Photo on the right were of the same three boys after three years at Carlisle, wearing cadet uniforms.

This photo of four Pueblo children was taken in 1880, just a year after the school opened. It is one of the few studio portraits that combines girls and boys.

The after photo show them with their new hair cuts and uniforms.

I find this photo of a group of Chiricahua Apaches after arriving from a prison camp in Fort Marion, Florida particularly haunting. Pratt ran that prison before starting Carlisle. Barbara Landis explained that the group were Geronimo's people who weren't allowed to return home. Conditions were terrible at Fort Marion so it wasn't surprising that the Apaches who came to Carlisle from there were mostly unhealthy, and many didn't survive. The Carlisle school cemetery has a large number of Apache students buried there.

After photo: From March, 1887: "Chiracahua Apaches four months after their arrival at Carlisle"

And finally, the photo of White Buffalo. He was a student at Carlisle from 1881 to 1884. The 'before' photo was taken in 1881, when White Buffalo was 18 - he had prematurely gray hair.

After photo: White Buffalo some time later, hair cropped and parted, with a jacket and tie.

Photos: Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle PA via Radiolab