A Letter to Joseph Payawesea

A mere half hour away from Mechanicsburg, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first federally-funded off-Reservation boarding school for Amerindian children. The boarding school was founded in 1879 in Carlisle, PA by General Richard Henry Pratt, who publicly held the motto, “kill the Indian, save the man.” Thus, the boarding school system sought to “modernize” and assimilate Indian children into mainstream Euro-American culture through the elimination of “savage” Indian cultures, dress, traditions, and languages. Admission into the boarding school was often confusing and traumatic for children who spoke no English as they were forced to adopt English names, and receive haircuts – distinctively, an act of mourning in many Indian cultures. While some Amerindians used the boarding school experience for advancement, many were subject to severe physical and sexual abuse at the hands of educators. The experience is also associated with the harsh decline in native language speakers, and the loss of traditional wisdom keepers. Still, some point to the collective memory of the boarding school experience as one of the psychological traumas that underlie social issues like endemic alcoholism.
The Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center represents an effort to cultivate an understanding of the school and its complicated history, and to honor the stories, and legacy of the many thousands of students who were sent there through the preservation of student files and records in digital format. The following piece is Fellow Junmey Wang’s letter to the spirit and memory of Carlisle Indian School student, Joseph Payawesea.

For Joseph Payawesea –
I did not know you in 1880,
At the age of ten, barely 4 feet 3
When you enrolled in the Carlisle school
Your father, living, your mother, dead
At that time, how much Menominee still lived in you?
How much of it was dead?
Stripped from you, and replaced with “Civilization” – or so
they call it?
You were the spitting image of your father
Two Menominees in matching European three-piece suits
Unsmiling as flash photography sealed your contradictions in
I did not know you
In the years of your manhood, after Carlisle
And I know nothing of the years in between the two
When you became a fireman at the Government
When you manned your own farm on the Reservation
No money in the bank
No family to call your own
In 1900,
You wrote a letter reminiscing on how all your friends at Carlisle
were so clever, so bright
How, if the they were given a chance to serve in government
There would be less crime and
Life at the Reservations would be better
But the only barrier and trouble to that was
The White Man who fears the Indian that “knows too much”
You regret that you’ve done nothing to advance the lives of your people
While you desire to, you’ve never had the chance – and that’s just your “luck”
You wrote “I hope that things will change after awhile and that’s about all I can say”
I did not know you in your lifetime
Yet the words you left behind live on
And I am honored to have read them
To have been offered a glimpse of who you were
I hope things did
change for you.
And if they never did, I hope that someday they will
For you
And for generations that come after

Junmey Wang
Junmey Wang – Politics and Economics

Junmey Wang is Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Humanities. She’s a politics and economics major, with a concentration in international relations. Hailing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Junmey loves learning cultures, postcolonial theory, and good music.


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