Carlisle Indian School was notoriously an example of 19th century belief in white exceptionalism and superiority mixed with the evangelism of that stage of Christianity when it entitled itself to eliminate whole cultures in order to dominate. This frame of mind still lingers though it is uncertain about their target or goal except for control and exception.

“The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in 1879 and operated for nearly 30 years with a mission to “kill the Indian” to “save the Man.” This philosophy meant administrators forced students to speak English, wear Anglo-American clothing, and act according to U.S. values and culture.”

Now I am overjoyed and amused to read that this same school, transformed, is pursuing a field of education that I’ve explored for half a century both on the Blackfeet Reservation and at the U of Chicago Divinity School! I came in 1961, joined up with Bob Scriver who was born in Browning in 1914, and when he “had the dream” so joined the local Bundle Keeping Ceremonies, I joined as his wife. This was a life-changing experience — nothing dramatic or traumatic, just a quiet openness to the land as it was represented in its animals. The contents of the Bundle, along with a three foot long “calument” or pipe, were animal hides, a kind of hymnal table of contents since each represented a song and dance.

The People in this circle were in their eighties, which meant they were born about 1880, authentically and genetically fully Blackfeet. They had known this ceremony all their lives. What is possibly as important, they knew the land they drew it from. It had endured throughout times of genocide and destruction.

To nineteenth century Europeans invading North America, oppression was entirely justified, except that there were always people who defected from them and joined the indigenous people. Some were happy to escape the taboos of Christian society, but others just came to know the land so well that they naturally wanted to sit in the circle and celebrate it. The spectacular and daring Sun Lodge with skewered dancers — sometimes forbidden which increased its attraction — was quite different from this focused day-long being together.

There was no institution. There was no building. There were no books nor anything else written. There was berry soup to share but how could it be “communion” if it had nothing to do with Jesus, dead or alive. To 19th century Newtonian authorities, it just wasn’t religion.

“Founded in 1879 by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, [Carlisle] enrolled over 10,500 students by the time of its closing in 1918. Pratt believed that American Indians were the equals of European-Americans, and that Native American children immersed in mainstream Euro-American culture would become assimilated.”

Pratt was right, because the NA kids WERE just as smart and progressive as the white kids, but he would have been astounded to realize that the assimilation went both ways — now it is the white kids who study NA culture and try to learn from it. I mean, learn from “them” since there are as many NA understood systems of the world as there are ecosystems where they developed. The handicap for “white” kids is the belief [sic] that one must commit to ONE exclusive true belief system. There are many truths and this itself is one of the beliefs of Native American people. There are old-timers on this rez who are convinced that if one “faith” (truth) is good, then more can only add goodness.

If the United States want to insist that North America is a unique place, different from Europe and not just a clumsy imitation of the west side of Eurasia, then they will have to learn about the unique understandings of this American continent. But it’s also interesting to think about the east end of Eurasia, where somehow the people managed to get to the Americas without sailing ships — far earlier. Many of the characteristics of Native American people, including their genetic base, are like those of Asia.

Here’s the story of this breakthrough:

“The approach to religion is an academic one, not a devotional one,” said Kevin Wagner, a high school history teacher and head of the district’s social studies department that developed the course.

“The focus is on studying religion, not practicing it,” Wagner said. “We’re not asking students to conform to any of them. Studying a religion is not an attempt to determine what is ultimately true about a divine presence or a religion. It’s about studying people and trying to understand what they believe and how they act, the dynamics of the communities of which they are part of.” . . .

“The very first one sets the stage for everything else that follows,” Wagner said. Subsequent units would detail the cosmic religions of small societies, the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; the Dharmic traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism; and the Eastern religions of Daoism, Confucianism and Shinto.

The final marking period would start with a study of Western African and African-American religion before moving on to Native American religion, Rastafari and such religious movements of the 19th and 20th centuries as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology. The course will also touch on the nature religions of neo-paganism and Wicca along with the belief systems of atheism, secularism and agnosticism.”

These are subjects I studied as a college undergrad in 1957 when I was not much older than these high schoolers. Far from distracting me with notions about what might be real to others, this gave me a foundation for understanding all cultures, meaning a path to peace in a time of globalization.

There are two ways to resolve an intractable opposition. One is to show that all are part of a unified whole. The other is to show all the little variations that break up the idea that some conflict is one-on-one. This understanding of religious comparisons does both. It brings the Karma of Peace.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.