“Going Back to the Blanket”: New Outlooks on Art Instruction at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School
Kathryn M. Moyer

At the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, art instruction, unlike the industrial trades taught at the school, was viewed largely as a pastime rather than a viable course of study. Under Richard Pratt’s leadership, fine art instructors emphasized the Western tradition of still life and landscape painting. However, the appointment of Angel De Cora as director of art instruction in 1906 provided a forum in which Indian students were encouraged to focus on their own native artistic traditions (fig. 20; cat. 48). The introduction of native arts in the classroom at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School marked a significant change in the educational practices imparted to young Native American students.1

In the late 1870s, the United States federal government enacted a comprehensive educational program for Indian students that was fundamentally based on Euro-American values. Richard Henry Pratt, a military officer who had worked on previous occasions with both Indian prisoners and students, established one of the first non-reservation or boarding schools at the old army barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879.2 Here, he began the process of converting so-called “blanket Indians” into properly “Anglicized” pupils.3 Pratt enforced a strict assimilation process that would eliminate all facets of tribal life and immerse students in the ways of white society. Within their first few days at Carlisle, the children were stripped of everything that was Indian about them, from changing their names to cutting their hair. Pratt’s ultimate goal for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was to provide students with the background necessary to assimilate into Euro-American society. In Pratt’s mind, extending to the Indian a Western education, the ability to read and write in English, and the skills required to pursue an industry, provided students with the tools necessary to gain access into Euro-American society. “To civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him civilized, let him stay,” was Pratt’s motto for the school.4 Pratt ran his school much like a military unit “with discipline, crystal clear instructions and total inflexibility.”5

As superintendent, Pratt largely disregarded art instruction at Carlisle. Although Pratt believed that “the unconscious drive to ‘create’ pictures came naturally to these students brought to Carlisle from the Great Plains,” he was unflinching in terms of his educational goal. Under his direction, art instruction occupied a marginal role because it was not a trade in which Indian students could easily apply their work within the constructs of American society. Although he did not abolish its practice, formal art instruction in the classroom was minimal.6 Further-more, classroom instruction during the Pratt years was based exclusively on the European tradition. Students were not permitted to practice their native arts.7 “The arts were not scorned by Pratt, but his fear that his students would slip back into Indian ways caused them to be taught in an odd way.”8 Because their ability to produce imagery reflective of their native backgrounds represented an aspect of their native culture that he could perhaps never eliminate, Pratt centered all art instruction at Carlisle around the European traditions of still life and landscape painting.

Students were instructed by visiting art instructors, including J. Wells Champney and Professor Little (the “Chalkman”), to paint landscapes according to the standard academic traditions of Western art.9 It was through such instruction that Indian students experimented with Western styles of still life painting in particular (cat. 47).10 Artworks made at Carlisle during this period have a markedly forced quality. As seen in Thelma Greenwood’s still life, Western academic tradition was the order of the day in Carlisle art classes (cat. 72). The still life paintings produced during Pratt’s years at the Indian school reflect student attempts at imitating Western art. Greenwood’s still life is well composed, accurately drawn, and skillfully painted; however, just as in the cutting of hair and forcing Indian students to wear military uniforms to make them appear to be Westernized, the maintenance of superficial appearances remained in all aspects of life at the Carlisle Indian School. As a result, Greenwood’s still life may be viewed as another attempt, on Pratt’s part, to keep up appearances.

Twenty-five years after opening the doors of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pratt remained steadfast in his educational philosophy. Even as educational objectives instituted by the federal government began to shift to be more inclusive, providing Indian students with a formal education while allowing them to maintain some of their native talents, Pratt abstained. In fact, he vehemently opposed such changes, always fearing that Indian students would not receive the full assimilation experience if not forcibly converted into Anglo ways.11 While educational approaches to Indian education were evolving, Pratt’s did not. It was this staunch opposition to change that resulted in his dismissal from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1904.

Francis E. Leupp, commissioner of the Indian Bureau at this crucial time, believed that certain aspects of Native American culture, in particular the arts, should be included in the curriculum at the Carlisle Indian School, and the new director, William A. Mercer, was willing to comply. Leupp appreciated “the Indian for what is Indian in him;” unlike Pratt, Leupp was not a proponent of complete assimilation.12 Commissioner Leupp sought to promote and develop the skills and traditions that students brought with them to Carlisle. Consequently, Leupp changed various aspects of Indian educational programs at the government run schools. Regarding previous art instruction at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, he stated: “The Art Department at Carlisle had been engaged in teaching Indian children, whose own mothers were masters of decorative design, to paint pansies on plush pillows and forget-me-nots on picture frames. It was not the fault of Carlisle that the standard of art in America should resemble the counter of a department store; it was the fault of our whole civilization.”13 Commissioner Leupp no longer wanted Carlisle students to imitate European artistic traditions; instead he sought to provide them with instruction in their own native arts. Leupp was one of the earliest members of the federal government to openly support Indian culture, and worked to preserve it.

In 1906, Leupp appointed Angel De Cora as the director of art instruction at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Her appointment exemplifies the evolving methodology in the education of Indian students at the turn of the century. In contrast to art instruction during Pratt’s years at Carlisle, students at the school would receive formal instruction in Native American art by a Native American.

Angel De Cora could identify with her students because, like them, she had studied within the off-reservation school system at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Born on a Winnebago reservation in Nebraska in 1871, De Cora was sent to the Hampton Institute when she was seventeen. After graduating from Hampton, she went on to study art at Smith College. For many of her college friends and colleagues, she was the only Indian with whom they were familiar. “She was in an ambivalent situation at Smith,” because she was unlike her peers but not the “archetypal Indian princess or queen of the forest” either.14 In 1896, De Cora received her degree and graduated as the college’s first Native American. She then studied at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, and later at the Boston Museum School. Several years later, she moved to New York City and opened her own gallery of illustration.

Angel De Cora’s early illustrations incorporate a romanticized vision of the Indian. Although she states that, “Perhaps it is well that I had not over studied the prescribed methods of European decoration, for then my aboriginal qualities could never have asserted themselves,” her illustrations in Zitkala-Sa’s Old Indian Legends supply nothing more than the popularly romanticized view of the Indian of the time.15 It is probable that these illustrations reflect the desires of the editor, who would have been more attuned to the interest of the average American consumer of the time period, and not to the more progressive views of the artist.

Despite her familiarity with the Barbizon school, American Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism, De Cora did not neglect her own native heritage or the art of the Winnebagos. Furthermore, it appears that at Carlisle, De Cora found a forum where she could explore more traditional aspects of native art, design, and illustration. When Commissioner Leupp approached her to take the position at the Carlisle Indian School, De Cora stated that she would accept the appointment with the condition that, “I shall not be expected to teach in the white man’s way, but shall be given complete liberty to develop the art of my own race and to apply this as far as possible to various forms of art, industries and crafts.”16 At Carlisle, Angel De Cora provided her students with instruction in the traditional techniques and designs of the Native Americans, thereby allowing them to freely examine, promote, and in some instances revitalize their artistic heritage.

However, De Cora was at first greatly dismayed by the unfamiliarity of her students with their own native traditions. This fact may reflect a combination of changes occurring within Native American populations at the time. Neglect, repression of traditional cultural practices, lack of traditional materials, changing tribal roles and values, and the Euro-American push for Indians to assimilate into American culture all negatively affected the production of native arts of Indians who were living on reservations or attending government schools. Although turn-of-the-century policies regarding educational practices were beginning to change, incorporating certain aspects of Indian traditions in school curricula, many students had never been exposed to traditional tribal life or art. Upon arrival at the Carlisle Indian School, De Cora remarked: “when I first introduced the subject—Indian art—to the Carlisle Indian students, I experienced the discouraging sensation that I was addressing members of an alien race.”17 Angel De Cora was unaccustomed to dealing with Indian students who could not identify with their own cultural traditions. An active voice in the promotion of Native American art and its instruction, De Cora could not comprehend the apparent resistance from students to incorporate Indian art into the curriculum at the Carlisle Indian School. Much like Pratt, De Cora saw it as her duty to provide her students with the necessary tools to become successful citizens; however, unlike Pratt, De Cora’s goals hinged on the examination and practice of native culture and the arts, and not their repression.

Throughout her tenure at the Carlisle Indian School, Angel De Cora was determined not to stereotype Indian art; her program did not instruct her pupils to create the romanticized image of the “noble savage” that was popular at the time. Instead, she chose to examine specific tribal traditions and motifs. By adding the study of native art and artifacts to the arts curriculum at Carlisle, De Cora introduced a style and type of art that is fundamentally different in function than the pictorial tradition of Western art.

In Native American cultures, traditionally, artists worked for the well-being of the tribe, striving to integrate nature with tribal belief systems.18 All Native American artifacts, paintings, clothing, beadwork, weaving, and pottery were created with specific functions in mind and not merely for their artistic value. The creation of art formed an integral part of everyday life within the tribes. Although traditions and styles varied from tribe to tribe, much of the imagery emphasized organic forms inspired by nature. The art of the Indian, De Cora stated, “like himself is indigenous to the soil of his country, where; with the survival of his latent abilities, he bravely offers the best productions of his mind and hand which shall be a permanent record of the race.”19 She adds that native art may be divided into two distinct tendencies: the first being the use of art as a form of sign language and the second implemented purely as a means of decoration. The execution of “purely conventional and geometric” designs in the Native American art was considered by De Cora to serve as the foundation of all Indian decorative arts.20

Designed to serve a particular function, each piece held its own place in the workings of daily life. Objects were then decorated to incorporate motifs specific to each tribal culture. Bold colors were used to enhance both floral and geometric designs. Because of their size and the great variety of colors that were available through trade, “seed beads” were commonly used in many intricate beadwork designs. Although a comprehensive analysis of Native American art is not possible here, a harness (fig. 21; cat. 66) originating from the Northeast, most likely the Mic Mac culture, serves as a representative example.21 The beadwork, an elaborate leaf-chain pattern, was applied to enhance the design of a harness. A highly stylized and bi-laterally symmetrical blue beaded vine with alternating yellow and black or red and green leaves has been sewn on all sections of the harness. Blue berries, outlined in black, are located where leaves connect. The red fabric background with blue trimmed edges adds to the contrasting color choices carried throughout the harness design. The contrasting colors add a distinct, flat quality to this design. Although natural forms inspire the design, there is little attempt to create a literal representation of it, reflecting a tendency to impose order upon the irregularities of natural forms, resulting in a two-dimensional pattern of color and geometric shapes which is commonly seen in Great Lakes beadwork patterns.22 Indeed, the emphasis on two-dimensional design, bold colors, and strong repeating patterns are characteristics shared among many Native American art forms.

De Cora compelled her students to explore their own artistic heritage in objects such as this harness, examining designs unique to their particular tribal affiliations along with those of other nations.23 Students would have been instructed on the significance of geometric patterns, solid colors, and repeating forms commonly incorporated into Native American art. Students wove rugs and blankets, which were advertised in various school magazines, like The Red Man and The Indian Craftsman, to be sold to the public. Looms were regularly set up in De Cora’s classroom and designs were drawn on the blackboards to provide illustration of various tribal motifs. Pottery, basketry, jewelry design, painting, and other skills were also taught. Detail was given to identifying specific tribal traditions, and as seen in a photograph (fig. 22; cat. 49), the tribe affiliated with the motifs was supplied. In this instance, the designs on the classroom blackboards are entitled “Pueblo Symbolism.” In addition to creating more traditional objects, students designed all of the motifs and illustrations used in The Red Man, the school’s magazine, and other school publications. De Cora focused on designs in the classroom because she felt “that designing is the best channel in which to convey the native qualities of the Indian’s decorative talent.”24 As students became familiar with traditional designs, they began to develop their own stylized interpretations of them.

In the classroom, De Cora’s students were given the opportunity to examine native traditions, as both artists and Native Americans. Unlike art instruction at Carlisle while Pratt was superintendent, students were taught that their native talents were of value. Although the Carlisle Indian School benefited economically as a result of blanket and other art sales, the students benefited by having formal instruction in the native arts. De Cora’s program reevaluated the designs and techniques used to create Indian art, and despite initial concerns about students’ unfamiliarity with their own native designs, De Cora found Carlisle students to be quite skilled. She stated in the March 1911 edition of The Red Man: “There is no doubt that the young Indian has a talent for the pictorial art, and the Indian’s artistic conception is well worth recognition, and the school-trained Indians of Carlisle are developing it into possible use that may become his contribution to American Art.”25 A result of her diligent efforts, Angel De Cora established a larger, more comprehensive appreciation for Native American art by speaking to groups who supported these new methods of instructing Indian students, examining traditional approaches to native art.

Unlike the initial exposure of the first Carlisle students to a formal education, students who studied with Angel De Cora were given the opportunity to study traditional Native American art. The weaving of blankets in the traditional manner using native designs marked a complete reversal in art instruction as well as the overall educational initiatives of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Although blanket weaving was not the only example of this dramatic change, it is among the most potent symbols of this transformation. Taken from their homes, the “blanket Indians,” who became the first Carlisle students, were stripped of everything native about them, and the repression of native culture under Pratt’s direction was complete. Later, as new educational policies were adopted, a period of re-examining native traditions occurred. It was during this time that Indian students were taught to weave the very blankets that had originally been confiscated; this change in procedure marks just one of the ways in which educational procedures were updated to include Native American culture into the classroom. As interest in teaching native arts became popular, many other non-reservation schools took part in the widespread initiative to return Indian students “to the blanket,” or back to their own cultural traditions. This development was important for both the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as well as for its students. With the appointment of Angel De Cora as art director of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the appreciation of Native American art and culture grew. De Cora’s advocacy established a sense of cultural pride in her students, while creating a place of significance for Native American art and traditions within Western society.



1 Although no definition of art existed within native populations, for the purposes of this essay, Native American art may be loosely defined as any artifact or object created by a Native American or member of a tribal society. For more specific definitions of Native American art, see Christopher F. Feest, Native Arts of North America (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992), 14.

2 David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction, American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 51-55.

3 Richard H. Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, Robert M. Utley, ed. (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 248.

4 Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 283.

5 Genevieve Bell, “Telling Stories Out of School: Remembering the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1879-1918” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1998), 62.

6 At Fort Marion, Pratt encouraged students to make drawings of their tribal experiences before coming to school, in transit to the fort, and their activities in school. See Kathleen McWeeney, “A Kiowa’s Odyssey: Etahdleuh Doanmoe’s Sketches from Fort Marion,” in this volume: 9-13.

7 Linda F. Smith [Witmer], “Pictographic Drawings at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School” Cumberland County History 5, no. 2 (Winter 1988): 100-107. It should be noted, however, that Pratt kept a collection of Native American artifacts, clothing, and ceremonial objects. These items passed by descent to Nana Pratt Hawkins who donated them to the Cumberland County Historical Society.

8 Sarah McAnulty, “Angel De Cora: American Indian Artist and Educator” (Ph.D. diss., University of New Mexico, 1975), 171.

9 Stephanie Stockbridge, “James Wells Champney, Sunset Landscape,” Images of Transience: Nature and Culture in Art (Carlisle, Penn.: The Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, 2003), 32-33; see McWeeney, “A Kiowa’s Odyssey,” 11, for Champney’s early contact with Pratt.

10 Smith, “Pictographic Drawings,” 106.

11 Bell, “Telling Stories Out of School,” 83.

12 Robert Fay Schrader, The Indian Arts and Crafts Board, An Aspect of New Deal Indian Policy (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983), 7.

13 Natalie Curtis, “The American Indian Artist,” The Outlook (Jan. 1920), 65, as cited in McAnulty, “Angel De Cora,” 171.

14 McAnulty, “Angel De Cora,” 150.

15 Angel De Cora, “Angel De Cora—An Autobiography,” The Red Man 3, no. 7 (March 1911), 285; Zitkala-Sa, Old Indian Legends, illustrations by Angel De Cora (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).

16 Curtis, “The American Indian Artist,” 65, as cited in McAnulty, “Angel De Cora,” 170.

17 McAnulty, “Angel De Cora,” 171.

18 Robin K. Wright, “Native North American Art, Painting Before European Contact,” in The Dictionary of Art, vol. 22, Jane Turner, ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1996), 587.

19 Angel De Cora, “Native American Art,” paper read before the first annual conference of the American Indian Association, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 12-15, 1911, Papers of the Society of American Indians, part 2, series 2, John W. Larner, ed. (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1987), 5.

20 De Cora, “Native American Art,” 3.

21 Geoffery Landis, “A Catalogue and Description of the Dickinson College Indian Collection: Artifacts Recovered from the Carlisle Indian School” (n.p., thesis, Dickinson College, 1973), 15; on deposit at The Trout Gallery.

22 Andrew Hunter Whiteford, “Native North American Art, Beadwork and Shellwork, Woodlands,” in The Dictionary of Art, vol. 22, Jane Turner, ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishers, Ltd., 1996), 644.

23 McAnulty, “Angel De Cora,” 178.

24 De Cora, “An Autobiography,” 285.

25 De Cora, “An Autobiography,” 285.