Teach PA History
Football at Carlisle Indian School: A Tool for Assimilation?
What to Know
Teaching Time
1 50-minute session
Grade Level
Middle School
  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening
  • History
Historical Period
  • Development of the Industrial Pennsylvania - 1877-1900
  • The Emergence of Modern Pennsylvania - 1901-1928
In 1879 an experimental school was established in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Its purpose was to assimilate Native American children into American society. Students at the school were forced to cut their hair, don "white people's" clothing (military uniforms), and attend church. Through the use of the outing program students would even gain practical experience living in domesticated American homes by cooking, cleaning, and doing household chores with local white families. The school's motto, "God Helps Those That Help Themselves," exemplifies its philosophy. Through hard work, military discipline, and a healthy dose of Christianity, students at the school could "overcome" their Indian heritage and make something of themselves in the white man's United States. Many Americans living at the time were skeptical of the Carlisle Indian School's ability to reform Native Americans. Indians were stereotyped as lazy, ignorant, and incapable of participating in a cultured civilization. Aware of this doubt, the school's founder, Captain Richard Pratt, allowed his students to organize a football club, with two provisions. The first was that the football players were to behave in a gentlemanly manner at all times. They were not allowed to engage in fighting, hitting, or swearing. The second stipulation was that the team had to schedule, and win, games against the most dominant football organizations in the country. Pratt believed the new football team could help the school showcase reformed and gentlemanly Indians and prove its ability to rid the Indians of their former culture. In the 1890s and early 1900s Pratt's team of "reformed" Indians gained national prominence as they defeated traditional football powerhouses like the University of Pennsylvania, West Point, and Harvard. Under the tutelage of celebrated coach Pop Warner, and carried on the back of the legendary Jim Thorpe, the team deconstructed their opponents on the field. In 1911 and 1912, the Carlisle Indian School registered back to back one loss seasons and secured their place among the greatest football teams of all time. Though the team achieved every goal set for it by Captain Pratt, its success began to run contrary to Pratt's intended vision of assimilation. National sportswriters, compelled by the school's success, could not resist comparing the clashes of the Indians and whites on the football field to the struggles between the United States Army and Indian Warriors on the American prairie. This lesson will require students to use primary sources to identify the goals of the Carlisle Indian School as an institution. Students will then evaluate its success in achieving these goals.


Students will be able to… 1. Analyze primary sources. 2. Describe the goals of the Carlisle Indian School as an institution. 3. Appraise the school's ability to meet those goals. 4. Identify the stereotypes of Native Americans employed by the journalists in while reporting the Indians" grid-iron success. 5. Communicate in written form their assessment of the school's football team success in meeting the headmaster's overall school goals.

Standards Alignment

  • History

    8.1.6. B. Explain and analyze historical sources.
    8.1.9. B. Analyze and interpret historical sources.
    8.2.6. A. Identifies political and cultural contributions of individuals to Pennsylvania history
    8.2.6. B. Identify and explain primary documents, material artifacts and historic sites important in Pennsylvania history from Beginnings to 1824
    8.2.6 D. Identifies conflicts and cooperation among social groups and organizations in Pennsylvania history from beginnings to 1824
    8.2.9. A. Analyze the political and cultural contributions of individuals and groups to Pennsylvania history from 1787 to 1914.
    8.3.6. A. Identify and explain the political and cultural contributions of individuals and groups to United States history from Beginnings to 1824
    8.3.6. B. Identify and explain primary documents, material artifacts and historic sites important in United States history from Beginnings to 1824.
    8.3.6. D. Identify conflict and cooperation among groups.

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening

    1.1.8. D. Identify basic facts and ideas in text using specific strategies.
    1.1.8.G. Demonstrate after reading understanding and interpretation of both fiction and nonfiction text, including public documents.
    1.2.8.A. Read and understand essential content of informational texts and documents in all academic areas.
    1.4.8. B. Write multi-paragraph informational pieces.
    1.5.8. A. Write with a sharp, distinct focus.
    1.5.8. C. Write with controlled and/or subtle organization.
    1.5.8.B. Write using well-developed content appropriate for the topic.

Back to Top