This photograph of eleven Chiricahua Apache children was taken on November 4, 1886, shortly after the children’s arrival at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. General Pratt established the boarding school in 1879 to “civilize” Native American children through complete assimilation. Whether they volunteered or were coerced into attendance, separated from their families and denied permission to wear their own clothing or speak their native languages, many of the Carlisle students experienced profound confusion and sadness at the loss of all that was familiar to them. The children in this photo made the long trip from their homes in the Southwest to Pennsylvania via Fort Marion, Florida.

The photo was taken my John N. Choate, a local Carlisle, non-Indian, commercial photographer. Choate acted as the official school photographer from 1879 until his death in 1902, and his works remain the only known photographs of the school. Choate took a great deal of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of students, emphasizing the profound physical changes, including haircuts and new clothing, the children underwent during their first weeks at Carlisle. Choate knew how to manipulate his images as well, photographing these children first barefooted and outdoors to emphasize the “uncivilized” aspects of their character. Their clothing is unkept and their hair uncombed. The second photo is indoors, and the children wear clean, matching outfits. Their transformation is exaggerated by the simple setting of the photo.

Choate also came to campus to capture images of the school band or the children at work in the various workshops designed to teach technical skills. Indian family members visiting their students frequently found themselves the subject of Choate’s photos as well.

Several factors made Choate’s work possible. The first was the relatively recent development of albumen paper, which allowed for dramatically easier copying of photographs through the use of negatives. The second was the increasing popularity of photography itself in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Choate sold his photography in the form of souvenir cards for display, capitalizing on the growing middle class’s interest in images of ‘exotic’ and interesting people and places previously unavailable to them. General Pratt used Choate’s images for other purposes. He frequently sent pictures to students’ parents still on reservations, to recruiters, and to government agents who might secure greater funding for the school. The before and after pictures, especially, became a prominent means of propaganda employed by Pratt to display the great success Carlisle had in transforming its students.

The photo fell into the collection of Gen. Nelson A. Miles before his heirs donated it to the Museum of the American Indian, where it is currently housed.

The ‘after’ companion features the same eleven Apache children and was taken by Choate in March of 1887, approximately four months after their arrival at Carlisle.

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