A website addressing Native American assimilation has taken a Passyunk Square teen to a countrywide competition.
Pangaea Saunders owns a first name that could lead to an infatuation with science, as it refers to the supercontinent that united the world’s land masses more than 225 million years ago.
The seventh-grader at Christopher Columbus Charter School, 1242-46 S. 13th St., however, holds history as her favorite academic pursuit, which her website, “Apple Indians: Red on the Outside, White on the Inside” reflects, having nabbed city and state accolades and giving her a chance to earn national recognition.
The investigation of the American government’s late 19th to early 20th century plan to assimilate Native American youths into the dominant Caucasian culture offered the 13-year-old time to analyze an era rife with racism and repression and question why history books tackle certain sorrows and leave others for victims’ families to ponder alone.
“We should be more aware of what has happened to all cultures,” the resident of 12th and Wilder streets said Friday at her school before a City Hall reception with Mayor Michael Nutter.
Curiosity caused Saunders to research the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Cumberland County for her entry in National History Day, a 37-year-old competition helping students to heighten their critical thinking and research skills. She used its Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences theme to study forgotten figures.
“Everyone has knowledge of America’s use of slavery and the Holocaust,” Pangaea said. “A huge thing I’ve learned is there’s so much history people don’t acknowledge.”
She sought to rectify matters in September by commencing her third year in the history club at her Passyunk Square institution — the only participating Philadelphia school whose students do not work on the projects in class, tabbing involvement as an afterschool activity with seventh-grade teacher Philomena Stewart.
Pangaea and 24 others, including her best friend Audrey Kurtyan, last year’s city winner in the junior division individual exhibit category, convene to strengthen their historical appreciation. Having consulted a sample page and loving computers, Pangaea confidently chose her topic and medium by the December deadline. She also decided to tackle the project alone.
“I could never join a group because I would want to take over,” she said.
She devoted nights and weekends to try to understand the mind of U.S. Army Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, the boarding school’s founder, who, after declaring the best way to educate a man was to “kill the Indian in him,” looked to duplicate his methods with children.
Her grade status qualified her for the junior division, open to sixth to eighth grades. She scored a third-place city finish for her web-based look at penicillin’s discoverer, Dr. Alexander Fleming, last year and earned an honorable mention, the highest distinction a fifth-grader can attain, for her website on poet Maya Angelou two years ago. She loaded up on original photos, artifacts and newspapers, but her core research came during a January trip to Carlisle. A stop at the Carlisle Barracks, site of the original building and a cemetery housing the remains of children who succumbed to heartbreak and tuberculosis and committed suicide, sharpened her comprehension.
“The most interesting parts of my trip were hearing the stories from the descendants of those who attended and learning of the emotional damage the assimilation attempts caused,” she said. “The second part was also very upsetting.”
The school gathered 12,000 children from 140 tribes from 1879 to 1918 and made its objection to Native American life apparent in its slogan, “To civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him civilized, let him stay.”
To do so, Pratt convinced parents their children would need his insight and the contributions of other whites to survive and thrive, so many families sent their children, who would come to lose their language, names, religion and distinctive hair.
The institution produced only an 8 percent graduation rate. Taxed immune systems, climate changes and bouts with anxiety caused deaths hampering the rate and allowing Pangaea to view more than 175 tombstones. When many returned home, they found themselves with multiple identities, existing as Apple Indians.
Inundated with material, Pangaea prepped her website that could not exceed 1,200 words and 100 megabytes of space.
“I became frustrated at times with the look of the website, but I had to make sure I told their story the best I could,” she said.
Her flash drive went missing for three days, but she completed her masterpiece, with looks at Pratt, life at the school, its end and legacy, by the Feb. 11 deadline. At the National Constitution Center March 9, she became the first South Philly student to win first place in the competition’s four-year history of accepting junior and senior division websites.
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