‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man’

Less than two years after the December 1890 bloody tragedy at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, read a paper in Denver at the 19th annual Conference of Charities and Correction. It began: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man….”

Pratt went on to say that Indians occupied more space than they were entitled to either by numbers or worth and that they had to be assimilated to become truly civilized. “The school at Carlisle is an attempt on the part of the government to do this,” he explained. “Carlisle has always planted treason to the tribe and loyalty to the nation at large. It has preached against colonizing Indians, and in favor of individualizing them. It has demanded for them the same multiplicity of chances which all others in the country enjoy. Carlisle fills young Indians with the spirit of loyalty to the stars and stripes, and then moves them out into our communities to show by their conduct and ability that the Indian is no different from the white or the colored, that he has the inalienable right to liberty and opportunity….It says to him that, if he gets his living by the sweat of his brow, and demonstrates to the nation that he is a man, he does more good for his race than hundreds of his fellows who cling to their tribal communistic surroundings.”

Pratt’s Indian boarding school dream turned out to be a nightmare for many Indian children and their families. There were exceptions. After all, from 1879 to 1918, some 12,000 American Indian children attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. In an 1881 letter to her father, American Horse, the Lakota girl Maggie Stands Looking wrote: “My cousins, and brothers, and I are all very well, at this Carlisle School…Capt. Pratt is very kind to us.” The school’s best-known pupil was the legendary Sac and Fox Jim Thorpe, who played football for the talented and innovative “Pop” Warner–coached Carlisle Indians and was later considered the greatest athlete of his day, if not the 20th century. Still, only 8 percent of the students graduated, about 20 percent ran away and close to 200 students died there.

The Carlisle school has been compared to concentration camps and brainwashing centers, because the children were taken away from their families and deprived of their culture. It wasn’t as bad as extermination, the argument goes, but it was only one step better—it was cruel and unusual punishment handed out to people whose only crime was being born Indian. One can always find exceptions—students who adapted to the foreign ways preached at the school and did well there and afterward—and one can always argue how many worse things there are in the world than assimilation. But at best, the school was a noble experiment that failed. The question is: Exactly how noble were Pratt and the other reformers?

Born in New York state, Pratt served in the Union Army and spent eight years as a cavalry officer in the West (1867-1875), taking part in the Washita campaign of 1868-69 and the Red River War of 1874-75. In 1875 he escorted 72 Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne captives to Fort Marion, Fla., where he oversaw their imprisonment. Pratt, who took to the Quaker and missionary idea of civilizing “savages,” tried to instruct the prisoners in military drill as well as in reading, writing and drawing. After they were released from Fort Marion in 1878, 17 of the prisoners enrolled in the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a boarding school for blacks. The experiment met with enough success for Pratt to ask for permission in 1879 to start his own school at some abandoned Army barracks in Pennsylvania. That September, he went to the Lakota reservations in Dakota Territory and returned to the new Carlisle Indian School with 82 pupils, including a grandson of Red Cloud and three children of American Horse. Meanwhile, two of his former Fort Marion prisoners recruited more students for him in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

This school so far from home must have been traumatic to most of the pupils. They were dressed in military uniforms and forced to march and drill. They could not wear their hair long (the cutting of hair caused mourning among many of the Lakotas) or wear moccasins. The only time any of them could look like Indians was during Thanksgiving plays, when some of them got to dress as Indians; others dressed as Pilgrims. All the children were forbidden to speak in their native tongues or practice their own religions. In short, they were told that Indian ways were bad. Only about half of each day was devoted to reading, writing and arithmetic. During the other half, the girls were taught cooking, sewing and cleaning and the boys instructed in carpentry, blacksmithing and milking cows. Most of the children did not return to their families in the summer; instead they were hired out to non-Indian families. The so-called Outing Program provided white businessmen and farmers with cheap labor.

Other off-reservation schools modeled themselves after the Carlisle School in trying to surround Indian children with nothing but Euro-American influences. But Pratt’s beliefs caused him to bump heads with the Bureau of Indian Affairs—whose reservation system, he insisted, was hindering the education and civilization of Indians—and anyone who supported reservation day schools modeled after the public school system. Pratt’s insubordination cost him his job, and he was forced to retire as superintendent of the Carlisle School on June 30, 1904. The school continued to operate until 1918, and other off-reservation boarding schools continued the goal of trying to “civilize” Indians into the early 1930s. Pratt’s innovative school and its imitators did sometimes provide opportunities for American Indians, but often it was at great cost—repression of culture, conflicted identities and the killing of the “Indian” in native men and women.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here