Digital History

Tragedy of the Plains Indians

Kill the Indian and Save the Man Previous Next
Digital History ID 3505



In 1879, an army officer named Richard H. Pratt opened a boarding school for Indian youth in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His goal: to use education to uplift and assimilate into the mainstream of American culture. That year, 50 Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Pawnee arrived at his school. Pratt trimmed their hair, required them to speak English, and prohibited any displays of tribal traditions, such as Indian clothing, dancing, or religious ceremonies. Pratt's motto was "kill the Indian and save the man."

The Carlisle Indian School became a model for Indian education. Not only were private boarding schools established, so too were reservation boarding schools. The ostensible goal of such schools was to teach Indian children the skills necessary to function effectively in American society. But in the name of uplift, civilization, and assimilation, these schools took Indian children away from their families and tribes and sought to strip them of their cultural heritage.

By the late 19th century, there was a widespread sense that the removal and reservation policies had failed. No one did a more effective job of arousing public sentiment about the Indians' plight than Helen Hunt Jackson, a Massachusetts-born novelist and poet. Her classic book A Century of Dishonor (1881), recorded the country's sordid record of broken treaty obligations, and did as much to stimulate public concern over the condition of Indians as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin did to raise public sentiment against slavery or Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did to ignite outrage against environmental exploitation. Ironically, reformers believed that the solution to the "Indian problem" was to erase a distinctive Indian identity.

During the late 19th century, humanitarian reformers repeatedly called for the government to support schools to teach Indian children "the white man's way of life," end corruption on Indian reservations, and eradicate tribal organizations. The federal government partly adopted the reformers' agenda. Many reformers denounced corruption in the Indian Bureau, which had been set up in 1824 to provide assistance to Indians. In 1869, one member of the House of Representatives said, "No branch of the federal government is so spotted with fraud, so tainted with this Indian Bureau." To end corruption, Congress established the Board of Indian Commissioners in 1869, which had the major Protestant religious denominations appoint agents to run Indian reservations. The agents were to educate and Christianize the Indians and teach them to farm. Dissatisfaction with bickering among church groups and the inexperience of church agents led the federal government to replace church-appointed Indian agents with federally-appointed agents during the 1880s.

In 1871 to weaken the authority of tribal leaders, Congress ended the practice of treating tribes as sovereign nations. To undermine older systems of tribal justice, Congress, in 1882, created a Court of Indian Offenses to try Indians who violated government laws and rules.

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