During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were deliberate and multifaceted efforts by the federal government to eliminate tribal cultures through assimilation. It wanted to completely replace the Native Indian culture with the white culture. And, one of the ways this incorporation was carried out was through formal education.
Native America by end of 19th Century
The situation in Native America was grim as the 19th century came to a close.
Tribal nations had experienced the utter destruction of their subsistence base, the most visible example being the near extinction of bison on the Plains, where herds numbering 30 million were reduced to, perhaps, 1,000 by 1900. The American Indian population had collapsed, too. A pre-European contact population estimated at between 7 and 18 million people had been reduced, according to federal reports, to perhaps 250,000, by the turn of the century. The land told a similar story. In 1500, North America was entirely Native ground. By the 1880s, American Indians had lost approximately 90% of the lower 48 states.
It seemed as though poverty, dependency, and forced confinement on reservations were becoming a way of life.
Learn more about the Pueblo War for independence.
Diminished Tribal Sovereignty
That the United States abandoned treaty making in 1871 underscored the idea of an irrevocably diminished tribal sovereignty. Past treaties remained in force, but the federal government now referred to treaties as agreements—a reflection of its inclination to no longer look upon tribes as nations of equal stature.
And so, questions lingered. For non-Indians, the question was: “What shall become of those few American Indians who remain?”
Like all of these so-called friends, Gates believed that civilization required a transition “out of savagery into civilization”. The key ingredients to this metamorphosis were intelligent selfishness, as they put it, and unselfish intelligence. What Gates and the Friends of the Indian really had in mind was assimilation; the complete replacing of one culture—in this case, the Indian one—with another culture—in this case, the white one.
Assimilation of Native Indian and White Cultures
Merrill E. Gates, a man who had served as president of both Rutgers and Amherst colleges—and who shaped federal policy as a member of the influential Board of Indian Commissioners—offered one answer. The Board of Indian Commissioners was a group of elite citizens who liked to call themselves Friends of the Indian. They met occasionally at Lake Mohonk in New York State to devise and promote strategies to solve what they deemed the Indian problem.
And, the two primary vehicles for realizing this transformation were formal education and land allotment.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Captain Pratt: ‘Kill the Indian to Save the Man’
When it came to using schooling to remake American Indian individual and collective identities, no one stood taller than Captain Richard Henry Pratt. A career military man who served in the Civil War and in the Indian Territory with the fabled Buffalo Soldiers, Pratt styled himself a progressive when it came to race.
Not unlike Merrill Gates and the Friends of the Indian, Pratt believed that assimilation would prove the racial equality of Indians—an idea that was radical to a non-Indian population that generally assumed Indians were biologically inferior. But Pratt also believed that one would have to kill the Indian to save the man. In other words, Pratt was convinced that American Indians would have to die culturally in order to survive physically.
The Fort Marion Experiment
In 1875, Pratt undertook what’s called the Fort Marion experiment in Saint Augustine, Florida, where he oversaw 72 Kiowa, Apache, and Cheyenne prisoners from the Southern Plains wars. The juxtaposition of photographs of the Fort Marion prisoners before and after their arrival provides a clear sense of Pratt’s modus operandi.
To change the mind, according to Pratt, one must begin with the body. And so, the prisoners had their hair cut. Their traditional clothes were exchanged for military uniforms. Like Gates, Pratt also fostered acquisitiveness. He encouraged the prisoners to create and sell to non-Indian tourists artistic representations of their experiences within their communities and at war with the United States.
But the Fort Marion experiment was merely a stepping-stone.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School
In 1879, Pratt opened the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. An extension of the Fort Marion experiment, it operated on a much larger scale and targeted children, rather than adults, whom he recruited from all over Native America.
Upon their arrival, Native young people, too, were forced to trade in their familiar clothing for woolen military uniforms and purportedly proper dresses. Their hair was cut and restyled. Although the instruction was primarily vocational at Carlisle, students also took classes in history and civics, home economics, art, music, and language. They observed Independence Day and celebrated Columbus Day.
Thus, the students were having their political identities reoriented and their histories rewritten.
Learn more about the Trail of Tears.
Pratt’s Idea of Salvation through Civilization
Pratt told one audience that when it came to Indian civilization, he was a Baptist because he believed “in immersing the Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” Needless to say, this analogy—through which Pratt meant to convey salvation through civilization—could also be read as a violent act for the young people whose minds and bodies were being submerged, often against their will.
As federal and missionary-run boarding schools spread across the West, Congress devised legislation to carry out the second means for defining how Indians would be incorporated into the United States. The vehicle was allotment.
Common Questions about Assimilation of Native Americans through Education
The Board of Indian Commissioners was a group of elite citizens who liked to call themselves Friends of the Indian. They met occasionally to devise and promote strategies to solve what they deemed the Indian problem.
The two primary vehicles for assimilation of Indian culture and white culture were formal education and land allotment.
Upon their arrival at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Native Indians were forced to trade in their familiar clothing for woolen military uniforms and purportedly proper dresses. Their hair was also cut and restyled.