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What the Dawes Act was all about

About the Carlisle Indian Industrial School



Kill the Indian, Save the Man

"The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian"

Pine Ridge Resvervation in South Dakota. This Sioux Reservation was one of the first targeted by the Dawes Act.

That was the attitude of most Americans for over a century. Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was destined to spread progress and democracy across the continent, had seized the imagination of the country. For most of the nineteenth century, as westward expansion exploded, the "Indian problem" still plagued the government at every turn. What should be done about these people, who, while being the original occupants of the land, were only standing in the way of the U.S.'s economic development? The traditional solution of the U.S. government was to break treaties, and to invade, plunder and murder the troublesome Indians who were left.

But as early as 1851, some Americans, feeling a bit guilty about their treatment of the indigenous population, began looking for another way to deal with them. Because the Indians were thought to be a savage and inferior race, some argued that instead of killing them, we should try to "civilize" them to become like Europeans, and integrate them into American society. Starting in the 1880s, the assimilation movement, led by Christian social reformers and other "progressives," began experiments to transform the Indians into good, white Americans. There's saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Never has this been more true, I found out, than in the way America solved the "Indian problem" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


The Newest Trekker
When Teddy told me he had bought an Airedale puppy off of Yahoo...

During the mid-1800s, many Indians were still living on land highly desired by the Europeans, who thought the Indians were letting the land go to waste by not exploiting all the rich natural resources beneath them. Native Americans believed that they must live in harmony with the land. They found the concept of "private property" alien and disturbing. The Creator owns the land, not people, so there was no point in dividing up the land into plots, they reasoned.

Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes, convinced that the white man's ways were superior, pooh-poohed the idea of communal property, although he did express sympathy for the Natives. "The common field is the seat of barbarism, while the separate farm is the door to civilization," he said. Dawes explained that selfishness was the root of advanced civilization, and he could not understand why the Indians were not motivated to possess and achieve more than their neighbors.

In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act to break up Indian communal lands by giving Indian families 160 acres of land, backed by a 25-year tax-free trust from the government. At the end of the term, Indians could either keep the land or sell it. Though many supported the act out of what they believed was love for the Indian, mining, railroad and cattle companies also pressed for its passage because any leftover land would be sold to outsiders.

Check out the horse outside of Nick's house in Pine Ridge!

While the Dawes Act was hailed as the Indians' "Emancipation Proclamation," a tiny minority protested the danger they saw in the legislation. One congressional report candidly stated, "The real aim…is to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement…If this were done in the name of greed it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of humanity, and under the cloak of an ardent desire to promote the Indian's welfare by making him like ourselves, whether he will or not, is infinitely worse." Senator Henry Teller said, "You might as well title the bill: A bill to despoil the Indians of their lands and to make them vagabonds on the face of the earth."

Even the dire warnings could not have predicted just how disastrous the Dawes Act was for the Indians. Far from making them self-reliant farmers, it shattered one of the main pillars of their culture: community property. Besides the loss of identity, most lost their livelihoods when they could not make the transition to agricultural farming. The government had failed to provide training, equipment, seeds, hoes or ploughs. Greedy companies swiftly moved in like ravenous ants at a picnic to claim whatever land they could. As a result of the Dawes Act, Native Americans lost almost half of their lands by 1900, from 140 million acres to 78 million. Some Indians, such as the Hopi and Cherokee, defied the government by refusing to take part in the allotment plan. By 1921, more than half the people within tribes affected by the Dawes Act were landless and economically devastated.

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Richard Pratt, an army lieutenant sent by the government to negotiate with the Sioux tribes for their land, came up with another plan to assimilate the Indian. It wasn't enough to physically assimilate Indians by making them into individual farmers; they had to culturally and socially adapt to European manners. Pratt persuaded the War and Interior departments to fund an off-reservation boarding school. Though many reservations had missionary schools, Pratt believed Indians needed to be removed as far away as possible from their family and tribes to best rid them of their heathen ways. His motto was "Kill the Indian, save the man."


In 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in Pennsylvania with 169 students. Many came from prestigious lineage. Prominent Indians such as Red Cloud, Spotted Tail and American Horse sent their children to the school, persuaded by Pratt's argument that Indians would be exterminated if they did not learn to read, write, think and act like the Europeans. Originally, Spotted Tail had said, "The white people are thieves and liars and we refuse to send our children because we do not want them to learn such things." Many Indian communities, however, were already living in poverty and decided that Pratt's offer made sense. In other cases, Indian children were kidnapped and ripped apart from their families.

A before and after photo of Tom Toledo, a Navajo who went to Carlisle from 1882-1885. This photograph may not be reproduced in any form. Copyright by the Cumberland County Historical Society

The first thing children at the Carlisle School had to undergo was the cutting of their hair. Hair in Native American culture has a sacred meaning. It is usually only cut when a family member has died and is accompanied by wails and crying to signify the mourning process. Having their hair chopped off proved traumatic for many children, but it was only the beginning of their assimilation. Pratt, ever the army man, made the men dress in military uniforms, while the girls had to wear tight, restrictive dresses. Gone were the moccasins and animal-skin outfits. To boast about how much the Indian had been "civilized," Pratt took numerous photographs to shows his supporters in Congress just how well his project was going.

For the next couple of years, all vestiges of Indian culture were beaten out of the children. Sun Elk, a Taos Pueblo, remembered from his Carlisle days,

Girls learned dressmaking and childcare while boys learned to be blacksmiths, tailors and carpenters. This photograph may not be reproduced in any form. Copyright by the Cumberland County Historical Society.

"They told us that Indian ways were bad. The books told how bad the Indians had been to the white men-burning their towns and killing their women and children. But I had seen white men do that to Indians. We all wore white man's clothes and ate white man's food and went to white man's churches and spoke white man's talk. And so after a while, we also began to say Indians were bad. We laughed at our own people and their blankets and cooking pots and sacred societies and dances."

In Carlisle, I walked around the Cumberland Historical Society's exhibit on the Carlisle School with a feeling of horror at what I call attempted cultural genocide. I can't imagine learning to hate your own culture and who you are. My tour guide, an elderly white male, cheerfully told me that most students had a wonderful time at Carlisle and that many descendents of alumni come back to say how proud they are to be affiliated with the school. Olympic champion Jim Thorpe is prominently featured in the exhibit.

But nowhere does the exhibit talk about all the children who ran away from the school. 1,758 cases are documented. Nor does it mention all the children who died of illnesses such as tuberculosis, smallpox and pneumonia, and those who died because of broken spirits and loneliness. Physical and sexual abuses were commonplace, and contrary to reports that most students benefited from the Carlisle experience, only 758 out of more than 10,000 students graduated. Carlisle and other Indian schools created a whole generation of lost souls who were still discriminated against by whites, but who felt just as out of place back home on their reservations.

I had a chance to experience the legacy of our government's assimilation policies when I spent a few days on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where Nick was born. It was truly heartbreaking to witness the drunks lounging outside and to hear Nick's tales of life "on the rez." Though you can still feel the immense pride people have in their Sioux heritage, you can also see that a century of physical, mental and spiritual brainwashing has taken its toll. The high rates of unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide have created an atmosphere of hopelessness that is tough to shake.

In September, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued the highest-level apology ever given by a U.S. government official when he said, "Never again will we attack your religions, your languages, your rituals, or any of your tribal ways. Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are." For the people of Pine Ridge, the apology comes a little too late and does nothing to change their situation. As one chief declared, "We Indians will be Indians all our lives, we never will be white men." If only we could have listened to-and respected-that fact a century ago.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - The heroic and fateful quest of the Nez Perce
Nick - Massacres and mayhem: manifest destiny at its worst
Nick - Sitting Bull wins one for the Lakota Indians!
Steph - Potatoes, beans and cornbread. It's the life of a cowboy
Neda - Never give up: the story of Geronimo
Irene - East Meets West in the Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad