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Kill the Indian, Save the Man


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

Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was destined to spread progress and democracy across the continent, occupied the imagination of American citizens for most of the nineteenth century. And as westward expansion exploded, the government still wondered what they should do about the "Indians," who were only standing in the way of its success.

Our new trekker watches us work.

Some argued that instead of killing them (which had been done so much in the past that many had started to feel guilty about it), they 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, began experiments to change Indians into good, white Americans.

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

Richard Pratt, a government army lieutenant came up with a plan to enact this change by persuading the government to set up an off-reservation boarding school. He truly believed that Indians needed to be removed as far as possible from their family and tribes to best rid them of their heathen ways. His motto was "Kill the Indian, save the man."


Sure enough, in 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in Pennsylvania with 169 students. Prominent Indians sent their children to the school, persuaded by Pratt's argument that Indians would be exterminated if they did not learn to read, white, think and act like the Europeans.

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 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. Pratt took many photographs to show just how well his project was going.

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.

In Carlisle, I walked around the Cumberland Historical Society's exhibit on the Carlisle School with a feeling of horror. 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.

Contrary to that comment however, only 758 out of more than 10,000 students graduated! And nowhere does the exhibit talk about all the children who ran away from the school. 1,758 cases are documented. Nor does it mention everyone who died of illnesses like tuberculosis, smallpox and pneumonia, or those who died because of sadness and loneliness.

I had a chance to see some of the lasting effects of these devastating 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 harmful mistreatment and brainwashing has definitely taken its toll on their spirits.

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

Nick - A ghost dance for hope
Nick - Sitting Bull wins one for the Lakota Indians!