5 “The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian”

Trace L. Hentz

Every Indian has heard, ‘Kill the Indian, and Save the Man,’ or ‘the Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian.’ Both were uttered by Capt. Richard C. Pratt, the head master and founder of Carlisle Boarding School.

Beginning in 1887, the government tried to ‘civilize’ Native Americans by educating young children.  By 1900, thousands were studying at 154 boarding schools in the United States alone. Carlisle, Flandreau, Hampton, Haskell Institute and others were built. The U.S. Training and Industrial School was founded in 1879 at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Carlisle provided vocational and manual training but systematically stripped away tribal culture.  Students had to drop their Indian names, they could not speak their languages, clothing was burned and long hair was cut off. Cutting off the hair was done in many tribes when a relative died. For some alarmed children, cutting hair meant cutting off contact.

Carlisle’s founder Captain Pratt said the following to an 1892 convention, which portrays his frequently brutal methods for ‘civilizing’ the ‘savages.’

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 decided Native traditions are wrong.  Many tribes strongly disagreed with the American/Canadian government’s system of residential boarding schools and adoptions.  Our culture is our tribal family. Yet in the past 100 years, tribes lost two or three generations to the government’s system of removals and adoption.

Pratt said in a speech to the Board of Commissioners in 1889: ‘I say that if we take a dozen young Indians and place one in each American family, taking those so young they have not learned to talk, and train them up as children of those families, I defy you to find any Indian in them when they are grown…Color amounts to nothing. The fact that they are born Indians does not amount to anything.’ *DeJong, Promises of the Past, 110.

Opposing both the reservation system and the allotment of communally held lands to individual Indians, Pratt wrote, ‘I would blow the reservations to pieces. I would not give Indians an acre of land. When he strikes bottom, he will get up.’ *D. W. Adams, Education for Extinction, 53.

‘Civilization was defined as white, Christian (preferably Protestant), capitalistic, modern and industrializing… Indians were still primitive…,’ Margaret D. Jacobs writes in White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. ‘Perhaps the most crucial goal of the nation builders in each settler country was to gain complete control over the land; authorities looked to indigenous child removal, in part, to help them achieve this objective.’ *Jacobs, 82-83.

As part of the assimilation policy, Congress passed the 1887 General Allotment Act, also called the Dawes Act, to break up tribal lands and allot each male head of household 160 acres of land. This land was to be held in trust by the BIA for twenty-five years to prevent its sale. All told, Indian people lost about ninety million acres through the implementation of the Dawes Act. *Jacobs, 83.

The act provided eighty acres to single Indian women. * Hoxie, The Final Promise.

 

Footnotes:

DeJong, David H. (1993) Promises of the past: a history of Indian education in the United States. Golden, Colo: North American Press.

Adams, D. W. (1995) Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Jacobs, Margaret D. (2009) White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Hoxie, Frederick E (1984) A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

“In contrast to the biblical book of Genesis, in which God creates man in his own image and gives him dominion over all other creatures, the Native American legends reflect the view that human beings are no more important than any other thing, whether alive or inanimate.  In the eye of the Creator, they believe, man and woman, plant and animal, water and stone, are all equal, and they share the earth as partners — even as family.  Recurring themes include the idea of Mother Earth as life host, the relationship of reciprocity that exists between human beings and animals, and the Indians’ dependence on animals as teachers.  The plots are often complex, take numerous twists and turns, and commonly include humor.  But any comic elements never detract from the story’s sacred purpose.”

—The Spirit World, Time-Life Books

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