Native American Boarding Schools: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

Blog19Many of us remember singing along with the Schoolhouse Rock song, “The Great American Melting Pot” on Saturday mornings. I will admit that I never found it as catchy as “Conjunction Junction,” but it did give us something to ponder. It was a fun little cartoon showing heartwarming scenes of immigrants bringing their own languages and customs and melting right in with thousands of other people to form a country. Meanwhile, the Statue of Liberty was standing by holding a recipe book. Everybody sing!

You simply melt right in, 

It doesn’t matter what your skin.

It doesn’t matter where you’re from,

Or your religion, you jump right in

To the American melting pot.

The great American melting pot.

Ooh, what a stew, red, white, and blue…

While other verses of the song mention English, Germans, Dutch, French, Italians and Russians, it never mentions Native Americans. Nope. There’s not one little mention about how U.S. government officials were bound and determined to throw the Native Americans into the melting pot, whether they wanted to assimilate or not. From the late 1870s until well into the 20th century, Native American children were taken from their homes and forced to live in boarding schools. It’s a shocking chapter in American history, and not at all the kind of material that should be turned into a Schoolhouse Rock song. But it is definitely a story worth telling.

School of Thought

Blog5U.S. Army officer, Richard Henry Platt, commanded a unit of African American Buffalo Soldiers and Indian scouts in Oklahoma. He had witnessed the Bureau of Indian Affair’s policies on reservations. The Army placed Platt in charge of seventy-two imprisoned Indian warriors in Florida, in 1875. During their imprisonment, Platt arranged to teach them to read.

That experience got Platt to thinking. Some of those thoughts he was thinking were downright alarming to our modern sensibilities. He wanted to come up with a way to stir Native Americans into the great American Melting Pot once and for all.

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

During a speech on the subject, Platt said, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that the high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only on this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man…”

Ouch! Kill the Indian…save the man, became the unfortunate mantra behind the Native American boarding school movement. The theory was that assimilation would require getting the children before their Indian culture had become too ingrained and educating them in the way of the white man.

Blog1aIn 1879, Pratt was given permission to use a deserted military base in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as the site of the first boarding school for Native American children. Between 1879 and 1918, more than 12,000 children from more than 140 tribes attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Melting Pot

Other boarding schools sprang up across the country. Oftentimes, children as young as toddlers were taken against their parents’ will. Those youngsters were then forced to travel as far as hundreds of miles from home for the privilege of being “Christianized” in semi-military schools. The goal was to force the students to embrace the white culture, with the idea that those children would one day become acceptable members of society. Children were expected to speak only English. They were given haircuts, “civilized” clothing, and even Euro-American names.  Woe to the child who failed to assimilate!Blog10

Blog14Education focused largely on learning trades. Boys were taught carpentry. Girls were taught housekeeping.  Children were also expected to do backbreaking manual labor. No one was very concerned that children were, for the most part, not being taught traditional school subjects, such as math and grammar.

Dishonor Roll

Children caught speaking their native language could be beaten. In fact, any behavior seen as being Indian could be severely punished. There are tales of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse occurring at these boarding schools. Malnutrition was also a concern, and often as a form of punishment children were starved. Beatings were often severe enough to result in broken bones. Children were even punished for being homesick (Because, as we all know, a good beating was the way to make a child get over homesickness and make him feel welcome!).Blog21

Homesickness wasn’t the only type of sickness that plagued the schools. Disease spread like wildfire through the close quarters. At the Carlisle School alone, hundreds of children died from diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox and pneumonia. Others died in escape attempts or at the hands of those who were supposed to be looking out for their best interests.

Wake Up Call

Blog6In 1928, a report known as, The Problem of Indian Administration was issued, following an investigation into government policies toward American Indians. The report found children at the federal boarding schools to be overworked, poorly educated, abused and malnourished.

More than forty years later, a new report was issued. The Kennedy Report found the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ education budget to be severely inadequate. It also stated, “When asked to name the most important things the schools do for their students, only about one-tenth of the teachers mentioned academic achievement as an import goal. Apparently, many of the teachers still see their role as that of ‘civilizing the native.’” Holy cow, people! That was in the 1960s! The report also spoke of harsh discipline, dormitory overcrowding, unappealing meals, and sterile, rigid school environments.

Making the Grade

Blog1bMany of the American Indian boarding schools were closed by the 1940s. Others were converted into Native American schools and colleges. Haskell Indian Nations University, a tribal university located in Lawrence, Kansas, was founded in 1927. The campus still features a reminder of its dark, boarding school past. As with other Indian boarding school campuses, there is a cemetery filled with the graves of children who died as students. How many died from disease and how many died from abuse and neglect, we cannot say. But we do know they all died while separated from their parents and stripped of their cultural identity.

There are still a few American Indian boarding schools. Fortunately, they bear virtually no resemblance to the schools of our country’s not-so-distant past. Today, the Native American culture is embraced at the federally funded schools. Students have opportunity to learn traditional skills that were regretfully not passed on by generations of Native Americans who were robbed of their culture.

How About a Salad, Instead?

Blog12It has been suggested that the United States is more of a giant salad bowl than a melting pot. The different flavors are tossed together, but each maintains its own unique taste. Perhaps that’s as it should be. The Great American Salad Bowl can be a place where we can all take pride in our unique heritages. Someone should set that to music!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia


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