Colonel Richard H. Pratt's 1892 Speech
A policy of forced assimilation through education was upheld by removing Native children from their families and communities and sending them to off-reservation boarding schools. An Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first of these schools in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, informed by his experience running an education program in an Indian prison. According to the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, located in Michigan,
Pratt conducted a social experiment with Apache prisoners of war. The captives were shackled and sent by train to a camp in Florida thousands of miles from their home. They cut the men’s long hair, put them in uniforms, forced them to learn English, and subjected them to strict military protocols. During the course of this experiment, some of the men were severely traumatized by the experience and committed suicide. Most of the prisoners survived and learned the English customs and language…. [Then], Pratt went to Congress and requested funding for the similar education of all American Indians.
When sharing his understanding of the beneficial impact of the Boarding Schools on American Indians to a convention of Baptist ministers in 1883, Pratt stated,“In Indian civilization I am a Baptist because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” In his mind, Pratt thought he was helping American Indians.
In his oft-referenced 1892 speech, Pratt stated, “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.”
In First Light, Esther Attean states that these education and child welfare policies were seen as progressive at the time (2:45). Later she speaks of cultural assimilation and paraphrases Pratt’s speech.
In what ways did Pratt represent progressive thinking for his time?
- Dee Ann Bosworth, “American Indian Boarding Schools: An Exploration of Global Ethnic & Cultural Cleansing,” Mount Pleasant MI: Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, 2011.
- "The Advantage of Mingling Indians with Whites," in Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, ed. Isabel C. Barrows (Boston: Press of Geo. H. Ellis, 1892).
- "Richard Henry Pratt: 1840–1924," Visualizing a Mission: Artifacts & Imagery of the Carlisle Indian School, Dickinson College, 2004.
- Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR, May 12, 2008.
Questions & ActivitieS
- Read the summary above and the online essay by Dickinson College Seminar Members. Who was Richard Henry Pratt? What big ideas shaped his thinking?
- Analyze the excerpt from Pratt’s conference paper:
- In what historic moment and place did he present the paper?
- Summarize the main points of his argument. Why does he feel it is necessary and right to establish Indian schools to assimilate Native children? In what ways does his argument seem logical or illogical to you? In what ways does it seem morally sound or unsound
- Examine the words on the memorial to Richard Pratt (photo | text). How do they compare to what you have learned about Pratt from his speech and other sources? What, if anything, would you add to the memorial plaque? What, if anything, would you remove?
- Based on what you learned from those featured in First Light, how do you think Esther Attean, gkisedtanamoogk, Denise Altvater, or Sandy White Hawk would describe Pratt’s plaque? Are their views represented on the plaque?
- Listen to Charla Bear’s NPR story about Native American boarding schools and analyze the lyrics written by Floyd Red Crow Westerman. Who is the fool to whom he refers?
- What are the roles of monuments and plaques in forming the way we interpret historical figures and events?