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Race in Native American History

George Armstrong Custer

In June 1876, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull led an army of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians to a massive victory over General George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. Custer's force was part of an intended three-pronged assault against the Indian coalition that had harassed miners and homesteaders crossing their lands following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874. Custer chose not to wait for backup from the other two units, led by Generals John Gibbon and George Crook. Partially because he badly underestimated the size of the Indian encampment along the Little Big Horn River, but primarily because he was George Custer and that was just how he rolled, he decided to push the attack. Within hours, Custer and his entire detachment of 210 men were dead.

The Indian victory, however, was short lived. In the wake of "Custer's last stand," more federal troops were rushed to the frontier and, within a year, Crazy Horse was dead and Sitting Bull had been forced into Canada. In the Dakota Territory, the once triumphant Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos were forced onto reservations.

Richard Henry Pratt

In September 1879, Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt and an assistant named Sarah Mather traveled to the Dakota Territory to recruit students for their new Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Just a few years earlier, Pratt had been, much like George Custer, part of the United States military effort aimed at keeping the Indians along America's frontier line bottled up on their reservations. Pratt had been assigned to the Oklahoma Territory. There he had led a company of African American troops, known as "buffalo soldiers," charged with tracking down the Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians, who left their reservations to hunt for increasingly scarce game and to raid American settlements in the Red River region.

Frustrated with their inability to contain the Indians in Oklahoma, the army had ordered Pratt in 1875 to take 72 Indian prisoners to Florida, where they would be held as hostages in hopes of coercing more compliant behavior from their kinsmen. In St. Augustine, Pratt experimented with unconventional methods of confinement. He cut the Indians' hair, issued uniforms, and subjected them to military drills and instruction. He taught them to read and write and he encouraged them to paint watercolors and make small trinkets. The activities made his prisoners more compliant and, he believed, by allowing them to sell their artwork and crafts, they acquired an appreciation for commercial enterprise.

Within a couple years, Pratt's unconventional methods had jelled into a theory about Indian education and assimilation. In the spring of 1879, he convinced the Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz to turn over an old cavalry barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for use as an Indian School. In the fall, he set out for the Dakotas to recruits student for his new school—recruiting them, not inconceivably, from among the children of the very same warriors who had defeated Custer three years earlier.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School began instruction in October 1879 with a first class of 82 students. In time, the school would house about 1000 students a year. Students were taught core academic subjects, like reading and math, as well as more specialized vocational skills. The boys learned carpentry and blacksmithing while the girls learned how to cook and sew. The school even fielded sports teams; Jim Thorpe, considered by many to be the greatest athlete of all time (he won two Olympic medals in track and field and later starred in both pro football and Major League Baseball), attended Carlisle. The school marching band played at several presidential inaugurations.

But more important to Pratt, who lived on the school grounds and closely supervised every detail of school life, was the overarching ambition of the school's programs. We must "kill the Indian to save the man," he often said. The Indian students at Carlisle were forced to give up their past, renouncing their traditional cultures to learn the ways of Anglo-America. Upon arrival, their long hair was cut and they were issued uniforms. They were told to select an English name and were forbidden to speak their native languages. The children were organized into military-type units and drilled in the school yard. A military-style court system enforced campus rules and offenders served time in the old barracks guardhouse.

To complete the process of cultural assimilation, Pratt hired out the children for a portion of the year to neighboring farmers and manufacturers. The children provided cheap labor to their host families while, Pratt believed, the Indian students received a valuable exposure to Anglo-American culture and lifestyle. Ideally, every Indian child in America would be boarded with a non-Indian family, he argued. The Indians would be fully assimilated by placing the nation's 70,000 Native American children in the homes of white families.

Carlisle's Legacy

Over the school's 39-year existence, between 8000 and 12,000 students attended Carlisle, representing more than 85 Indian nations.21 The school was widely heralded as a model for other institutions, even though its graduation rates were low. Most students stayed only a few years, and, quite possibly, more students ran away than graduated. Pratt, himself, was forced to leave Carlisle in 1904. He had battled the Bureau of Indian Affairs since the 1870s. Now he argued that the bureau-administered reservations only bred dependency and impeded assimilation. In response, the BIA demanded his resignation from Carlisle.

Clearly, the school did not meet Pratt's grand expectations. Some students did acquire the skills needed to make their way into mainstream American society. Probably more returned to their native communities somewhat marginalized, stuck between the world of their parents and the world Pratt introduced but could not fully open to them.

The most significant legacy of the Carlisle School may have been the connections established by the students. Life-long friendships were formed, and more importantly, ties between disparate Indian nations were forged. Pratt noted this unintended consequence of his educational experiment. Launched in the hopes of Americanizing the students, the mixing of 85 Indian nations from all parts of the country had instead the effect of "nationalizing the Indian."22 Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan described this effect more bluntly in 1889; boarding schools like Carlisle, he said, broke "the shackles of tribal provincialism."23

Part of this was, indeed, the very purpose of the schools. They aimed at breaking down tribal loyalties and forging new identities for their students. But these schools aimed at replacing tribal identities with an Anglo-American identity, not a supratribal or Pan-Indian identity.

The Society of American Indians

The institutional expression of this Pan-Indian identity came in 1911 with the founding of the Society of American Indians at Columbus, Ohio. A graduate from the Carlisle School, Henry Standing Bear was one of six founding members. Born near Pierre, South Dakota, he entered Carlisle when he was fourteen. There he excelled in speech and debate, and upon graduation moved to Chicago, lived for a time at Jane Addams's Hull House, and attended night school. He would eventually serve on the staff of a United States Congressman and sit on the South Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. But in 1911, he joined with other well-educated Native Americans, from Carlisle and similar schools like the Indian Industrial Training School and the Hampton Institute, to found the SAI.

The SAI pursued two primary objectives: advancing educational opportunities for Native Americans and establishing a voice for Indians in American politics. Underlying both was the recognition that Native Americans needed to act collectively if they wanted to be heard. Tribal provincialism had to be overcome; Indians needed to look beyond their tribal identities and concerns in order to advance their common interests.

The SAI's approach was both new and problematic. The organization insisted that it did not advocate simple assimilationism. It was intent, instead, on preserving the cultural distinctiveness of Native Americans. As one spokesman said, the Indian should not "passively allow himself, like clay to be pressed into a white man's mold." But, the SAI added, Indians must make some concessions to the world that surrounded them. The Indian should "accustom himself to the culture that engulfs him . . . become a factor in it . . .[and] use his revitalized influence and more advantageous position in asserting and developing the great ideals of his race for the good of the greater race, which means all mankind."24

The organization would not last long. By the mid-1920s, it was divided internally over strategy and had attained only limited support in the broader Indian world. Its demand that Indians look beyond their tribal identities and make accommodations to the dominant white culture found little support among the vast majority of Indians who still lived on tribe-specific reservations and sent their children to schools located on tribal lands. But it paved the way for later organizations, including the American Indian Federation founded in 1934, and the National Congress of American Indians formed in 1944.

The National Congress of American Indians

Carlisle graduates played important roles in these organizations as well. And the NCAI proved more effective than its predecessors in carving out a strategy able to win mass support. It sought to advance issues commonly shared by Indians across the country, but it also promoted tribal rights and tribal cultures. More intent on building a Pan-Indian coalition than a singular Pan-Indian identity, the organization explicitly committed itself to defending local as well as national objectives.

Using this two-tiered approach, the NCAI grew within a decade into a powerful force in American politics. In 1946, it pressured Congress to create the Indian Claims Commission, providing a forum for tribes to pursue grievances against the federal government, and it joined local efforts in New Mexico and Arizona aimed at winning voting rights for Native Americans. Most importantly, the NCAI provided the national organization needed to defeat the ominously named "termination" policies launched in the 1950s.


Following World War II, the federal government's unique relationship with Native-American nations came under attack. Policy critics challenged the centuries-old policies under which Native Americans enjoyed considerable political and legal autonomy on lands guaranteed to them by the federal government. Using arguments advanced in the 1830s by Andrew Jackson and in the 1870s by Henry Dawes, advocates of termination argued that tribal lands should be removed from collective ownership and parceled out to individual Indians. Jurisdictional autonomy should also be abolished; Indians, from this point forward, living on individually owned plots of land should be subjected to all the laws of the states in which they resided. They would not become truly American, it was argued, until they were fully assimilated as individuals and made subject to all the laws imposed by the federal and state governments.

Support for the movement came from a variety of directions. Anticommunist crusaders in that Cold War era complained that the reservations were de facto socialist states; lands were collectively owned and private enterprise was subordinated to communal goals. Others argued that federal assistance bred dependency and stifled individualism. The supporters of termination labeled their proposal the Indian Freedom Program. By instituting these reforms, they argued, Indians would be liberated from the oppressive and debilitating collective structures that impeded their full development as individuals and entrepreneurs.

Congress took up the cause in 1953, when it authorized state governments to assume legal and civil jurisdiction over Indian lands. Subsequent legislation also transferred health and education services from the federal government to the states. Congress then began to dissolve, on a tribe by tribe basis, specific federal government-Indian arrangements established decades and centuries earlier, and laid the legal groundwork for the transferal of tribal lands to individual Indians.

Native Americans protested these policies for several reasons. They objected to the fact that they had been largely excluded from the policies' development. They worried about the impact on critical services once transferred to state governments. But most importantly, they objected to the broader goal of their assimilation into American society as individuals and the surrender of their historically protected and shared interests as members of tribes. Put simply, they did not want their tribes to cease to exist.

During the ensuing battle, the NCAI emerged as the voice of Indian resistance. Membership swelled, the organization's political power increased, and largely due to NCAI efforts, support within Congress for termination faded quickly. By 1960, Congress had all but stopped restructuring federal-Indian relationships. In 1973, President Richard Nixon formerly repudiated the policy of termination.

With the defeat of termination, the NCAI ensured, at least for a time, that Indian lands would remain under Indian control and subject only to federal oversight.

The victory ensured that federal guarantees of Indian sovereignty would continue. It may have not have been quite as dramatic as the Indian victory over Custer at the Little Big Horn. And between this historic battlefield and the halls of Congress lay a twisting path through Fort Marion, Florida, Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Columbus, Ohio. But in the context of a centuries-old battle for territorial and political autonomy, the victory won by the NCAI has proven more enduring.

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