Context for Carlisle: Whiteness and Native Assimilation 1880-1900

Written November 7, 2015


It was the end of the Indian Wars. The buffalo were dead and the Indians were starving on their reservations[1]. The rations handed out on reservations by the federal government looked fiscally unsustainable. “After the conquest,” says historian Patricia Limerick, “Indians were a population in trouble, with massive unemployment and poor prospects for economic recovery.”[2] Meanwhile, attendees of the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indian, a group of Progressive-era reformers, decided that the only problem with Indians, was that they were so Indian: “[t]hey acted on the assumption that inside every Indian was a white American citizen and property holder waiting to be set free.”[3] If only they could separate the individual Indian from his tribalism,[4] they could be the heroes of these people whose culture was vanishing[5].

Why not save the vanishing culture along with its individual representatives? Native American culture was enticing, exotic and exciting, evidenced by its role as source material for Wild West shows, an incredibly popular form of entertainment at the time[6]. Native American culture had the nation’s attention. But not all attention is good attention: the culture was, in the eyes of the empowered white public, for entertainment only. It was a child’s game, a clever show in which the “good” guys – white cowboys – always won. It wasn’t real to the white show-goers and policy makers. Indian culture had become a nostalgic recreation, not a way of life that was in any way sustainable in their modern world. More consequentially, Native culture was seen as disabling to the individual Indian; it was a culture that was bound to disappear because in the whitewashed lens of social Darwinism,[7] Native culture was the lesser of two, and must cede the future to the ‘fitter’ white culture. Social Darwinism had reached its popular climax in American discourse; it fueled white arguments both for and against assimilation of Indians. Applied to cultures, Social Darwinism supported allowing the Native American culture to die away unaided; applied to individuals, it argued against ‘helping’ them move into the dominant culture. The reformers who conceived and supported the Indian Boarding Schools took a different stance – they wanted to save the individual Indian by hurrying the demise of Indian culture.

In Legacy of Conquest, historian Patricia Limerick described the Mohonk plan to ‘save’ the Indians, saying “once they had become assimilated, voting property holders themselves, Indians would be able to protect themselves as white Americans did.”[8] There are two key ideas here. First, to be empowered individual Indians had to be made white, not just stripped of their Native culture, because only white people could be the masters of their own destiny. Second, one had to own property and be a member of the electorate in order to protect oneself. Limerick suggests that humanitarians who thought white avarice had made Indians vulnerable were partially to blame for the urgency of the Mohonk reformers, quoting then-Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz,[9] who said the government was “impotent to protect the Indians on their reservations, especially when held in common, from the encroachments of its own people.[10] But the government, throughout its history of Indian policy, had never shown an inclination to attempt, seriously, to keep settlers out of Indian territories. On the contrary, major events like President Jackson’s Indian Removal program[11] had encouraged the encroachment and outright theft by European-Americans of Native American lands. Furthermore, the Native Americans, like any group, had the best successes when they gathered in larger numbers. Thus the idea that communal lands weakened the stance of the Native Americans seems to fall flat, but for the value that white culture placed on individual property ownership. Private property ownership, or the pursuit of such, was thought by some contemporary philosophers to be one of the primary motivations of the developed human.[12] Living on communal land, then, further lessened the Native American in the eyes of white culture.

The Mohonk group set out to rescue Native Americans from Native culture, with Richard Henry Pratt at the helm with his Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School, to be funded and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Pratt, who is the first person known to use the word ‘racism,’ was one of the Mohonk attendees.[13] His school, he believed, would help Native American children, by cutting their tribal ties, removing them from their cultural practices, and teaching them to be ‘civilized’ – which was code for ‘white’. American progressivism, says historian Christina Snyder, was “still shaped around ideas of whiteness,”[14] but ‘whiteness’ itself was a vaguely defined classification. For Pratt and his fellow Mohonks, whiteness was a culture to which Indians could be elevated, but the scientific community was in the grip of a different philosophy. For Daniel Brinton, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1895, whiteness was an inescapably superior anatomical classification, reserved primarily for Anglo-Saxons.[15]

Brinton’s work gave a convenient rationale to the pervasive cultural chauvinism that defined race relations at the turn of the century, but for the majority of the white American population, from which the administrators and teachers of the boarding schools came, the culture of white authority was largely unconscious. It would be decades before science would verify the tendency of people in power to abuse that power,[16] yet Pratt shows a certain amount of naiveté in thinking that boarding schools would be conducted without abuse to Indian children. By the time the schools were investigated in the 1920s (six years after the close of the Carlisle School), it was clear that wasn’t the case. A 1928 report, titled The Meriam Report, said, “Punishments of the most harmful sort are bestowed in sheer ignorance, often in a sincere attempt to be of help.”[17] The intention to help seems to have been consistent. The experience of the intent varied considerably.

“Most unsettling is the experience of reading an Indian autobiography and finding in the details of the individual’s life no mention of the federal policies that were supposedly the key determinants of Indian life,” observed Limerick.[18] Indian boarding schools are a striking exception to that observation. Narratives of abuse at the hands of school administrators shape the theme of survivors’ stories; instances of kind treatment are harder to find. In Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You, Apache Eva Tulene Watt recalls her, her mother’s, and her siblings’ attendance at multiple boarding schools, including one Fransiscan school, St. John’s Indian School and Mission near Laveen, Arizona. Watt also details her family’s experiences at the government-run schools they attended, at Rice Station and San Carlos, Arizona, and Pratt’s own Carlisle school in Pennsylvania. The stories contained in Watt’s narrative frequently compare the schools. Some were thought to be “good” because the children had enough to eat while they were there (Carlisle) or they got beaten less often (St. John’s). Watt tells, too, of the “children catcher,” who caught her brothers one summer, and took them to the school at San Carlos without notifying their parents.[19] It must have been horrifying for the parents whose children simply didn’t come home from playing, but the rationale is clear. The boarding schools were mandatory; the parents and the parents’ culture were precisely what the policy sought to cut from the children. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wasn’t concerned with the consent of the vanishing race.

It’s easy to look back at Pratt and his Mohonk contemporaries and condemn their beliefs as culturally chauvinistic, describing as they did the failings of Indian culture compared to white culture, but there are aspects of their stance that are morally commendable, even by modern standards. At a time when many of the governing people wanted to outright murder the Indians, reformers like Pratt wanted – truly – to help. His arguments for assimilation countered popular science that would have made it easy to ignore the fate of Indians. Attempting to save the lives of the individual Native Americans was, in the context of the times, admirable, and perhaps the only effective way to help at all. One imagines that anyone advocating for simply treating Indian nations as we would have treated European nations – honoring borders and treaties, for instance – would have been chided into obscurity, accomplishing nothing. This was the age of Emerson, the abolitionist who firmly believed in the superiority of his mythical White Race, which for him described only people of English ancestry.[20] Was there any other option, any alternative to assimilation or annihilation that could have succeeded politically?

Pratt himself faced constant challenge from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was then largely populated by those who thought off-reservation boarding schools wasteful. The disagreement between Pratt and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ administration was not just a friendly philosophical difference of opinions. In 1886 the Superintendent of Schools under the Bureau’s control, John H. Oberly, threatened “to have [Pratt’s] scalp.”[21]

Eventually, Pratt’s philosophy of assimilation lost the confidence of the legislature, and the school was closed. The heyday of Indian Boarding Schools was over, though most lingered much longer than Carlisle.[22] The loss of legislative support was not in response to abuses in the schools, nor was it a shift toward a more helpful approach to the difficulties of Native Americans. Rather, it was a response to the rising public fear of ‘race-mixing,’ a social response to white fear of black and immigrant integration[23] that spilled across all the races. Assimilation became frightening to the electorate, and the legislature could not support any endeavors associated with it.

The pressure on Native Americans to be assimilated reduced, and may have even reversed in some ways, but that generation’s ties to family and culture were already damaged beyond repair.[24] The Indian Boarding Schools that remain in use have evolved into places that preserve and encourage Native culture, but they are still controversial to those involved in them. For those not involved, the schools are part of history, assumed to be closed. The nation has turned its attention away from the Native American. “Told so often that the Indians were vanishing, many Americans… assumed that it was true.”[25]



Brinton, Daniel. “The Aims of Anthropology.” Science 2, no. 35 (1895): 241-52.

“Carl Schurz.” Wikipedia. (accessed October 29, 2015).

“Carlisle Indian Industrial School.” Wikipedia. (accessed October 29, 2015).

Cave, Alfred A. “Abuse of Power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-1353.

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Demby, Gene. “The Ugly, Fascinating History of the Word Racism.” NPR. (accessed October 31, 2015).

“Historical Trauma.” About Healing and Justice. National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. (accessed November 4, 2015).

Leonard, Thomas C. “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization71 (2009): 37-51.

“Letter from Richard H. Pratt to Cornelius R. Agnew.” Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. Dickinson College. (accessed November 1, 2015).

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Zimbardo, Philip. “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Social Psychology Network. (accessed November 2, 2015).



[1] William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 218.

[2] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987), 210.

[3] Ibid., 196.

[4] Ibid., 196.

[5] “Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” Wikipedia, (accessed October 29, 2015).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Thomas C. Leonard, “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71 (2009): 37-51.

[8] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 197.

[9] Carl Schurz was the US Secretary of the Interior from 1876 to 1881; “Carl Schurz,” Wikipedia, (accessed October 29, 2015).

[10] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 197.

[11] The Indian Removal Program under President Andrew Jackson is described in Alfred A. Cave, “Abuse Of Power: Andrew Jackson And The Indian Removal Act Of 1830,” The Historian 65, no. 6 (December 2003): 1330-53.

[12] This idea was repeated by anthropologist Daniel Brinton, and is a paraphrase of John Stuart Mill’s ideas of human motivation; for more, see Daniel Brinton, “The Aims of Anthropology.” Science 2, no. 35 (1895): 251.

[13] Pratt’s use of ‘racism’ would come to be seen as ironic, because he was speaking against racism while lobbying for Indian Boarding Schools; Gene Demby, “The Ugly, Fascinating History of the Word Racism,” NPR, (accessed October 31, 2015).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 235-36.

[16] This was most famously demonstrated by the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971; for more, see Philip Zimbardo, “Stanford Prison Experiment,” Social Psychology Network, (accessed November 2, 2015).

[17] The report was named after it’s supervisor, Lewis Meriam; Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR, (accessed November 2, 2015).

[18] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 195.

[19] Eva Tulene Watt and Keith H. Basso, Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You: A White Mountain Apache Family Life, 1860-1975 (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 33-145.

[20] Painter, History of White People, 151-189.

[21] Pratt relayed this in a letter to his friend, Dr. Cornelius Agnew, dated March 27, 1886; Oberly was the Commissioner of the BIA from 1888 to 1889, but it’s unclear what years he was Superintendent of the School, except for his mention as that in Pratt’s letter. “Letter from Richard H. Pratt to Cornelius R. Agnew.” Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, Dickinson College, (accessed November 1, 2015).

[22] Carlisle closed in 1914 as more schools opened in the western states, closer and therefore more convenient to the reservations. The proximity was important to the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it reduced transportation costs. There are still some of these schools open today, but they are conducted under a vastly different philosophy, which includes retaining Indian culture. Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR,

[23] Painter, History of White People, 301.

[24] “Historical Trauma,” About Healing and Justice, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, (accessed November 4, 2015).

[25] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 213.


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