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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 296

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This is the grave of Richard Henry Pratt.

Born in Rushford, New York in 1840, Pratt had a bit of a tough childhood. He survived smallpox in 1847. Then his father went to California as part of the gold rush, where he was murdered by other miners. When the Civil War started, Pratt joined the Union army in Indiana, where the family had moved before his father died. He started out as an enlisted man, became a second lieutenant in 1864, was transferred into administrative work, and was mustered out as a captain in 1865. He went back to Indiana to run a hardware store, but found it boring evidently. He rejoined the military in 1867 and became an lieutenant in the 10th U.S. Cavalry, which was a black unit. These were the Buffalo Soldiers and so Pratt went to the West. He was involved in the major wars of genocide, including on the Washita in 1868-69 and the notorious Red River War in 1874-75. Pratt was highly interested in Native peoples and wanted something other than literal genocide against them.

Much to the consternation of his old friends William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, President Grant wanted to pursue a peace policy with Native peoples as much as possible. So he wanted to hold Natives as prisoners rather than just murder them in a state of war. Pratt was highly intrigued by the idea of retraining Indians to be as white as possible. Grant was too. So Pratt was given the opportunity to go to Fort Marion, Florida, where many Natives were being held prisoner and engage in what might charitably be called Americanization campaigns but what really should be considered cultural genocide. Pratt had powerful allies in all this, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. Of course, Natives resisted–everything from trying to escape to cutting up their white clothes. The violence of the U.S. military was the gentle reminder of who was in charge. Meanwhile, Pratt wouldn’t let these people, many of whom were some of the fiercest warriors of peoples such as the Kiowa and Comanche, major tribal leaders, from seeing their families or engaging in any of their traditions.

Following this experiment, Pratt was given permission to engage this on a large-scale. He went to the U.S. military instillation at Carlisle, Pennsylvania and started the notorious Carlisle Indian School in 1879. In this, he had a mission–“Kill the Indian in him and save the man” as he notoriously stated. For this, he considered himself a “friend of the Indian.” Some friend. This term had gone back to the New Englanders who opposed Indian Removal in the 1830s, but their friendship was always nothing but paternalism and the demands that they emulate whites, especially New England Protestants. And how was the man to be saved? He would have to renounce everything about being Native. Converting to Christianity was essential, as was learning English, dressing like whites, getting haircuts like whites, and a lot of manual labor. So was farming in a way approved by white Americans. Jeffersonian agrarianism was the way to go. Did it matter that the reservations were largely very poor and dry land not given to Midwest-style agriculture? Of course not. What mattered was that Natives stayed on the reservation, stopped hunting, and renounced all their religious ceremonies. And what was the solution for this friend of the Indian when Natives refused to do this and, say, speak their own language? Beatings. Interestingly, no one supported all of this more than Quakers, the supposedly nonviolent religions group. They were heavily involved in the Indian school movement.

To get to Carlisle and the other Indian schools based on it, children were kidnapped from their parents on the reservations, using maximum force. There is no other word to describe it. It might have been official kidnapping at the point of an Army gun, but kidnapping it very much was. Then, Pratt and others killed their culture. What happened in the process? Oh, just enormous numbers of suicides, rampant sexual abuse and other forms of physical violence, the murder of children, and unchecked disease epidemics. And for those students who survived all this, they returned to the reservations between two cultures–no longer knowing their own language or fitting into their society and of course never accepted by racist whites. Whether you want to consider Pratt an improvement on the other whites who considered Natives subhumans who deserved to be slaughtered is up to you. Pratt loved to take before and after pictures to show the progress he made. Here is one example, of Tom Torlino, a young Navajo man.

Pratt often clashed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs over Native issues. He wanted his cultural genocide. The BIA wanted Natives to stay on the reservation. Pratt believed the reservations stopped assimilation. He began to publicly denounce the BIA. This finally led to his leaving the Army and resigning as head of Carlisle in 1904. Pratt retired to Rochester, where he continued pushing his viewpoints on Native issues, but he was no longer particularly influential. He died in 1924.

In my view, Richard Henry Pratt is one of the worst Americans to ever live. His life is a testament to the very worst in Americans. So was that of people such as John Chivington, who just wanted to massacre all Natives. I choose not to say that Pratt was any more moral than Chivington. He is truly despised by Native peoples today and holds major responsibility for the disappearance of tribal languages and other traditional parts of Native culture.

Richard Henry Pratt is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to discuss other whites who claimed to be friends of Native peoples but who had, uh, checkered records, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Collier, progenitor of the Indian New Deal but who was also responsible for the catastrophic Navajo livestock removal program, is in Taos, New Mexico. So is Kit Carson. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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