In the late 1800s, Native Americans were losing the U.S-Indian wars, particularly after the Civil War freed up troops to patrol the West. But there was still the “Indian problem.”
Native Americans were still called savages living in the midst of civilized farmers. By the 1870s, Indian reform groups were becoming more powerful. The Indian Rights Association conducted their own investigations of conditions on the reservations and was one of the first organizations to hire a full time lobbyist in Washington. Like the slavery abolitionists before them, the Indian reform movement pointed out the flawed morality of taking the land of indigenous people simply because the Europeans “discovered” the land and wanted it.
The choices seemed simple and stark to the reformer movement — either kill all the Indians or assimilate them into white civilization through education. Popular press reports about events, such as Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s desperate attempt to return from Oklahoma to his ancestral homelands in Nebraska, to bury his dead son, captured the sympathies of the nation.
Boarding schools were set up to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Tribal languages and cultures were discouraged. Sherman High School in Riverside, California is one of the last.
So, even before the Civil War, reformers had pushed the federal government to begin an assimilation policy of educating Indians. By the 1860s, the federal government set up 48 “day schools” near some of the reservations. Indian students would travel off the reservations, attend school and return home. The reformers hoped that this system would allow the students to civilize their parents, as well, by sharing what they were learning.
Just the opposite happened — parents were perfectly capable of teaching their children tribal languages, cultures and belief systems, despite the efforts of the schools. The lessons of the day were obliterated at night by the realities of communal tribal living.
In the late 1870s, the reformers tried a new experiment — reservation boarding schools. The idea was that students would live all week in the boarding schools that were built a little farther away from the reservations. But as time went by, the families simply moved their tee pees closer to the schools.
By 1875, Army Lt. Richard Henry Pratt was ready for a bold new experiment. He was in charge of 72 Indian prisoners who had been fighting the Army in the southern plains. Pratt transported these Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche and Caddo prisoners halfway across the continent to St. Augustine, Florida. (Ironically, St. Augustine had been the first Spanish settlement in North America.) It was a terrifying experience for the transplanted Indians.
For Pratt, it was an opportunity to try out his new ideas about education. He began teaching the prisoners English and, after they learned English came European ideas, particularly the concepts of civilization and Christianity. Then came lessons in agriculture and the working trades.