Kill the Indian, Save the Man by Ward Churchill

from Kill the Indian, Save the Man

“Imposing the Nation Pattern of the Oppressor”

The resemblance of residential schools to military facilities extended far beyond haircuts and uniforms. Captain Pratts prototypical Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which opened its doors in November 1879 and in many respects served as the template for what followed, was actually established in an unused army barracks in Pennsylvania. So, too, were a number of others, such as those at Fort Shaw, Montana, and Fort Lewis, Colorado. Even those, like the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School (Newkirk, Oklahoma) and the Phoenix Indian Industrial School (Arizona), constructed specifically for the purpose to which they were put, were visibly patterned after military compounds. Although less conspicuous there, the situation in Canada—insofar as “dormitories” were typically built along the lines of barracks bays, if nothing else — was similar. The layouts of most “campuses,” geometrically precise and incorporating such features as parade grounds, were thus unabashedly designed to convey a sense closer to regimentation than to mere “orderliness.”

More to the point, perhaps, was the fact that the children actually were regimented in military fashion. Almost without exception, photos of the youngsters attending Carlisle during Pratts tenure show them assembled in ranks, awaiting inspection or instructions, or marching in lockstep from one point to the next. Moreover, as every newcomer quickly discovered, “nearly every aspect of his [or her] daily existence—eating, sleeping, working, learning, praying—would be rigidly scheduled, the hours of the day intermittently punctuated by a seemingly endless number of bugles and bells demanding  this  or  that response.”

The children were awakened between five and six in the morning and went to bed between eight and nine at  night. In between there was little time for recreation. The daily routine was very much like a military school. “You are drilled to the dining room for breakfast . . . and then you are drilled to the school yard,” a Santa Clara woman recalled of the Santa Fe Indian School. During the Sunday dress parade at the Albuquerque Indian School, each student carried a “dummy rifle” and was “dressed up like a regular army.” At Haskell Institute the military organization was even more rigorous. Every student at this school was in a regular army outfit, and in 1922 eighty of the older Students were in a special machine-gun company, which had undergone two weeks training with the Kansas State Militia the previous summer.

” ‘It was a military school, wrote Helen Sekaquaptewa of the Phoenix Indian School, which she began to attend in 1915. ‘We marched to the dining room three times a day to band music. We rose to a bell and had a given time for making our beds, cleaning our rooms, and being ready for breakfast. Everything was done on schedule, and there was no time for idleness.’ Boys and girls lined up in uniform each Sunday morning. The boys saluted and the girls held out their hands to be checked; the ‘officers’ noted every flaw in appearance [emphasis original].” “We dressed, we ate, we drilled, we studied and recited our lessons with a precision that left not one minute without its dudes,” recounted another former student. “Pupils needed a pass to leave the campus, and were expected to salute teachers, officers, and fellow students ‘with proper respect.” Others have written bitterly about the “cold and bullying staff, more like army superiors than mentors.”

Pratt and his superiors sought to justify their imposition of a “Prussian” regime with glowing descriptions of the “health benefits, ability to concentrate, and self-confidence” supposedly imparted thereby, while more can- did—or honest—observers extolled the “virtues” of “patriotism” and “obedience” being systematically hammered into previously “wild” youngsters. As students at the Sherman Institute (Riverside, California) were informed in 1910:

Obedience is the foundation of the great law of life. It is the common fundamental law of all organization, in nature, in military, naval, commercial, political, and domestic circles. Obedience is the great essential to securing the purpose of life. Disobedience means disaster. The first disastrous act of disobedience brought ruin upon humanity and that is still going on. “The first duty of a soldier is obedience” is a truth forced upon all soldiers the moment they enter military life. The same applies to school life. The moment a student is instructed to do a certain thing, no matter how small or how great, immediate action on his part is a duty and should be a pleasure . . . What your teachers tell you to do you should do without question. Obedience means marching right on whether you feel like it or not.

Echoes of Commissioner Thomas Mortons earlier demand that the residential schools take all possible steps to infuse native children with a “fervent” U.S. patriotism are unmistakable. As might be expected, these reverberations spilled over into the roughly two hours per day which in most schools were devoted to “academic” instruction. Here, first emphasis was on the “Three Rs”—reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic—with the goal of bringing all students up to the rudimentary levels of proficiency necessary to allow them to meet the needs of potential employers in the “real world.”   As the children progressed, increasing weight was placed on what were called the “lessons of citizenship” or “civilization,” using texts like Horace E. Scudders A History of the United States of America for the purpose. There, the youngsters learned that the country was “peopled by men and women who crossed the seas in faith [and that] its foundations [were] laid deep in a divine order.” The “nation has been entrusted with liberty,” and that “carries with it grave duties: the enlargement of liberty and justice is the victory of the people over the forces of evil.”

What indigenous students were to make of the fact that their own people—and thus they themselves—had not “crossed the sea” to get to America, and whether it meant that they weren’t really “people,” but rather formed the “forces of evil” that had to be overcome, were questions none too subtly answered by Scudders depiction of the “Indian race”: “While the tribes differed from one another, all the Indians were in some points alike. They were brave, but they were treacherous. They could bear hunger and torture in silence, but they were cruel in their treatment of captives . . . [thev were] ignorant barbarians . . . like wild animals [who perpetrated gratuitous] massacres,”and so on. Small wonder that the children came to identify far more with the mythic legions of noble white men populating their textbooks and classroom lectures than they did with the grotesquely distorted caricatures of their own ancestors and traditions presented therein.

The incantation of “faith” and “divine order” as cornerstones in the “proper” understanding of history and civics dovetailed perfectly with the lessons delivered during the second half of the typical instructional day—again, about two hours—which was explicitly devoted to the proselytizing of Christianity. This, in turn, conformed not only to the fact that implanting the “true faith” was integral to the overseers’ mandate to “impose the national pattern” they represented, but with the fact that the churches had established Indian residential schools as part of their missionary programs long before governments of either the U.S. or Canada had set out to do so. In both countries—partly to acquire the benefit of their experience, partly as a cost-constraining expedient—these preexisting institutions and their staffs/faculties were simply incorporated, usually on a contract basis, into, the official system with the result that the churches were in this sense made responsible for the fulfillment of official policy. Conversely, church representatives were positioned to exert decisive influence in the formation of educational policy as it pertained to Indian.

In Canada, “the residential school system was a creature of the federal government even though the children in the schools were, in most cases, in the care of the churches,” while, in the U.S., the reverse may ultimately have been the case. “Even as the government edged the mission societies to the margin” in the U.S., however, “its teachers also sought to imbue pupils with some form of Christianity. For most secular as well as missionary educators, ‘civilization’ was inconceivable unless grounded in Christian . . . values.”    Consequently, and regardless of whether church or state was ascendant in operating the schools at any given moment or location, the result was the same. Even as they underwent a harsh and thoroughgoing process of deculturation (or “denationalization”) the children were systematically “reenculturated” to function in psychointellectual terms as “little white people.” Given the virulently racialist constructions of role and place by which the U.S. and Canadian settler societies were/are defined, of course, “white” was/is something an American Indian child could never become. Thus, the youngsters, both individually and collectively, were forced into the impossible position of “fitting in” to neither their own society nor its ostensible replacement.


For five consecutive generations, from roughly 1880 to 1980, Native American children in the United States and Canada were forcibly taken from their families and relocated to residential schools. The stated goal of this government program was to “Kill the Indian to Save the Man.” Half of the children did not survive the experience, and those who did were left permanently scarred. The resulting alcoholism, suicide, and the transmission of trauma to their own children has led to a social disintegration with results that can only be described as genocidal. 

Ward Churchill is the author of A Little Matter of Genocide, among other books. He is currently a Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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