Richard Henry Pratt for the Higgy

March 31, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In Arizona and elsewhere there has been a very difficult history regarding the education of Native American children, and a good portion (but not all) of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of Richard Henry Pratt. Born in 1840, Pratt had a long military career which included service in the Union Army during the Civil War and in later military action against Native Americans during the Reconstruction era. Pratt is best known however for championing the forced abduction of Native American children into distant boarding schools in order to “assimilate” them. “Kill the Indian, and Save the man” Pratt is famous for saying.

Pratt’s terrorizing of Native American families lasted for decades but his paternalistic non-sense victims also  included African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, Asian-Americans, and Mormons.

Pratt’s zeal for benevolent assimilation cultural genocide had more than a faint echo of the effort to make Catholics into “real Americans” during this same period. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan and their fellow travelers had a state law passed to make it illegal for a family to attend a private school, which was thankfully struck down by the United States Supreme Court. Pratt however seemed to look on the paternalistic zeitgeist with approving envy, noting “Indian schools are just as well calculated to keep the Indians intact as Indians as Catholic schools are to keep the Catholics intact. Under our principles we have established the public school system, where people of all races may become unified in every way, and loyal to the government; but we do not gather the people of one nation into schools by themselves, and the people of another nation into schools by themselves, but we invite the youth of all peoples into all schools. We shall not succeed in Americanizing the Indian unless we take him in exactly the same way.”

Let me put this through the translato-meter “Our profoundly illiberal attempts to homogenize Catholics are awesome so let’s quadruple down and force it down the unwilling throats of Native Americans at the point of a gun.”

Pratt founded the first “Indian School” in Pennsylvania and the folly spread around the country. Children were forcibly abducted from their families, transported vast distances away, beaten when they spoke their native language, forced to cut their hair etc.  The damage done by these practices was huge past the point of quantification and needless to say things did not turn out the way Pratt planned. Today Native American students have on average the lowest levels of academic achievement to be found in the NAEP. The only good thing I can find to say about Pratt is that he was a sharp critic of the reservation system and argued (correctly imo) that the system was producing a damaging dependence on the federal government. Fair enough but Pratt’s alternative vision seems to have been to place Native American children in internment camp schools against their will-even worse.

It will only be a matter of time until you next read some misguided soul attempting to wax poetic about how allowing people to choose education for themselves is somehow a threat to democracy and the common good. “Kids need to attend their zoned public school you see, after all, it’s for their own good,” will be the gist of it. When that happens, think of Richard Henry Pratt and the horrors he caused for decades. Then, in the most polite way possible, invite the fool and/or villain pushing this line of thought to go to hell, go directly to hell, to not pass “Go” and not to collect $200. If they are unfortunate enough to actually get there, they can say hello to RHP, who I am happy to nominate for a William Higginbotham Inhumanitarian Award.