Origin story of America’s Indian Boarding Schools discovered in St. Augustine

Trauma was a way of life for the Indigenous children forced into government run boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As described by the Carlisle Indian School Project website:

“Students were forced to cut their hair, change their names, stop speaking their Native languages, convert to Christianity, and endure harsh discipline including corporal punishment and solitary confinement.”

Carlisle was the first of America’s Indian Boarding Schools, opened in 1879 by Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt.

Again, quoting the website:

“Pratt, like many others at that time, believed that the only hope for Native American survival was to shed all native culture and customs and assimilate fully into white American culture. His common refrain was ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.’”

White supremacy defined.

Thousands of students attended Carlisle during its 39 years in operation. The graves of 186 of them who died while attending are on the grounds.

I came across the name Richard Henry Pratt and his demented racist world view during the exhibition “Imprisoned but Empowered: Cheyenne Warrior Artists at Fort Marion” at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida in 2022. Pratt accompanied the Indigenous prisoners of war from the Southern Plains to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, just south of Jacksonville, at the conclusion of the Red River War between the tribes and U.S. government.

According to exhibition wall text at the Cummer, Pratt became friendly with the Native American prisoners and actually persuaded the Department of War to have their shackles removed and conditions improved. It was during this time of being around the warriors where he developed the idea to use military-style obedience to “help” these captives become men, an idea he later expanded into the Indian Boarding School nightmare.

Pratt successfully lobbied Congress into turning an abandoned barracks into what became the Carlisle Indian Boarding School to project his philosophy on a larger scale. Hundreds of other Native American boarding schools would eventually operate across the country, some run by the government, many more by churches. All under the guiding principle that white Christianity was superior to the Native way of life, all enforcing it brutally. All believing they were “right” and moral in doing so and that they were helping Native people.

America’s Indian Boarding Schools have as their origin story Fort Marion, Florida – previously and again today known as Castillo de San Marcos directly in St. Augustine’s historic district – and the exhibition being shared at the Cummer Museum. It was a revelation to me, and I believe it more firmly now than ever, art museums share the most accurate and authentic version of American history. Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Dawoud Bey, Kara Walker, T.C. Cannon. Cheyenne warrior artists at Fort Marion. Artists and historians. A people’s history.

A history expunged from the populist, patriarchal, colonial, white supremacist telling which has populated textbooks, documentaries and “history” museums since the nation’s founding. The history I was taught in my mostly all white, middle class, middle American schools and ignorantly believed for more than 40 years.

Reading the wall text and thinking about this exhibition, a chill runs down my spine knowing that Pratt firmly thought what he was doing was actually best for Native people. His belief in white supremacy and Christianity was so deeply engrained in his being that he was convinced the forced removal from their families, forced obedience, forced religion, forced language and erasure of all they had known was preferrable to Native people, so long as the end result was a closer alignment with whiteness and Christianity.

As the country confronts its greatest contemporary threat – white supremacy – that is the mindset of the enemy. That is not a mindset changed by public service announcements. It’s not a mindset changed by a new president. That is a mindset that can only be stomped down through generations of education, an honest and complete telling of America’s history of abuses, a story no one has – or is – sharing more powerfully than the nation’s artists and art museums.

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