Museum Ludwig X Terra Foundation Blog

December 19, 2018

Kill the Indian, Save The Man: Settler colonialism and documents of transformation from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

Sometimes a search takes you to unexpected places and what you find leaves you with more questions than answers. By chance, I came across a set of two photographs that are, as part of the Agfa Foto-Historama, in the photography collection of the Museum  Ludwig. Compiled by the German chemist Erich Stenger at the turn of the century, the Historama was meant to be a collection of images and objects that would tell the history of photography. The photos were part of this collection. I had never seen photographs like them, but I was fascinated and wanted to know more.

The two photographs show a group of eleven young men and women and each has an inscription and lists the names of those in the photos. The inscription on the first photograph reads “Chiricahua Apaches as they arrived at Carlisle from Fort Marion, Florida, November 4th, 1886”. The second photograph is inscribed with the words “Chiricahua Apaches four months after arriving at Carlisle”. In the first photograph the group is standing in front of a building in what appears to be ragged and dirty clothes, some of the boys are wearing the Chiricahua’s traditional breechcloth and most of them are not wearing shoes. They are certainly not dressed for the cold winter weather in Pennsylvania. Almost all are looking straight at the camera with a mix of fear and anger in their faces. They all look exhausted and worn out and don’t seem to really know what they are supposed to do. The second photograph shows the same group but they are now wearing uniform-like clothes and their hair is cut and groomed. They are all looking straight in to the camera, their expressions blank. By searching “Carlisle” and “Chiricahua Apache” I learned that the two are photographs of a group of students who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania from 1886 to 1898.1 The photographs are a “before and after” set that the school’s superintendent, Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, had made.

Chiricahua Apache warriors, Sierra Madre Mountains (Mexico, March 30, 1886), photo: C.S. Fly

The Chiricahua Apache were originally from Arizona Territory. They had been brought to Fort Marion, after chiefs Chihuahua, Nana, Naiche and Mangus and about 130 men, women and children who had left the reservation with them had turned themselves in to the United States army on September 4, 1886. The Chiricahua Apache were the last tribe to surrender. The entire tribe, almost 500 men, women and children,would spend the next 27 years as prisoners of war: first at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, then at the Mt. Vernon Barracks in Alabama and finally at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. While at Fort Marion, the tribe’s teenagers and young adults were taken to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, or Carlisle as it was known, was founded in 1879 as an off-reservation boarding school for Native American children, teenagers and young adults by retired army captain Richard Henry Pratt. By the time the school closed in 1918, about 12,000 students from tribes all over the United States including Alaska had attended and hundreds, possibly thousands of photographs had been taken of the school, the teachers, students and student life.2

When students first arrived at Carlisle, everything “native” was taken away from them, their clothing, their hair, their names and their language. This was the same for the group in the photographs. They were given a school uniform; their hair was cut short and then they were assigned English names: Se-an-il-zay became Clement, Eschavzey became Humphrey, Ki-ah-tel became Beatrice, No-ran became Samson, Pah-go-stat-um became Jeanette, Chee became Hugh, Ekarden became Basil, E-at-en-nah became Bishop, Na-dah-sthil-ah became Margaret, Hogee became Ernest and Eskesejah became Fredik.

Days at Carlisle followed a strict schedule. Discipline was harsh and corporal punishment was the norm – resistance was futile. Students marched everywhere and performed military drills in the school’s courtyard. English was the only language spoken and they were not allowed to practice their religious or cultural traditions. Half of the day they spent with lessons in the classroom, the other half was spent learning a trade. The majority of what the school needed was produced by the students and they also made different products that were sold to the profit of the school. Students participated in a so-called outing system where they were placed with local families and worked alongside them on their farms or in the household. In this way, they would be exposed to a “proper” family and family structure. Sports and music played a large role at Carlisle as well. The school’s band took part in every presidential inauguration since it was founded and some of the most important coaches and players in the history of American football came from Carlisle.3 Diseases spread quickly at Carlisle and many students died because their immune systems were not familiar with diseases such as tuberculosis or measles and could not put up any resistance. The death toll among the Chiricahua was especially high. Of the group of eleven from the photographs, only Se-an-il-zay (Clement), Ki-ah-tel (Beatrice), Chee (Hugh) and Pah-go-stat-um (Jeanette) survived. The others either died at Carlisle or were sent home to die.

Students hated the strict military-style school environment and suffered under the separation from their families and community. On the other hand, at least in the first years that Carlisle existed, parents encouraged their students to go. Both students and parents knew that learning the English language as well as reading and writing would be essential for their future within a majority white society. Asa Daklugie, who was part of the second group of Chiricahua Apaches to arrive at Carlisle, came to the conclusion that “[…] some of the things he [Pratt] required of us were beneficial. It was his intention that all decisions be for our good, regardless of our dislike for them”.4 None of this means that Carlisle wasn’t that bad; it just means that Pratt put more consideration in to the way his school was run and in his choice of teachers and caretakers. The problem of such schools was not that students were forced to learn how to read and write or to study math and geometry, it was that they were forced to abandon their identity as Native Americans, the forced Christianization and the subtle messages they sent out about the students’ presumed cultural and racial inferiority. It is not unlikely that Pratt and other teachers at Carlisle truly cared for their students and wanted them to succeed. Pratt did not believe in the superiority of one race over the over, and thus he saw his students as being as capable as any other child, teenager or young adult. But even with the best of intentions, you can still cause great harm.

Off-reservation boarding schools like Carlisle are not only an example of settler colonialism but are part of the United States governments effort to “eliminate the Native”, in this case not by brute force but by forced assimilation that equaled cultural genocide. Carlisle was the first such boarding school and became the model for an entire system of such schools. These schools represent a specific aspect of the United States settler colonial history and are an example of how it affects both the indigenous population as a whole and individually. They also show us how settler colonial structures became a form of institutionalized and systemic racism.

Settler colonialism is distinct form of colonialism that can be described as a continuous event with no end in sight. It is a structure, not an event. Like colonialism, it also begins with the arrival of a foreign conqueror, but here the colonizer comes to stay with the goal of domesticating the land, using its resources for his or her profit and to over time become the majority non-indigenous population. The indigenous population is the obstacle that stands in the way of the settler colonizer’s access to this land and must therefore either be absorbed or if resistance arises, be eliminated. Over time the indigenous population is racialized and is then ultimately targeted due to their race: “Indigenous North Americans were not killed, driven away, romanticized, assimilated, fenced in, bred white and otherwise eliminated as the original owners of the land, but as Indians.5 The indigenous population is annihilated, displaced and marginalized not only to ensure the settler’s position as the superior group and to reaffirm his dominance but to also enhance his economic power.

As mentioned before, Pratt did not believe that Native Americans were of an inferior race. This was the biggest way in which Pratt deviated from the general opinion of the time and it influenced the way he understood America’s “Indian problem”. He was known for coining the phrase “Kill the Indian, save the man”6 and it is synonymous with what he believed was his mission at Carlisle. He believed that the “savage” and “primitive” ways of Native Americans were the product of their environment and that once they left their “Indian-ness” behind, of course with a little help and guidance from their white friends, they would fully assimilate into white US society and be indistinguishable from any other North American.7

Pratt had consciously based Carlisle as far away from “Indian Territory”8 and the Western frontier as he could, believing that by isolating students from their tribal communities, his methods would be more effective. It included embracing Christianity and a Protestant work ethic with a touch of American capitalism9 instead of living in a “primitive” tribal society where the focus was on providing for the group as a whole and living in a way that was respectful towards the land and its resources. Pratt did not believe that the indigenous population stood in the way of the American Dream, but that they could be a part of it – just not on their own terms. They had to abandon themselves to become culturally extinct. Ultimately, the settler colonizer’s goal is the elimination of the original population and to replace it with a new settler society.

The many photographs that he had made of the school, the students and student life were Pratt’s way of proving that these so-called “savages” could be transformed in to peaceful, educated, law-abiding citizens. The photos were powerful visual aids he used to drum up support for his school. And the arrival of the Chiricahua Apache students at Carlisle played right in to this.

Part 2

[Bild: Choate, John Nicholas Gruppenbild von Chiricahua Apachen, Carlisle (Pennsylvania), 1886. © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, rba_d042445]



  1. They were part of a larger group of Chiricahua that arrived at school between November 4, 1886 and April 30, 1887.
  2. It is difficult to estimate how many photographs there are because the photographs are spread out over different public and private collections and this does not account for the photographs that are in private hands.
  3. Examples are Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox Nation) and coach Pop Warner.
  4. Ball, p. 151
  5. Wolfe, p. 388
  7. Pratt also viewed Carlisle and boarding schools like it only as a necessary first step towards civilization and not as a long-term solution.
  8. “Indian Territory” was the land west of the Mississippi, specifically what is today the state of Oklahoma, was then called. In 1834, the first Indian reservations were created to enable the removal of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”, the Choctaw, the Seminole, the Chickasaw, the Muscogee (Creek) and the Cherokee. The Cherokee’s long and brutal trek to Indian Territory is known as the Trail of Tears.
  9. See Donald A. Grinde,Taking the Indian out of the Indian: U.S. Policies of Ethnocide through Education

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