As the Dawes Act was allocating tribal lands to individuals and selling other land to whites, Sen. Dawes was also instrumental in a system of Indian schools that were consciously designed to take the Indian out of Native American children. Richard H. Pratt was a cavalry officer who spent eight years in Indian Territory commanding a unit of African-American Buffalo Soldiers. He was involved with the campaign to keep Indians on their reservations and would track down hunting parties and return them to the reservation. He was appalled by the desperate conditions he saw.
Pratt's solution was to take Indians off of the reservation and integrate them into white society through education. His intentions were probably good, although he often characterized his approach in stark terms:
Group of Omaha boys in cadet uniforms, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880.
Photographer, J. N. Choate. Source — National Archives, NWDNS-75-IP-1-10.
"I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked . . . Kill the Indian and save the man."
He got support from Sen. Dawes and from groups of Indian reformers like the Quakers. In 1879, the federal government turned over a deserted military barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to Pratt along with money to start his school. Pratt wasted no time in hiring a staff and teachers. Then, he traveled west to the Rosebud and Pine Ridge agencies just across the Nebraska border to convince reluctant parents to send their children halfway across the country to become white men. That first year, 82 children went to Carlisle to be educated. Some were from families who wanted the education, others were from poor families and some were orphans who had lost their parents. You can see the history of Pratt and Carlisle in this video segment.
The school grew, in part because Pratt used ingenious "before and after" photographs to demonstrate his success to potential white supporters. Over 10,000 Indian children went through the Carlisle program in the 39 years it was open. Eventually, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas Morgan, expanded the educational effort and built a total of 19 schools across the country. One school was built in Geneva, Nebraska. You can learn more about what it was like to go to schools like the one in Geneva here.
But the schools gradually developed critics. For one thing, many of the children died at school as they were exposed to diseases that they had no natural immunity for. Few graduated during the eight years there were at school. Many young students were so homesick that they tried to run away, despite the fact that it might be over a thousand miles back home. Punishment was harsh for those that ran or for those who could not follow a set of militaristic rules. They were punished for speaking their native languages. There were disagreements over the kind of education that was best to teach. And despite all the punishment and intensive living experience, the children tended to maintain their sense of Indian identity. Most did not assimilate. You can see some of the debate here.
Finally, in 1928, the Brookings Institute was hired to study "The Problem of Indian Administration." That report criticized the poor conditions of buildings in the system, the care for students and a poor curriculum. The Hoover administration was embarrassed by the report. It increased spending on Indian education, but began to press for better schools on the reservations. It was just too expensive to ship kids halfway across the country. Throughout the 1930s, most of the Indian schools, including Carlisle and Geneva, closed.