The genocide of the Indigenous peoples of North America began 529 years ago this week.

On Oct. 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus set foot on what is now called The Bahamas, claiming Spanish ownership of the land and its inhabitants.

Funded by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, the Italian’s claim employed the preconceived notion of European dominance as a justification for exerting ownership and authority over the land and its people, specifically the lands of the Taíno peoples.

Columbus quickly ordered six native individuals to be seized, noting in his journal that the “Indians,” as he called them, would make good servants. Soon after, he sent thousands of Taíno peoples to Spain to be sold into slavery, many of whom died as they sailed like cargo across the Atlantic Ocean.

The arrival of Columbus in the “New World” marks a turning point in human history, but I want to focus on another moment 400 years after that fateful day that encapsulates the Anglo-European mindset when engaging Indigenous peoples.

In June 1892, retired U.S. Army Colonel Richard Henry Pratt delivered a speech in Denver, Colorado, at the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction.  Titled “The Advantage of Mingling Indians with Whites,” it includes an infamous phrase that captures the heartbeat of genocide.

Pratt’s reputation while serving in the U.S. Calvary was muddled. On one hand, he participated in the Washita Campaign (1858-1869) and Red River War (1874-1875), subduing and killing thousands of Native Americans. On the other hand, he displayed an unusual and complex sense of regret that violence was the only way to “civilize” the “savage.”

Later in life, Pratt even railed against segregation, coining the term “racism.” He declared in 1902, “Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.”

Returning to Pratt’s Denver speech, we see his proposed strategy for preventing war and bloodshed: complete assimilation of Indigenous peoples into the white, Christian culture.

He claimed, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indians there are in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Pratt’s strategy to “kill the Indian to save the man” involved the establishment of the Indian Boarding School System. The first school began in 1879, located on an abandoned military post in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Pratt persuaded tribal leaders and families to send their children to him to receive invaluable instruction and training. His true intentions and motivations were disclosed in that 1892 speech.

“It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage. He is born blank, like all the rest of us. Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life,” Pratt asserted.

“We, left in the surroundings of civilization, grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose,” he said. “Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.”

While Pratt’s overarching goal was for Indigenous peoples to exhibit a “loyalty to the stars and stripes,” his secondary goal was to force them to learn and practice the Christian religion.

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series. It is adapted and shortened from a lecture Randall delivered at Baylor University on Oct. 12, 2021. Part two is available here. Part three is available here.

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