Some Americans tried to remove Native Americans from their land, but others wanted to help “civilize” them. One group founded to accomplish this, the Friends of the Indian, opened schools to educate and Europeanize the Indians. As you read these documents, think about whether members of the group were truly “friends” to the Indians they helped. Were they well-intentioned? Did their work make the Indians better off?
Diaries of Alice Fletcher
Source: Alice Fletcher was an ethnologist (someone who studies and compares the language, religion, customs, and culture of groups of people). In the 1880s she lived among a number of Native American tribes to learn about their customs. She became a founder of the “Friends of the Indians.” In the diary entries below, she writes about her experiences on the Sioux Reservation in 1881.
October 5, 1881
Wednesday A.M. Rainy again and we can’t get on. Buffalo-chip is a Medicine man, has little positive humor, rather sober and dignified. A queer childish consciousness. This morning he took a stick and with queer mumblings, he raised it to and fro. This was to gain better weather. It is a strange thing to sit and witness actual heathen performances. One realizes the power and gift of spiritual life by the blessed Lord. I needed to see all this to realize the truth of “I am the way, the truth and the life”. The darkness and poverty of their mental life is pitiful….
This A.M. I have been teaching Wajapa more arithmetic, trying to make the figures clear to him. One feels so sorry for them, so longs to broaden and deepen and brighten their life.
October 15, 1881
An old Indian sat there and when we came in, said, “How you do?” and extended his hand. Quite polite to give his sole English.
White Thunder was on the bed. He was not very friendly toward me, I thought. We all sat on chairs. Several other Indians there, two young men and an old man. Swift Bear came in and stayed.
While we sat there, White Thunder’s wife began to cook. She made bread and baked it, terrible stuff, heavy and poor. Coffee and some sort of stripped and dried meat boiled with pork. A cloth was put on the floor between White Thunder’s bed and the stove and the meal served on china plates and cups and saucers.
A young pretty girl came in, brought in meat and looked bright and pleasing. This was the wife’s younger sister, had been at Carlisle school. She is about eighteen years old.
I understand that White Thunder wants to marry this girl as his second wife. She declines. It is rather startling and unpleasant to think about this woman’s future. I hope she will hold out.
After the meal, White Thunder began his speech. It seemed to me that the speech lacked in friendliness. He wanted to know what we were here for.
I said that I had their good at heart. I had heard that this summer many of the children were coming home from the eastern schools. These children can all speak English and understand figures. Now what I propose is that the chiefs and the leading men will spend a part of every day with some of the children and learn the meaning and use of figures and master as much English as possible. If they can learn but little, that little will help them to protect themselves against the white men who wish to cheat them.
Swift Bear received this with interest. White Thunder did not say a word. This visit was rather uninteresting. I felt the influence of White Thunder to be less single and noble, in some ways.
They want to go to work but have nothing to go to work with - want cattle, chickens, hogs to raise as on a farm. They have nothing - they want to go to work, &c. &c.
October 27, 1881
Called on Sitting Bull Oct. 27, 1881, about 12.30 P.M. He received me with much state, sitting at the left of his tent. Some 13 of his men came in, several old ones.
Sitting Bull explained that has thrown away the old ways and desires to make his way toward civilization. He wants for the sake of the women, to turn away from the old ways. The game [buffalo] gone, he wants to walk in the way of work. For themselves, they can’t change but for their children and the future they want to change their life.
They want to go to work but have nothing to go to work with - want cattle, chickens, hogs, to raise on a farm.
Sourcing: Who wrote this doucment? What is her perspective? Who is the audience?
Contextualization: How does Alice Fletcher see the world? What was happening to Native Americans at this time?
- Do you trust the document? Why or why not?
“School Days of an Indian Girl” – Zitkala-Sa
Source: The excerpt below was written by Zitkala-Sa, or Red Bird, a Sioux from a reservation in South Dakota. (Her English name was Gertrude Simmons Bonnin). She describes her experiences at age 8 in a school for Native Americans. She ultimately attended college and then began a lifetime of work to improve the lives of Native Americans. The excerpt below was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900.
Late in the morning, my friend said she had overhead the paleface woman talk about cutting our long, heavy hear. Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair cut by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners and by cowards!
I watched my chance and when no one noticed I disappeared....On my hands and knees I crawled under the bed and cuddled myself in a dark corner.
Women and girls entered the room. I held my breath and watched them open closet doors and peep behind large trunks. What caused them to snoop and look under the bed I do not know. I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair.
I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids.
Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.
Sourcing: Who wrote this document? What was their audience? How trustworthy is it?
- Based on both documents, were the Friends of the Indian well-intentioned? Were they truly “friends of the Indian?”