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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.5, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.5, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity

FLASHBACK

True Teens of History

He Fought for Native Rights

In the late 1800s, thousands of Native American children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools to “learn the ways of the white man.” Luther Standing Bear was one of them—and he became a powerful voice for his people.

As You Read, Think About: How did going to boarding school affect Luther Standing Bear?

Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA.

“Choose your new name,” said the teacher.

The 11-year-old boy looked at the marks on the blackboard. Having grown up speaking the language of his Lakota Sioux (soo) people, he couldn’t understand them. He’d been told that each line of markings was a different white man’s name. Now he had to pick one.

But the boy already had a name: Ota Kte (OH-tuh kuh-TAY). His father, the Lakota chief Standing Bear, had given it to him when he was born in 1868. Standing Bear had taught him how to ride a horse and hunt buffalo using a bow and arrow.

His father had also raised him to follow a code of conduct in which honor, bravery, and service to one’s people were more important than life itself. It was a code followed by the Native American nations of the Great Plains, where Ota Kte’s ancestors had lived for generations.

For instance, his people believed there was no greater honor than to show bravery in battle by approaching an enemy and simply touching him rather than shooting him.

But Ota Kte was no longer with his people on the Pine Ridge reservation in what would later become South Dakota. Instead, he was 1,500 miles away in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There, he was a member of the first class of students at the United States Indian Industrial School. The school was designed to teach him the ways of the white man—and erase his Native American identity.

“Indicate the name that will be yours,” the white teacher said. She placed a long stick in Ota Kte’s hand.

The boy recognized the challenge he now faced: adapting to the world of the white people whose weapons and diseases had devastated his people. Thanks to his father’s lessons, he knew how to respond.

“I took the pointer and acted as if I was about to touch an enemy,” he would write years later.

The name he chose was Luther. From that day on, Luther Standing Bear would live partly in the white man’s world. But he would always carry his former life in his heart—and never stop fighting for his people.

“Choose your new name,” said the teacher.

The 11-year-old boy looked at the marks on the blackboard. He could not understand them because he had grown up speaking the language of his Lakota Sioux (soo) people. He had been told that each line of markings was a different white man’s name. Now he had to pick one.

But the boy already had a name. It was Ota Kte (OH-tuh kuh-TAY). His father had given it to him when he was born in 1868. His father was Standing Bear, the Lakota chief. Standing Bear had taught him how to ride a horse. He had taught him to hunt buffalo using a bow and arrow.

The boy’s father had also raised him to follow a code of conduct in which honor, bravery, and service to one’s people were more important than life itself. It was a code followed by the Native American nations of the Great Plains. That is where Ota Kte’s ancestors had lived for generations.

For instance, his people believed there was no greater honor than to show bravery in battle. They believed bravery was approaching an enemy and simply touching him rather than shooting him.

But Ota Kte was no longer with his people on the Pine Ridge reservation in what would later become South Dakota. Instead, he was 1,500 miles away in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There, he was a member of the first class of students at the United States Indian Industrial School. The school was designed to teach him the ways of the white man. It was meant to erase his Native American identity.

“Indicate the name that will be yours,” the white teacher said. She placed a long stick in Ota Kte’s hand.

The boy recognized the challenge he now faced. He was supposed to adapt to the world of the white people whose weapons and diseases had devastated his people. Thanks to his father’s lessons, he knew how to respond.

“I took the pointer and acted as if I was about to touch an enemy,” he would write years later.

The name he chose was Luther. From that day on, Luther Standing Bear would live partly in the white man’s world. But he would always carry his former life in his heart. And he would never stop fighting for his people.

Pushed Aside

By the time of Luther’s renaming, America’s indigenous people had been struggling against the control of white invaders for centuries.

When Europeans began arriving in North America in the late 1400s, they claimed vast areas for themselves and their countries. But millions of people were already living there. They belonged to hundreds of unique cultures, like Ota Kte’s.

As white settlers moved west, Native Americans tried in vain to hold on to their lands. Many died fighting the U.S. Army, which backed the settlers’ expansion. Millions of others were wiped out by foreign diseases brought by the newcomers, such as smallpox and flu.

By 1880, only about 300,000 Native Americans remained in the U.S. Most of them had been forced off their lands and were now living on small government-controlled reservations.

These new lands were often hard to farm. Hunters could no longer roam freely. Many tribes faced hunger and despair. 

U.S. leaders struggled with what to do about the country’s indigenous inhabitants. Most believed Native people were too “savage” to have a role in society. Luther Standing Bear would become part of a tragic attempt to address this: boarding schools.

By the time Luther was being renamed, America’s indigenous people had been struggling against the control of white invaders for centuries.

Europeans began arriving in North America in the late 1400s. They claimed vast areas for themselves and their countries. But millions of people were already living there. They belonged to hundreds of unique cultures, like Ota Kte’s.

As white settlers moved west, Native Americans tried to hold on to their lands. But they could not. Many died fighting the U.S. Army, which was helping the settlers expand. Millions of others were wiped out by foreign diseases brought by the newcomers, such as smallpox and flu.

By 1880, only about 300,000 Native Americans remained in the U.S. Most of them had been forced off their lands. They were now living on small government-controlled reservations.

These new lands were often hard to farm. Hunters could no longer roam freely. Many tribes faced hunger and despair.

U.S. leaders struggled with what to do about the country’s indigenous inhabitants. Most believed Native people were too “savage” to have a role in society. Boarding schools became a tragic attempt to address this. Luther Standing Bear would become part of that attempt.

National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

At Luther’s school, students were photographed soon after they arrived, then again later. “Before and after” pictures like these impressed U.S. officials, who hoped the school would help “civilize” Native Americans.

The Carlisle School

The idea came from a U.S. Army officer named Richard Henry Pratt. Like most white Americans at the time, Pratt was a staunch believer in the superiority of white culture.

Yet he thought that if young Native people could be taught his culture’s values, they could succeed. (His belief that they deserved a role in American society wasn’t common. Many Native people weren’t even considered U.S. citizens until Congress passed a law declaring them to be so in 1924.) Pratt argued that the U.S. government should invest in boarding schools for Native children. There, the young people’s heritage—their language and culture—would be stripped away. The schools would transform them into Pratt’s idea of true Americans.

He convinced the government to let him test his idea. In 1879, Pratt founded a school at a former military barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The boarding school idea came from a U.S. Army officer named Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt was a firm believer in the idea that white culture was superior. So were most white Americans at the time.

Yet Pratt thought that if young Native people could be taught his culture’s values, they could succeed. (His belief that they deserved a role in American society was not common. Many Native people were not even considered U.S. citizens until Congress passed a law declaring them to be so in 1924.) Pratt argued that the U.S. government should invest in boarding schools for Native children. There, the young people’s heritage—their language and culture—would be stripped away. The schools would change them into Pratt’s idea of true Americans.

He convinced the government to let him test his idea. In 1879, Pratt founded a school. It was at a former military barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Corbis via Getty Images

Students were taught English, science, and geometry at the boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

A Test of Courage

Pratt soon sent recruiters to gather students from reservations. When Ota Kte heard that young people were being asked to travel to this new school in Pennsylvania, he didn’t trust the recruiters. He thought if he went, he might be killed by hostile white people in that strange place.

But Ota Kte’s father had taught him that showing courage was deeply important. So the boy volunteered to go. “It occurred to me that this chance to go East would prove that I was brave,” he later wrote.

In September 1879, Ota Kte arrived at the school in Pennsylvania with 83 other Lakota children. In addition to his new name, Luther, he was given new clothing. His deerskin leggings and moccasins were taken away, and he received a military-style uniform and tight boots to wear instead.

Like the other boys, Luther was forced to cut off his hair. Among Lakota men, long hair was a great source of pride. As the barber got to work, “tears came into my eyes,” Luther wrote. Along with his lost name, it was another reminder of how his people’s world was disappearing forever.

Pratt soon sent recruiters to gather students from reservations. Ota Kte heard that young people were being asked to travel to this new school in Pennsylvania. He did not trust the recruiters. He thought if he went, he might be killed by hostile white people in that strange place.

But Ota Kte’s father had taught him that it is deeply important to show courage. So the boy volunteered to go. “It occurred to me that this chance to go East would prove that I was brave,” he later wrote.

In September 1879, Ota Kte arrived at the school in Pennsylvania. He was with 83 other Lakota children. He was given his new name, Luther. He also was given new clothing. His deerskin leggings and moccasins were taken away. He received a military-style uniform and tight boots to wear instead.

Like the other boys, Luther was forced to have his hair cut off. Among Lakota men, long hair was a great source of pride. As the barber got to work, “tears came into my eyes,” Luther wrote. Along with his lost name, it was another reminder of how his people’s world was disappearing forever.

What You Need to Know

DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Sioux fiercely defended their lands, but in the end, they were defeated by the U.S. Army.

SIOUX RESISTANCE When white settlers seized their lands, the Sioux resisted—and had to fight the U.S. Army. The Sioux were eventually defeated, especially after the U.S. government aided hunters in killing off millions of the buffalo the Sioux relied on.

RESERVATIONS In the 1800s, U.S. officials forced most Native people onto small areas of land, usually far from their traditional homelands. Today, 22 percent of the nation’s 5.2 million Native people live on reservations.

SIOUX RESISTANCE When white settlers seized their lands, the Sioux resisted—and had to fight the U.S. Army. The Sioux were eventually defeated, especially after the U.S. government aided hunters in killing off millions of the buffalo the Sioux relied on.

RESERVATIONS In the 1800s, U.S. officials forced most Native people onto small areas of land, usually far from their traditional homelands. Today, 22 percent of the nation’s 5.2 million Native people live on reservations.

Living Up to a Code

At the Carlisle school, students were forced to learn English and recite Christian prayers. The Native children found it hard to adapt to the military-style discipline, and they were often lonely without their families. Homesick and depressed, many of them ran away.

But Luther stayed on. He knew the old ways were gone. His people were now confined to a reservation. He couldn’t become a warrior or travel freely to hunt buffalo. But he could live up to his people’s code in another way: by accepting his education.

Over time, Luther began to absorb the white people’s ways. He mastered the English language, went to Sunday school, and learned to play an instrument called the cornet. As a representative of his school, he worked at a department store in Philadelphia, where he excelled.

Still, Luther never lost his connection to his fellow Lakota. In 1884, after four years at the school, he realized something: “This was not the life I desired.” Eventually, he later wrote, “I told Captain Pratt I wanted to go home to my people.” Pratt reluctantly agreed to let his prized pupil leave.

At the Carlisle school, students were forced to learn English. They had to recite Christian prayers. The Native children found it hard to adapt to the military-style discipline. And they were often lonely without their families. Homesick and depressed, many of them ran away.

But Luther stayed on. He knew the old ways were gone. His people were now confined to a reservation. He could not become a warrior. He could not travel freely to hunt buffalo. But he could live up to his people’s code in another way: He could accept his education.

Over time, Luther began to absorb the white people’s ways. He mastered the English language. He went to Sunday school. He learned to play an instrument called the cornet. As a representative of his school, he worked at a department store in Philadelphia. He excelled there.

Still, Luther never lost his connection to his fellow Lakota. In 1884, after four years at the school, he realized something: “This was not the life I desired.” Eventually, he later wrote, “I told Captain Pratt I wanted to go home to my people.” Pratt reluctantly agreed to let his prized pupil leave.

An American Tragedy

The school in Carlisle was only the first of its kind. By 1910, about 60,000 Native American students were attending more than 150 such schools, most of them in the West.

Many Native parents sent their children away because they thought the schools would give them the tools to survive in a changing world. But many more kids were forced to go. In 1894, after a Hopi community in Arizona tried to keep its children at home, the government sent in troops to take them. Community leaders were sent to prison for resisting.

In the end, the Indian boarding schools were an experiment in “civilization” that dramatically, and often tragically, impacted every Native American community in the country. Harsh physical punishment and poor nutrition were common. Diseases like tuberculosis raged through crowded dorms. Many school cemeteries were filled with children who had died there.

The school in Carlisle was only the first of its kind. By 1910, about 60,000 Native American students were attending more than 150 schools like it. Most of the schools were in the West.

Many Native parents sent their children away because they thought the schools would give them the tools to survive in a changing world. But many more kids were forced to go. In 1894, a Hopi community in Arizona tried to keep its children at home. But the government sent in troops to take them. Community leaders were sent to prison for resisting.

In the end, the Indian boarding schools were an experiment in “civilization.” The experiment dramatically, and often tragically, affected every Native American community in the country. Harsh physical punishment and poor nutrition were common. Diseases like tuberculosis raged through crowded dorms. Many school cemeteries were filled with children who had died there.

The schools dramatically, and often tragically, impacted every Native American community.

Students who managed to graduate often struggled afterward. It was difficult for them to find jobs in the white world. Those who returned to their reservations often felt like strangers among their own people. Some had been away so long that they had forgotten their native languages. Others were so changed by their experiences that their people no longer accepted them. Many were emotionally and mentally scarred by what they had endured.

In 1928, a U.S. government study exposed the terrible conditions in the schools. Influenced by the testimony of former students and the work of other Native American activists, U.S. leaders gradually accepted that it was better for Native children to be educated in their own communities, and for Native people to have a say in what their children were taught. The last U.S. Indian boarding school finally closed in 1973.

Students who managed to graduate often struggled afterward. It was hard for them to find jobs in the white world. Some returned to their reservations. But they often felt like strangers among their own people. Some had been away so long that they had forgotten their native languages. Others were so changed by their experiences that their people no longer accepted them. Many were emotionally and mentally scarred by what they had been through.

In 1928, a U.S. government study exposed the terrible conditions in the schools. U.S. leaders were influenced by the testimony of former students and the work of other Native American activists. The leaders gradually accepted that it was better for Native children to be educated in their own communities. They realized that Native people should have a say in what their children were taught. The last U.S. Indian boarding school finally closed in 1973.

History and Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Luther Standing Bear went on to become a Lakota chief.

Fighting for His People

As for Luther, he returned to his people in 1884, when he was 16. However, he often didn’t feel exactly at home. “I was caught between two worlds,” he wrote. He went on to marry and have children, become the principal of his reservation’s school, and even be named a Lakota chief like his father. Yet in 1905, he moved away with his family, never to return.

In 1928, he published a book, My People the Sioux. In it, he told the story of the Lakota and criticized U.S. policies toward them. At last he was able to strike back at the government that had taken so much from him and from his people.

As for Luther, he returned to his people in 1884, when he was 16. However, he often did not feel exactly at home. “I was caught between two worlds,” he wrote. He went on to marry and have children. He became the principal of his reservation’s school. He was even named a Lakota chief like his father. Yet in 1905, he moved away with his family. He never returned.

In 1928, he published a book, My People the Sioux. In it, he told the story of the Lakota. He criticized U.S. policies toward them. At last he was able to strike back at the government that had taken so much from him and from his people.

Luther never forgot his father's lessons about bravery, honor, and service.