Book Analyzes Aethestics of Americanization

By Jones, Melissa | National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

Book Analyzes Aethestics of Americanization


Jones, Melissa, National Catholic Reporter


The body is the temple of the spirit. Clothes make the man. A picture is worth a thousand words. Nowadays these old axioms might elicit a groan. Not so, however, in the American Gilded Age, when each of these aphorisms represented unquestioned truth distilled down to verbal snapshots. This was when our country was structured upon a belief in the absolute truth that the pinnacle of civilized society was Anglo-American white Protestant capitalism.

At this time, the Western frontier was mostly tamed and the United States was moving toward becoming a modern industrial power. There was a minor problem, though, with those troublesome Native Americans who, with their attachment to the land, their superstitious beliefs and their primitive cultures, still impeded America's march to modernization.

Gen. Philip Sheridan expressed one solution to the problem in 1869, and his opinion became the source of a long-lived trope: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." However, by the 1870s, it became clear that although a good effort had been made to do so, slaughtering all of America's indigenous population was not a viable option.

Given this context, a solution proposed by Gen. Richard Henry Pratt seemed much more humane. Pratt said the answer to the "Indian question" was to "kill the Indian, save the man." To do this, Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1879, to train Native American youth in the skills and customs of modern society. The school's apparent success led to the establishment of government-sponsored Indian schools across the United States.

In The Art of Americanization at the Carlisle Indian School, art historian Hayes Peter Mauro analyzes "before and after" photographs that Pratt commissioned to prove how well his educational techniques worked. Much has been written about Carlisle, Indian schools in general, and even the photographs related to these schools, but Mauro takes a unique approach and analyzes how these photographs show the overall aesthetics of Americanization at work.

Pratt brought children, voluntarily and involuntarily, from their families, reservations and tribal support systems to his paramilitary residential boarding school to be transformed into American citizens who would, as Mauro puts it, "value Christianity over spiritualism, competition over tribalism, and physical hygiene and mental discipline over the alleged dirt and sloth of reservation life."

Mauro sometimes falls into the jargon of art history, or spends a bit too much time on the historical context of phrenology and the prevailing racism of the time. …

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