This time of year is always bittersweet for faculty as we celebrate the achievements of our seniors and prepare to send them on their way. Yesterday afternoon we listened to graduating senior history major, Emily La Bianca, present her history honors thesis to a full house. Emily is one of those talented students who has done everything — from participating in college honors program to studying abroad to presenting research at conferences to winning grants. She certainly gave an impressive presentation on “The ‘Old School Father:’ Richard Pratt’s Costly Vision for American Indian Empowerment.”
Emily’s talk centered on the controversial figure, Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, whose approach to reforming Indians and integrating them into American society in the late 19th century has been summarized by his quote, “Kill the Indian…save the man.” The comparative images below show the changed appearance of one man, Tom Torlino, who was enrolled at Pratt’s school in the 1880s.
Before she undertook her project, Emily expected she would strongly dislike Pratt and find plenty to grill him in oppressive power structures of the late 19th century. But combing through dozens of his personal letters either written by or to him gradually helped her to humanize the man as a person linked in a network of friendships with former Indian students who regarded him as the kind “old school father” of the Carlisle Indian School. Emily gradually began to see Pratt as someone who was actually progressive for his day, in an environment that understood the American Indians as racially backward. She saw that Pratt had a strong desire to benefit Indians–even if the school he founded did much damage along the way.
As a history faculty member, it was a joy to hear Emily speak about the transformative process of historical research, which allows us to humanize past individuals and become more empathetic in the present–even while we still hold our disagreements.
Congrats, Emily, on the fine presentation.