Faith and Begorrah at an Indian Boarding School
As I write this column it is St Patrick’s Day, and it brings to memory my days at Holy Rosary Mission Indian School back in the 1940s and early 1950s. All my school days, from the first grade to high school graduation, were spent at that school.
The season of Lent at the mission was starkly medieval back then. At daily Mass, there was no cheer in the readings and the hymns were dirges like “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) and others that told of death and hell. There were no monthly socials (as dances were called) during Lent, and those were our only chance to actually hold a girl—at almost arm’s length, mind you. This made for even more misery and sadness in our little black lovesick hearts.
But come St. Patty’s Day, things brightened up, for that was the only break in the Lenten season. If I had anything green in my footlocker, I would dig it out and wear it. We’d cut shamrocks out of green construction paper for our lapels and for decorating the gym for a dance.
If somebody from, say, New York might have visited the school on that day, he would be surprised—or shocked—to hear young brown lads greeting him with “Top o’ the marnin’ to you.”
Before the dance, there might be a short program in which a few of us would entertain with “Clancy Lowered the Boom” or “McNamara’s Band” in typical Irish brogue, of course, or what we thought was one.
There would be no Irish whiskey or green beer, for such was strictly forbidden and called for expulsion if we dared try sneaking even a sip. Even so, we’d wake up the day after with a hangover, of sorts, from the ethereal high we felt the night before, waltzing a Lakota beauty around the gym. Ah, the memories.
It might surprise some readers of this column to hear an old Indian man recalling anything like a St. Patrick’s Day dance from his boarding school days. After all, weren’t those places actually gulags of torture and cultural deprivation and brainwashing that left a multitude of suicide-prone tribal youth several generations hence suffering intergenerational trauma?
Recently some students from a western Nebraska high school interviewed me by phone about my experiences in an Indian boarding school. They are competing in a National History Day project, and are recording and video taping a report on the topic of Indian boarding schools. Their teacher had read some of my columns in the Lakota Country Times and Indianz.com, and asked if I would agree to be interviewed. They had collected interviews of other elderly Indian people, and were surprised that their stories talked about strict discipline and punishment and homesickness, but they did not seem bitter or traumatized. On the other hand, all said that they had gotten a good education in the boarding school. This puzzled the students because they had read some contemporary Indian writings that told of almost unbelievable horrors inflicted on Indian kids in those schools. Their first question of me was, “Did you have any good or happy experiences in school?” And their second was, “Were you beaten for speaking your native language?”
My answer to the first questions was, “Yes, I do have memories of good times—kids are kids, Indian or white or black, and they will engage in mischief, and they will have fun whatever the circumstances.” To the second question I answered, “No, because my first language was and is English, and I had never witnessed any child in school being beaten merely for speaking the Lakota language.”
The students that interviewed me plan to present their findings with a focus on perspective and context. Their studies include research into childhood, youth, education and customs of all races and social strata in the era the Indian boarding schools—from Hampton and Carlyle to the later BIA and church-affiliated boarding schools. Some of their early observations, for example: In those early days, children had no rights whatsoever. None. Not anywhere, regardless of social class. Another observation: In many states, blacks could not go to schools, and in some it was forbidden for any white person to teach blacks to read or cipher.
They also researched the “orphan trains” that, in the 1880s to 1900, rounded up homeless inner-city children by the thousands and transported them to the west to be adopted or indentured by rural families. Many of these children, from newborns to teenagers, were abused, enslaved or ran away to a life of crime, including Billy the Kid.
In other words, in those years there were youth at Carlyle and Hampton, and later Haskell and Holy Rosary and other schools, who were thankful for the Indian boarding schools, given the circumstances of other minority and ethnic peoples of those times.
This is not an effort on the part of those Nebraska students, most of whom I assume to be white, to deny the mistreatment of Indians, and their forced assimilation and destruction of their precious culture, languages, and sacred beliefs. From their questions and comments, and those of their teacher, they seem genuinely hopeful of telling a factual and true story of historical significance—a story of history not to be glorified in any way.
It would be well for Indian students in high schools and colleges to do that same kind of contextual and perspective research. Getting the total picture could perhaps help them break the chains of Indian victimhood, and lift the burden of guilt from tribal youth who are killing themselves supposedly over latent grief over mistreatment of their ancestors.
Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is iktomisweb.com.