Keeping Victimhood in Perspective

Chuck Trimble

Since we’re in an era in which fact, truth and accuracy are of little importance, let me use conjecture to tell about something that happened at a recent reading by the author of a new book that relates personal stories of suffering in Indian boarding schools and other vehicles of “genocide.” The book is titled  Beloved Child, and the author is Diane Wilson.

A person who attended the reading was an 84-year-old woman who had spent most of her youth in Indian boarding schools back in the 1930s. It happens that one of the stories in the book involved her and her two half-sisters, and the teller of the story was the daughter of one of the half-sisters, a grown niece of the 84-year-old woman. The niece provided the story for the book and is there to offer testimony to the program’s Holocaust stories.

As the niece awaits on stage to tell the story she has supplied for the book, she notices in the back of the room her elderly aunt.

“Oh damn! She showed up and will make trouble; I’ve got to warn Diane (the author).”

“My crazy old aunt is here and she could be trouble.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“Well, she’s one of the people my story is about, my mother’s half-sister, one of those who were re-kidnapped from the boarding school by my grandmother after the government kidnapped them from their home to bring them to the school.”

“So, what’s wrong with that? Won’t that add credence to the story?”

“No, she remembers the story differently from the way I tell it. She says they weren’t kidnapped at all, that they were placed in the school by their mother, and that her mother came and took them out of school when things improved at home; no kidnapping.”

“Oh, so she is one of those “D” word people? Denier?”

“Worse than that, she’s a “B” word person.”

“My goodness, you mean she’s brainwashed? We can’t let a crazy old lady ruin our story with her memories. We’ve got to cancel the question-and-answer session or she’ll hog the show with her brainwashed prattle. We’ll skip the question-and –answer session and go right into the book signing where we can just ignore her.”

As I noted at the outset, the above is purely conjecture. I wasn’t there, and I had not heard from anyone who was there that this had actually happened. However, it stands to reason that neither the elderly woman’s niece nor the author would want her to contradict an account given by a child of a “real” victim, a touching story of an alleged kidnapping by evil government agents and a redemptive re-kidnapping by a brave mother.

So, the 84-year-old grandma took recourse via e-mail to the author. Here’s her e-mail:

Dear Ms. Wilson,

After reading the review of your book, Beloved Child, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I decided that I had to attend your book reading on September 9th, to ask an important question. In the review, you were quoted as saying that in trying to pursue healing, you weren't trying to attack the dominant culture, but you were trying to acknowledge the self-loathing that had been hard-wired into our brains. I was flabbergasted when I read those words and I thought "Who in the world is she talking about?" Certainly, not me or anybody I know. Lest you think I am some young person who knows little about growing up as an American Indian, I must tell you that I am 84 years old and I spent most of my school years on the Lower Sioux Indian Community. My father, who died three months before I was born, was a member of that community and my mother was a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota. My early years, before I started school, were spent on the reservation. I believe I am more than qualified to speak about those two areas. So the question I wanted to ask was how did you arrive at the startling statement? Was there some sort of study done?

By the end of your opening remarks and the remarks made by the contributors to your book, I had questions to ask. Unfortunately, there was no question and answer period; even though the program indicated there would be a Q-and-A period. Perhaps the remarks went too long so you went directly to the book-signing. So I will say what I have to say in this e-mail.

If I was flabbergasted with the “self-loathing” remark, imagine my surprise when I heard you say that Gaby, one of your contributors, a well-spoken woman, who also happens to be my niece, told you that three members of her family had been re-kidnapped from an Indian school. I just happen to be one of those three, the oldest, actually. I was almost 12 years old that summer our mother took me and my two younger half-sisters from the Pipestone Indian School. To begin with, there was no kidnapping. Our mother placed us there two years earlier, in1936. I won't go into the whys and wherefores of this story but I'm sure our entry into the school and subsequent departure is well documented in the school and BIA archives.

In your remarks, you stated that you wanted to write an uplifting story about genocide. What did you mean by that? I also heard terms like historical trauma, generational trauma and unrelenting trauma. My grandparents at Lower Sioux, (scene of the Dakota War) and their generation, were the most happiest and well-adjusted people I knew. Subsequent generations, including mine, followed in their footsteps.

Yes, there are problems with the young people today, but it cannot be blamed on what happened in 1862. If only those young people would heed the words of Steve Jobs, whose untimely death this week shocked the world, who said in a commencement speech, "Don't be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voices." This is what we should be teaching our Indian youth today. To do otherwise is to doom them to always seeing themselves as victims. That is a terrible burden for anyone to carry.

—Maxine V. Eidsvig

Since my several columns on victimhood and intergenerational trauma have been published I have received e-mail and phone calls from several people of my own age group and some much older who express much the same attitude that Mrs. Eidsvig tells, and that I write about. These are people who are concerned that their stories are not being told, or are being drowned out by more sensational accounts of rape, brutality and systematic psychological terror in the Indian boarding schools; the kind of sensationalism that sells books and speaking engagements. As I have expressed, and as these other elderly people express, much of what we read about is exaggerated. We feel this way because we have lived through the experience. And we also know some people are lying because we know them personally and were with them in boarding school.

But, increasingly, I’m hearing from people who want to tell their stories, but who are disadvantaged by age, computer illiteracy, and even fear. Here’s another email I received:

I was impressed on your article about boarding school. I spent 5 1/2 years in boarding school and never felt traumatized by the experience. I have three brothers that also spent six years there too. I appreciated the routine, matrons that treated us well and have only fond memories of the time I spent there. Oh, I got into my share of trouble too. Anyway the term intergenerational trauma I see as a way for many to blame for a lot of the problems we now face. How sad!

I am helping the 84 year-old lady with her story by introducing her to a professional oral historian, and I’m hopeful that it would be published. I will also add those accounts to my own book on the subject of Indian boarding school life and about some of those who make a career and an industry out of exaggerated experiences.

No one I know is saying that all traumatic experiences being told and written about are untrue or exaggerated, and much depends on the school and the time of their stories. But I think that there are enough people who are never heard because they cannot in honesty tell about the horrors that people want to hear and to read about, even though they have experienced years of schooling in Indian boarding schools, government and religious.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is IktomisWeb.com.

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michaelmack's picture
My grandmother was in a boarding school around 1915-1920, when she did talk about it, she talked about as a somewhat demeaning in her relationships with teachers, but not completely negative experience. My mother was in one or 2 during the late 1940's, for her boarding school was an ok experience, nothing real negative. Both these women were "average" students and not trouble-makers, but they weren't pushovers either. From their stories, what others have said, and what's been written, it seems like time and location of the boarding school experience are significant factors. Seems like the early boarding school era 1880's - 1920's was the most negative. That is somewhat understandable because during those years the American educational system in general was militaristic, complete with corporal punishment - whipping, washing the mouth with soap, etc. were "normal" daily occurrences. Combine that with the abrupt change in federal policy from warring with and killing off the Indians to trying to "civilize" and "Christianize" us. And since the boarding schools were founded and administered by ex-military - I can certainly understand how the early boarding school years were probably more like juvenile military detention facilities than what we today think of as schools. In discussions of any historical era, we have to keep in mind the thinking at the time. In the late 1800's America was hyper religious, rigid, race-conscious, grandiose, and obsessed with notions of "manifest destiny" (i.e. God chose white Americans to lead the ways of "civilization" to the entire world, and thanks to politically influential groups like the Quakers, domestically Indians were moved to the "worth saving" list). To many white Americans, changing from exterminating Indians to embracing them was a radical change - that would be like Nazi Germany abruptly deciding to embrace the welfare of Jewish people. Needless to say, not all white Americans, particularly those entrenched in warfare mindset, warmed up to "embracing" Indians - particularly those in the military - whose ranks turned out to be the ones put in charge of the boarding schools. From what I've heard first-hand by others, the more "recent" boarding school years such as that of my mother in the late 1940's were more positive experiences. It might be useful for some researcher(s)/educator(s) to research Indians perceptions of the boarding school experience over the long term, pinpointing the details: which years, which schools, which reservations the students came from, their experiences, etc. Such research could help tribal and federal Indian education efforts to obtain factual information in a usable form to guide their efforts today, and help bring some clarity to discussions such as this one.
lmann's picture
In keeping with your theme of perspective; it’s important to note for every one person who says they were treated well; there are dozens who would differ. You do close your piece by stating: “No one I know is saying that all traumatic experiences being told and written about are untrue or exaggerated.” Its good you add that because the Canadian Government paid out million and In 2008 Harper issued a formal apology for what went on at the residential schools. It’s clear there were major cruelties in Canada and the USA. But I can see where your piece speaks to a “perspective”. The niece saying one thing and the aunt another. Obviously logic says believe the person who was there. I have no opinion either way to this particular case. But I have personally witnessed in my lifetime, Elders being discriminated and degradated to their face; only for them to turn around and say it never happened. Again I don’t know enough about the situation in this story but I’m deeply troubled by the idea of casting a shadow of doubt over the survivors of the residential schools. Especially after all they’ve been through and still going though. Of course what people say needs to be scrutinized. But when you have two of the most powerful countries in the world acknowledging in one form of the other ; that there were numerous toxic as well as criminal issues with the schools, we can all agree something went terribly wrong. I think there’s plenty of truly horrible stories of abuse, separation and trauma that there is no need to exaggerate anything. There are certainly thousands who will never speak of what went on there one way or the other. Using the term “victimhood” as a pejorative in the context of the horrors of boarding schools is an unfair assessment. This was a time when our Elders and people couldn’t even speak our own language or freely practice our spirituality. Couple that with a Pavlov- like inculcation of European assimilation buttressed by an ideology of –“Everything you were is backwards and wrong”; some would consider that brainwashing.
piqua's picture
In "Hearings before a Subcommittee on the Committe on Indian Affairs pursuant to S. Res. 341, p. 30," we find the testimony of Mr. H. J. Russell, construction engineer of the Indian Service at Leupp: "I have seen Indian boys chained to their beds at night for punishment. I have seen them thrown in cellars under the building, which the superintendent called a jail. I have seen their shoes taken away from them and then forced to walk through the snow to the barn to help milk. I have seen them whipped with a hemp rope, also a water hose. Forced to do servant's work for employees and superintendent without compensation under the guise of industrial employment and education." The source of this quote is the book "Massacre," published by Robert Gessner in 1931. It is an amazing work, one that might open Mr. Trimble's eyes about what other Indian children experienced. As Gessner states in his chapter "Flogging Children": "Later on the Sioux reservations, on the other reservations I visited--in numerous villages and hamlets, in the Capital of the Nation--in the thousands of miles I have traveled I have heard one great plea: 'We are starving--yes, we being robbed and oppressed--yes, but first save our children." He continues: "Hours of reading confirmed these verbal statements. I learned of children as young as six years of age being taken forcibly from their mother's arms and sent to distant boarding schools until they were eighteen years old, without seeing their parents during that period. I learned how they were underfed to the point of starvation, roughly treated, even beaten, and all the time made to work half a day at hard industrial labor in the fields, in the bakery, or in the laundry--child labor." "I have learned of those lonely children--frightened, flogged, exhausted children--ever hungry children. I have seen how they sleep in dormitories so crowded the beds touch each other and fill the ailes. They exist under so little protection from disease that epidemics sweep through entire schools as freely as winds. I have seen the stamp of overwork cruelly branded on their young but always tired faces. I have heard of children so underfed they snatched at plates like famished animals. I have seen the jails they are thrown into after being flogged for infringement of minor rules." I personally have been told by elders of being small children in boarding school and having their tongues placed on dry ice for speaking their language. Others told me personally of being made to kneel with bare knees on pieces of broken tile until their knees bled, only for speaking their own language. An Apache friend of mine was viciously beaten with a strap by a sadistic priest, who became even more enraged because my friend refused to utter a sound. You have your own reasons for your personal campaign to downplay the ugliness and viciousness of a system specifically and explicitly set up to "kill the Indian and save the man." That's your business. But it seems unconscienable that you do you have compassion for and outrage about those children who did undergo physical and psychological abuse and, yes, even torture at the hands of the United States government and the churches. Think about those who died in infirmiries without one loved one, family member to comfort them as they died of TB and other diseases. There is a reason why there was a graveyard at Carlise Indian School, which is now a U.S. Army War College. What happened to those children, and how many children died in the boarding "schools"? (By the way, there is direct correlation between the era of the boarding "schools" and the rapid demise of our languages). Sadly, you do not write one word about specifics of the psychological torture and physical abuses that became so rampant and notorious that they warranted a CONGRESSSIONAL INVESTIATION.
notnek's picture
Mr Trimble seems to be on a personal crusade to put a happy face on the past and to continue a personal vendetta by not using personal names but repeated references. I would hope Mr Tremble would visit some of the survivors in Sissetion South Dakota then post another story, white washing those events.
piqua's picture
Correction to my last posting. One sentence toward the end was intended to read: "But it seems unconscienable that you do you not have compassion for and outrage about..." I left out the word "not." It would have been more careful on my part fo have stated "that your writing does not demonstrate compassion for..." etc. Because there is, of course, no way for me to know your internal state, or how you feel.
unique's picture
Hundreds of schools, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of children. It is illogical to think every one had the same experience. Some survived, others thrived, many perished. Where you went, when you went, and who you ran into once you got there would make all the differrence, don't you suppose?
nina1's picture
Shameful journalism to use "conjecture to tell about something that [never] happened..." Trimble is on the slippery slope skidding into defamation. The author on whom you impose your imaginary conversation is a capable speaker who doesn't need these daydreams attributed to her in order to express herself. It just goes to show that being 84 doesn't make necessarily make one logical but what is Trimble's excuse?