Tim Giago: Sunday night movies at boarding school in South Dakota

Ed. Note: A version of this column was originally published on February 22, 2010.

There is a lot of power in a song. When all of your memories have nearly faded, it is surprising how a song can take you back in time and open the vaults of your mind. It happened to me on Saturday.

I had worked most of the morning editing articles for my weekly newspaper and when I felt I had caught up I headed home for lunch and a nap. I always check Turner Classic Movies to see if there are any old films playing and I was happy to note that 2010: Odyssey Two was on; a sequel of sorts to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that left me and many others in 1968 with a lot of questions. The movie was made in 1984 and I was in the middle of so many things back then that I never saw it until Saturday.

I settled down in my favorite chair with a soft drink and my cat Pod curled up in my lap and relaxed to watch the movie. As the movie reached its conclusion I nodded off to sleep just as the credits were running. It must have been a light sleep because the Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss was playing. I found out later that the Blue Danube was played in its entirety on a blank screen at the end of 2010: Odyssey Two. It was also used in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I dozed as the Blue Danube played and I was 12 years old again selling popcorn on a Sunday night at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission boarding school gym that was converted into a movie theater. It was the custom of Mr. John Bryde, a Jesuit prefect, to play recordings of Strauss on the public address system just before the movie started. One favorite of the Lakota people who traveled from Pine Ridge Village and Oglala to see the movies was the Blue Danube waltz.

In my dream I was really there. I could smell the popcorn and hear the Blue Danube as clearly as I did on that night many years ago. I was particularly excited because a movie called The Song of Bernadette was playing and I was really in love with Jennifer Jones.

Life at the boarding school was harder on some than others. For some it was a lonely time of separation from parents and home. It was a time of immersion into a different culture and religion. It was a time of fist fights, bloody noses and thoughts of running away, at least for some of us.

But the Blue Danube and the other waltzes of Strauss changed all of that for a few hours every Sunday. When the songs began we knew we were about to enter another world; a world of pirates, saints, laughter and sorrow. We entered that world and for a brief time it was our only world. We listened to the songs of Bing Crosby and laughed at the antics of Laurel and Hardy and for a brief time, gone was the loneliness and the sense of isolation.

And in this movie world, heaven forbid that one bore any resemblance to any of the characters crossing that big screen. A lot of nicknames became monikers for students of HRM because a movie. Bozo and Richard Dix, Curley Bill, Rochester, Dopey, Dillinger, Capone, Porky, Donald Duck and the Professor to name a few, were born at the Sunday night movies.

After a movie about the cavalry and Indians the playgrounds would become battlefields as the Indians attacked the cavalry entrenched in their fort. Only in this case the cavalry and Indians were played by real Indians. I think most of the boys wanted to be the Indians, but some had to fill in for the cavalry.

A song that entered my mind as I sat dreaming took me back to a place in time of happiness and sorrow. It took me back to a Sunday night where I could still see the faces of the Lakota elders lined up at the counter to give me two dimes for a small brown, bag of popcorn and a soda.

It took me back to a time where, for a couple of hours, the students at the boarding school and the impoverished people of the Pine Ridge Reservation could find brief respite from the harsh realities of their life.

A friend of mine, Gerald “Plum” Clifford, now deceased, talked to me one day about how the waltzes of Strauss always reminded him of the Sunday nights just before the movies started. It made me feel good that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

I woke from my dream with the sound of the Blue Danube fading away on the television set and had to blink a couple of times to make sure I was not back there at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com

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