Tim Giago: Cornflakes every Sunday at Indian boarding school

Tim Giago. Photo by Talli Nauman

Cornflakes every Sunday at the Indian mission boarding school
Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Native Sun News 2014

There is a poem in my book "Children Left Behind" called “Six days a week and twice on Sunday” that describes the lives of the Indian students at Holy Rosary Indian Mission boarding school in the 1940s. The school no longer boards students and it is now called Red Cloud Indian School.

The poem describes how we spent a lot of time in church. After church Monday through Saturday we reported to the school dining hall where we were almost always served yellow cornmeal mush. This breakfast meal gained so much notoriety that when we played basketball against our near rival, Oglala Community School (now Pine Ridge High School), they would put up banners that read, “Crush the mush.”

However on Sunday mornings at the boarding school everything changed and we were served bowls of cornflakes.

I wrote about this because the change from corn meal mush to cornflakes was dramatic. We all loved the cornflakes because it broke up our usual breakfast fare. And I never really gave much thought to that poem until last week when a young Lakota woman from Black Hills State University came to my office to interview me.

Her name is Savannah Greseth and she is the daughter of Diane Amiotte who works for the Inter Tribal Bison Council in Rapid City. Many years ago Diane was an advertising sales representative for my newspaper Indian Country Today. With bright young Lakota like Savannah on the horizon I no longer fear for the future of Native Americans.

Savannah read my book and recalled one part because it crossed a topic she was reading for a research paper. One paragraph in the poem went:

“At the end of the Mass
We’d troop to the dining room
For our Sunday morning treat. . .

Savannah asked if I knew the history of cornflakes and I had to admit I did not probably because I never had a reason to check it out.

She explained it to me.

It is written that the creator of cornflakes was a Michigan physician named John Harvey Kellog. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Western world worked itself up into a mass hissy fit over the idea of people touching themselves. One of the most ardent anti-masturbators was Mr. Kellog. According to an article on Google it was reported that he believed sex was detrimental to physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. It said that he personally abstained from it and never consummated his marriage. He said that sex with one’s wife was bad, but masturbation was even worse.

Kellog’s brother Will wanted to add sugar to the newly developed cornflakes, but John demurred so Will started the Kellog Company and did add sugar to many of the grain cereals he developed. “Masturbators who enjoy cornflakes can probably attest that the sugar was a good idea since Kellog’s cereal doesn’t really have its intended effect.”

After reading this I came to the conclusion that the Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns who were the overseers at Holy Rosary Mission probably read Kellog’s book, “Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life,” and took it seriously. Why else would they favor us so grandly with cornflakes every Sunday morning? Would the corn in the corn meal mush be comparable to cornflakes?

Holy Rosary Mission housed boys and girls from kindergarten to grade 12. We were all young Lakota, raucous and full of energy so I presume the Jesuits thought cornflakes and corn meal mush would serve as a sexual depressant.

While discussing this with an ex-serviceman in my employ we both brought up the myth perpetrated on us while serving in the military. The ingredient that was supposed to have the same effect on us as cornflakes was called Saltpeter. Rumor had it that it was an ingredient added to food in prison and in military camps to curb sexual desires. Saltpeter is actually Potassium Nitrate and there has never been any proof that it affected the male libido.

I suppose that in the long run the Jesuit priests and nuns truly believed that cornflakes would quiet our sex drive and they eventually found out it did not. But I am sure they knew of the supposed impact of cornflakes and served it so us every Sunday for that purpose. Perhaps they should have been devouring it by the bowl full themselves and then perhaps there would not have been so much sexual abuse of the Indian children placed in their care.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He is now the editor and publisher of the largest weekly newspaper in South Dakota, Native Sun News. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com

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