Opinion

Tim Giago: A reservation boarding school teacher I'll never forget






The Holy Rosary Mission Parish on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Red Cloud Indian School

Notes from Indian Country
The night we mesmerized an audience
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji; Stands Up For Them)

John Bryde showed up at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission in the early 1940s. He had a bushy head of auburn hair and a lot of freckles. He was a prefect doing his "help the poor Indians" sabbatical while studying to become a Jesuit priest.

All of the boys at the mission eyed him suspiciously as we did all new comers. One day Tim Red Wolf and his brother Chris and several of the other older boys were having a pickup baseball game when Mr. Bryde put on a catcher’s mask, pulled up his black robe and tied it behind him and crouched behind the plate tapping the catcher’s mitt by calling for a fast ball.

Tim Red Wolf leaned back and burned a pitch over the plate and Mr. Bryde snatched it out of the air like a pro. In a short while there was a bunch of boys watching as he picked off one fast ball after another and what really was surprising is when he burned a pitch to Chris Red Wolf on second base from his crouched position.

We discovered as we got to know him that he was also a great story teller. He would gather the boys around and tell us tales of Homer, Hercules, and Ulysses and of the other mythical heroes from Greek literature. He would stop when he reached a certain point in the story and say, “I’ll continue this later” and it’s hard to believe that all of these young Lakota boys couldn’t wait to hear the next chapter of his narration.

We were young then and years later we would learn that storytelling was a major part of our oral history. Many of the Lakota elders were great orators. Some were called Eyapahas, or town criers, because they traveled from village to village and shouted out the stories of what has happening in their world. They were the newspapers of their time.

One day I saw Mr. Bryde walking around the little boy’s gym talking to different boys. He approached me and my friend Lloyd Little Wolf and asked us to say or at try to sing “do rae me” and we snickered about it but we did try it.

A few days later he called out the names of several boys and told us to report to the stage in the big boy’s gym where all of our assemblies were held. He lined us all up according to the tone of our voices from soprano, alto to bass. And that is how our one-time choral group got started.

Every afternoon Mr. Bryde rehearsed us. We worked diligently on one song that was entirely in Latin. The song we worked on day after day was called Ora Pro Nobis which translates to mean “Pray for us.”

It is conceivable that we sang a song in Latin because most of us had trained to be altar boys and we said most of the prayers at mass in Latin. Even to this day I can still say the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety in Latin. We weren’t allowed to speak in our native Lakota language, but we were allowed to speak in Latin.

One day after a very good rehearsal Mr. Bryde decided we were ready for our debut. It must have been a special occasion because the entire school and faculty would be our audience that night. We walked out on to the stage and the lights were dimmed and Mr. Bryde stood before us, baton in hand, and with a wave of the wand we broke into song. “Santa Maria, ora pro nobis” and there was an audible “oh” of disbelief and admiration that gushed from the audience that night.

Mr. Bryde’s boys’ choir was a tremendous hit. I think he was just pleased and happy that he had managed to take these unkempt and oftentimes unruly Lakota boys and teach us to sing with such clarity and beauty as to captivate an entire audience. He never really ever pursued it any further. I think we were all proud of ourselves for doing what we thought was impossible. Most of the boys that sang in that choir that night have since passed away and for the life of me I wished I could have had a recording of the songs we sang that night.

Mr. Bryde continued to play catcher on the boy’s team and most of us never forgot the wonderful stories he told us on those cold and dark South Dakota nights. He eventually became a Jesuit priest and then later left the order and got married and raised a family.

Many years later while I was lecturing at South Dakota State University a man in the audience raised his hand and asked me if I remembered Father Bryde. I assured him that Bryde was a hard person to forget.

Tim Giago was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He is a longtime journalist and newspaper publisher. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007.