Stained glass windows inside the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Raymond Bucko, SJ
Notes from Indian Country
Sunday movies at the boarding school
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Then)
Sundays were always special to us at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission boarding school.
It was the one day of the week that we were allowed to sleep an extra hour. Usually we were drummed out of bed while it was still dark by a Jesuit prefect walking up and down the dormitory aisles ringing a hand held bell. On Sunday mornings he kept the bell silent because we were fully awake when we saw the morning sun come shining through the huge dormitory windows.
The night before we went to the Cloak Room where our good clothes were stored and we were given our Sunday clothes to wear to church and it was the only day of the week we really dressed up for church services.
We lined up in the Little Boy Gymnasium in company ranks as usual and marched to church. The services on Sunday were always longer than weekdays because the mass was usually what they call a High Mass. After mass we fell into company ranks again and marched to the dining hall. Blessed Sundays: For the only time in the week we were given bowls of corn flakes instead of our usual meal of corn meal mush.
All of us had two cubes of butter placed before us and these cubes became our bargaining chips. We used them to pay off bets we lost or to keep a bully from beating us up. We also used them to haggle for candy some lucky student got in the mail or to buy something we thought we really needed. “I’ll give you 10 butters for that,” one would say and then it took five days using two butters per day to pay off the person from whom we purchased the item.
Jumping ahead 30 years, one evening I was having dinner at the Hacienda Restaurant in Gordon, Neb., when someone walked up to my table. It was an old classmate of mine named Melvin “Dickey” Brewer. Dickey dropped two cubes of butter on my plate and said, “Here are the two butters I owe you.” Of course it was just Dickey’s showing his sense of humor and we both had a good laugh.
Back to the boarding school: Sundays were also special because it was the one day when we all gathered at the mission picnic grounds and were allowed to fraternize with our sisters. We were kept totally separated from the girls except in grades 1 through 4 and after that the girls went to their own classrooms on what we called the “Girl’s side.” And so Sunday was like a family-get-together for many of us.
But the one thing that set Sundays apart from every other day was Sunday was movie night. Movie night was the one night when we could sit in a darkened gymnasium and travel to the ends of the world in the movies. We saw the swashbuckling Errol Flynn and Captain Bligh on the Bounty and the sword twirling Musketeers. We saw cowboys, cavalry and Indians riding their horses into battle. It took us to a dream world beyond the borders of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The price of admission to the movies was good conduct. Each Jesuit carried a small book where each student was listed by name and along that name he would note a number when the student was not good, the note was called a demerit. If you accumulated 10 demerits there was a price to pay.
At movie time we all lined up in company ranks again and the Jesuit prefect would have his demerit book in hand. He would shout out, “Two Bears, Alonzo and Peter, to the wall. Garnette, James Willard, to the wall, and so forth until all of those standing against the wall were told to march off to the dormitory while those who did not accumulate 10 demerits were allowed to go to the movie.
Since the movies were our only outlet from the hum drum and often cruel confines of the mission boarding school, having to miss them was a terrible thing.
Peter and Alonzo Two Bears were famous for running away from the boarding schools as soon and as often as they could. I don’t think they ever got to go to the movies because running away was the ultimate means to gain demerits.
A lot of nicknames came from the characters we saw on the big screen. Richard Richards became Richard “Dix” from a cowboy character, and we had Al Capone and Dillinger from the gangster movies, and Dopey from the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Rochester from the Jack Benny movies to name a few.
After a Western movie the war between cowboys and Indians raged across the mission grounds with the boys trying to figure out who were the cowboys and who were the Indians. Wooden swords flashed across the playgrounds emulating the Three Musketeers.
Sundays were always special to us for a couple of reasons, but the best was that it was a time when we could go to the movies and enter a world we had never known a world where we could lose and separate ourselves from reality.
Tim Giago is the Editor Emeritus of the Native Sun News Today. He was inducted into the Native American Journalists Hall of Fame in 2015 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org