A photo titled "First Sioux Girls -- As They Came to Carlisle Oct. 6th, 1879." image: Souvenir of the Carlisle Indian School
Education | Opinion

Tim Giago: Fall always meant it was time to return to Indian boarding schools

Notes from Indian Country

Fall always meant it was time to return to the boarding schools
By Tim Giago (Nanwici Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

In days gone by the most terrible time of the year for Indian boys and girls across the West came at the end of August.

All across the Western United States from 1888 to the 1960s Indian children were sent by bus, train, wagon, and car to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and missionary boarding schools. The same thing happened in Canada where the Native children were sent to “residential schools.” Many of them lie in graveyards adjacent to the schools some in unmarked graves.

Entire generations of children was sent to the boarding schools to be indoctrinated. They were shorn of hair, clothing, spirituality, custom, and tradition all in the name of “killing the Indian to save the child.”

Children, who came from homes on the Indian reservations where corporeal punishment was unknown would soon feel the sting of a leather strap or the slap of an open hand. They would learn what it is like to be locked in a dark closet as a form of punishment.

They would learn how to march to and from all activities. They would all be dressed in chambray shirts and bib overalls so that everyone looked the same. Individualism would become a source of punishment.

The first week was always the hardest. At the boarding school I attended, Holy Rosary Indian Mission, the Jesuit priests and prefects were much more alert to our presence that first week. Many boys and girls would become physically ill with homesickness and the rabbit would come out in us. This first week is when most of the attempted runaways occurred.

Every night and every morning we were lined up in military ranks for roll call with an older boy acting as our captain. The older boy could be our friend or assailant over the next nine months. Many of the older students acting as captains were extremely cruel to the children under their command. It was not uncommon for an errant boy to be smashed in the face with a fist by the older captains.

At roll call a prefect read off the names of every student while we shouted “present.” Anyone not responding was usually on the run. Hunting parties of prefects and older students would set out in search parties looking for the runaway. Oftentimes the chase was by men and the older Indian students mounted on horses.

Most of us prayed that the runaway would make it to freedom. Once in a great while they did. But for the most part, they were dragged back to the Indian mission tired, dirty, and hungry and in tears. It was a sad thing to see them captured.

The first captain I recall was a very dark-skinned young man (boy) named “Boob.” I don’t know how he got the name but it certainly fit him. When it came to his cruel treatment of those he commanded, he was, indeed, a boob. For some reason I annoyed him so he directed much of his anger at me. I learned to bite my lip and keep my mouth shut whenever I was under his command.

“Boob” was in command beginning with our march to church in the early morning, our march to the dining room and our behavior at our assigned table, and our march to Red Cloud Hall after our meals. The rest of the day I was under the control of nuns, prefects, brothers and priests. At anytime during these activities, he had the authority to punish his wards. His favorite method was a slap across the face with an open hand or a punch in the stomach or arm with his fist.

Every prefect carried a notebook. He entered infractions in the book and the accumulation of infractions was tallied at the end of the week as demerits. If we surpassed our allotted number of demerits for the week, there were penalties. The penalties usually involved barring us from attending the Sunday night movie, one of the pure enjoyments of our days at the mission school.

On Sunday evenings we would once again stand at roll call while the prefect read the names from a clipboard of those who had accumulated too many demerits. The victims were ordered to step from the ranks and line up against a wall. From there they were sent to bed in the dormitory. The lucky boys often snickered at the losers as they marched off to the gymnasium to see the Sunday movie.

When we first arrived at the boarding school we wore our civilian clothes. We walked around in front of Red Cloud Hall and greeted our old friends and checked out the new students. One day one boy raced after the car that had dropped him off shouting the name of his aunt. Her name was Eunice, but he was such a small boy that all he could scream was “Hoonis.” To this day he bears this nickname. We all tagged him as “Hoonis.” Of course, Hoonis now has a “Doctor” in front of that name.

The year I arrived at the mission there was a popular comic book character named “Tiny Tim.” For some strange reason a boy named Leo Wounded Foot was given that nickname. And so even though my name was “Tim” I did not get stuck with that nickname.

Going back to school was a lonely and traumatic time in our lives. We never knew if there would be new prefects or nuns to teach us or if they would be kind or cruel. We had to leave our homes out on the reservation and the sheltering arms of our parents. We had to leave our pets. We had to leave the good meals our mothers prepared for us and then adjust to the yellow mush and boiled, stringy meat prepared for us by the school cooks. It seems that we were not just lonely, but always hungry.

After all of these years, I still experience the mixed emotions associated with returning to the boarding schools each September. Even the smell of a fall day can bring back those memories. Many of us left the boarding schools not knowing who we were and many spent the rest of their lives trying to find themselves. Some never succeeded. I don’t know of any former boarding school student who ever said they liked it.

I often think of the children who laid in their beds at night crying for the parents and the homes from which they had been removed. The dormitories were a lonesome and terrifying place for all of us when the leaves of summer turned to the leaves of fall.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is Editor Emeritus of Native Sun News Today. He is the recipient of the Native American Journalists Association/Medill School of Journalism Achievement Award and will be the Keynote speaker at the NAJA Convention in Anaheim, California, on Sept 8, 2017.