The Holy Rosary Mission church on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Raymond Bucko, SJ
Education | Opinion

Tim Giago: Anecdotes from an Indian mission boarding school at Pine Ridge





Notes from Indian Country

Anecdotes from an Indian mission boarding school
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

A couple of generations ago every Indian in America knew about boarding schools, but as the years have passed that knowledge grows dimmer and dimmer.

I see by some of the comments on my Facebook Page from younger Lakota men and women that there is a curiosity about the schools simply because their parents and grandparents may have gone to one and have passed away and if they talked about the boarding schools at all, and many of them didn’t, that information is no longer available to many of the younger Lakota.

My book Children Left Behind: The Dark Legacy of Indian Mission Boarding Schools covers some of the things we faced in the boarding schools and it is available on Amazon.com. If any of you can think of other sources please let us know and we’ll let our readers know.

There are not too many Lakota alive from my days at the boarding schools. Most would be in their 80s and we are losing them quickly. Last week I wrote about some of the ghost stories that were passed through the generations of children who attended the Holy Rosary Indian Mission Boarding School on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Had lunch with Chick and Pigeon Big Crow today and it wasn’t long before our conversation turned to the boarding schools.

Here are a few anecdotes about the boarding schools to further enlighten you.

Everybody had a job no matter how young. Back in those days the schools were pretty much self-supporting. There was a poultry and cattle farm and the milk we got at breakfast for our corn meal mush came from the dairy farm. About the only time we saw any of the eggs was at Easter time when the colored eggs were hidden around the school’s picnic grounds and we were turned loose to find them. Other than that I cannot recall ever getting any eggs for breakfast or any other meal.

On Mission Flats, the stretch of road between the Mission and Pine Ridge Village, the head farmer, Brother Bauer, planted potatoes. In the Fall, shortly after we got back from our summer of freedom, the potatoes would be ready for picking and we were all loaded into the back of a truck and taken out to the potato patch. There we were given gunny sacks, which we tied around our waists, stepped over them and dragged them between our legs while we filled them with potatoes. It was back breaking work for a nine or ten year old kid, but we always got the potatoes picked. Oh yes, we did eat the raw potatoes while we were picking them because we were so darned hungry, but we ended up getting the “raw potato farts.” The dorm was not a pleasant place the night we finished picking the potatoes.

The school had an apple orchard at Buffalo Gap. When the apples were ripe we were once again loaded into trucks and taken to the Gap. This was one of the more pleasant jobs because as we climbed up the trees we made sure to sample as many apples as we could hold without getting sick. The good Jesuits made sure that they packed boxes of peanut butter mixed with maple syrup sandwiches for our lunch break. I still love those sandwiches.

It was usually dark when we returned to the Mission sitting on the top of gunny sacks filled with apples. Just before we reached the Mission grounds we always made it a point to throw a couple of bags of apples off of the truck into the tall grass along-side of the road so that we could come back later and retrieve them. Funny thing is they never caught us doing this.

Everybody had a job. On the girls side they did all of our laundry and helped with the cooking and other domestic chores. I know, but that is the way it was at the Mission. The laundry girls carried baskets of laundry from the girl’s side of the Mission to the boy’s side nearly every day and delivered them to the nun in the “cloak room.” They were also our secret couriers. When we wanted to send a note (love letter) to our girlfriends we slipped the notes to the laundry girls and they delivered them. They also brought the secret mail from the girls to their boyfriends.

The only time we even got to touch our girlfriends was at the Sodality Dances that were held periodically. The girls sat one side of the gymnasium and the boys on the other and when the music started (plastic records on a phonograph player) those with the courage to do so, walked across the gym floor and asked one of the girls to dance. When you are 15 or 16 years old it can be a pretty terrifying experience, especially since the intentional week long separation of the boys and girls made it even more mystifying. The first time I crossed that gym floor and asked Arlene Clifford to dance my knees were shaking so badly that it probably made me a better dancer. And that was before rock n’ roll.

If you danced too closely a Jesuit or a nun walked over and pushed you and your girl apart. That didn’t stop us from trying. These little remembrances are just the tip of the iceberg. More later.

Tim Giago can be reached at najournalist1@gmail.com