Stained glass windows inside the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Raymond Bucko, SJ

James Giago Davies: My mother found sanctuary in a boarding school library

An abundance of goodness and brains
Surviving in the sanctuary of books
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Today Columnist

Ethel Giago was born at Wounded Knee in 1930.

Rural South Dakota is remote even today, but back then, the echoes of horse hoofs and war cries still clung to the craggy buttes and windblown buffalo grass. The generation that had fought and killed Custer was old, but they still lived, and my mother had one foot in their world, and the other at Holy Rosary Mission.

The boarding school had a library, and Ethel was a voracious reader. Through books, she could transport herself far from the myopic reservation tribalism, and by the time her teenage years arrived, she had visited Africa and India, sailed oceans, ascended mountains, and rocketed beyond the farthest star in the night sky.

Books can do that, if you have a mind, and an imagination. The problem was, Ethel sought sanctuary in her books, and even though she grew up, left the reservation for Rapid City, got married, had a dozen kids, she seldom left that sanctuary.

Like many of her generation she believed in a realm beyond this world, life after death, but she rejected the Christianity of her youth, and found the Lakota concept of wakantanka, primitive superstition. She didn’t fit in anywhere, but no matter what North Rapid welfare shack we currently called home, she filled it with her tales of past worlds and fantastic realities to come, and so we did not dwell on our poverty and marginalization.

She had little money to spare, because she did not marry well, and struggled to feed and clothe us, but she still acquired children’s books, for my older sisters. Still a toddler, and fringe observer of her attempts to educate them, I would stare over her shoulder, until one day, those incomprehensible letters and words started making sense to me. She taught me to read before she actually intended to teach me to read.


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James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

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