Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

Tim Giago: Christmas at a boarding school on the Pine Ridge Reservation

Notes from Indian Country
Christmas plays remembered
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

We all knew we were about to enter the Christmas season when the nuns that made up a small choir started to sing a song called “Oh Come Emanuel.” That song was always a prelude to the other, more well-known songs of Christmas, because those songs like Silent Night, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, and Oh Holy Night, would all soon follow.

This was what life was like at a Catholic Boarding School in the 1940s. In this case it was the Holy Rosary Indian Mission located about 4-miles North of Pine Ridge Village.

It seemed to us that even the prefects, brothers, priests and nuns became a little gentler as Christmas approached. Many of the boys and girls knew that they would actually get a Christmas break and get to go home for a couple of short weeks. That thought alone brought a lot of excited chatter amongst the children.

We always had a Christmas play in the gymnasium and the theme was always constructed around the Nativity scenes. The one play I remember the most happened at Kyle Day School in Kyle, now Little Wound School. I was in kindergarten there when we staged our Christmas play for the Pejuta Haka Community.

Billy and Johnny Bear were my classmates. They were chosen to be the camel in the Nativity scene. Because I was the only one in my kindergarten class that could read a bill board was placed on the stage explaining each scene as it developed and I had the privilege of reading it to the audience.

Pews at the Holy Rosary Mission church on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Raymond Bucko, SJ

Things were going just fine and the Nativity scene was taking shape when the camel pranced on to the stage. Billy was in front and Johnny in the rear end of the camel. Billy cut a horrendous slice of cheese and Johnny, stuck behind him in the camel’s rear, started to choke, shout and nearly dragged the camel to the floor with his gagging. The audience, made up of mostly Lakota elders, mothers and fathers, nearly fell out of their chairs laughing at the antics of the camel.

Billy and Johnny are both deceased now, but I never let them forget their foray as a camel while they were still around to tease.

The Christmas plays at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission were a bit more solemn. They always followed the Bible scenes to the letter. They usually allowed some of the students to sing and we had a boys’ choir that was quite good and we belted out a few Christmas songs. My sister Ethel and Phyllis White Eyes sang a duet that drew a good round of applause.

And then a tiny girl walked on to the stage illuminated by the flood lights and waited patiently for the nun to start the music on the piano. She sang Oh Holy Night with such clarity and beauty that I can hear it in my head even today, many, many years later. Her name was Arlene Clifford and she had the voice of an angel.

The boys’ choir contribution to the event was a song in Latin called “Ora pro nobis.” Mr. John Bryde had worked with us for several weeks to get all of the right sounds out of us and his hard work paid off. Our choir had never sung so beautifully.

We Lakota celebrate Christmas today because it was an important part of our culture to give and share gifts on special occasions. This and the fact that if we had attended boarding schools, many of our fondest memories were based on the joy we shared at Christmas. The joy of our school plays and the joy of the songs we sang. These were always things of beauty to us as we grew up.

To all of the people who have been reading my columns and editorials now and for more than 40 years, I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of the New Year’s. Wopila Tanka!

Tim Giago can be contacted at najournalist1@gmail.com

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Tim Giago: Bartering for butter at the Indian boarding school (November 19, 2018)