Painful thorns are found in Denise Lajimodiere’s history of Indian boarding school survivors
'Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors' is a difficult read
Indian Country TodayStringing Rosaries is a labor of love. But like most books associated with the Native experience in the U.S. Denise Lajimodiere’s history of Indian boarding school survivors is studded with long-hidden painful thorns. Although the survivors interviewed for the book ultimately display a fierce spirit of resilience and even humor, Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors, is a difficult read especially for former boarding school students and their families. According to Lajimodiere she offers a “trigger warning” during her public presentations about her work in researching the book. “I had to fight back tears when my editor handed me the finished book. I promised survivors I would tell the world what happened to them at boarding schools,” she said during an interview with Indian Country Today. Lajimodiere has kept her promise with this sacred oath of a book.
While attending Canadian Truth and Reconciliation hearings in 2007 about that country’s Indian boarding school history, she was shocked to realize that there was so little information about similar schools in the U.S. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created as part of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Before Lajimodiere published her findings at the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, there was no information about the total number of Indian boarding schools in the U.S. She found 366; Stringing Rosaries includes a fold out map listing the schools and their locations. A child of boarding school survivors, Lajimodiere infuses her work with an element of ceremony and personal healing. She sets the scene of each survivor interview by describing her own fears and observations thus giving the reader a sense of the emotional risks involved in hearing these deepest darkest secrets, some told aloud for the first time. In one excerpt she describes how the research helped forward restorative insights into her own parents behavior. For example she describes her father’s abusive behavior and alcoholism. Poignantly she recalls him saying while intoxicated, “I just want to be a man, not a f##king Indian!” Realizing that he suffered from untreated PTSD from years of trauma and physical and mental abuse at Chemawa Indian School, she is able to forgive him. Although Stringing Rosaries describes a common experience of hunger often mixed with loneliness and abuse, the survivors stories include remarkable strategies for maintaining dignity and even humor. One woman described how a nun would often lock her in the school’s food cellar for 24 hours or more as punishment. After realizing she could stack the large food cans stored there as stairs to a window, she hid a can opener in the cellar. During her incarcerations, she would open cans of food and pass them to fellow students through the window. “When I gave them that food, they were really thankful,” she said. Lajimodiere shared her hopes for Stringing Rosaries. “I would like the book to be taken up by both high school and college classes. My goal was for the book to be readable by the general public. I wanted the survivors to tell their story in their own words without intrusion from me of statistics, vignettes, etc.; I wanted the reader to be able to know their lives before boarding school, what happened to them, good or bad, and how their lives were after boarding school as adults,” she said.
Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors by Denise K. Lajimodiere. NDSU Press, 2019.
Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.
This story originally appeared on Indian Country Today on July 22, 2019.
Join the Conversation