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

Tim Giago: Learning a trade at the boarding school

Notes from Indian Country
Learning a trade at the boarding school

Everybody who came to the Holy Rosary Mission Boarding School worked.

In the early fall the potato crops planted along Mission Flats were ripe and ready for picking. We were handed empty gunny sacks and told to fill them with potatoes. Of course since we were always hungry we often ate some potatoes raw and came down with a malady we called the “raw potato farts.”

Across the highway from the potato fields was the sugar cane field and the older boys were given machetes and trained to cut the sugar cane. We were then loaded into trucks and taken to Buffalo Gap where there were orchards of apples. We usually spent a couple of days filling gunny sacks with apples.

We ate as many apples as possible while we picked them and fortunately suffered no gastric maladies. On the way back to the Mission we usually tossed a few gunny sacks of apples into the weeds along the highway so that we could retrieve them later. It seems we were always thinking about our next meal.

Every older student had a job. Perhaps they worked with Brother Eben, the blacksmith, or Brother Bauer, at the dairy farm, or Brother Gross, the carpenter or at the really fun job of working for Brother Siers, the baker. But everybody worked.

Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

Our school barber was the Head Coach Bob Clifford. Bob was a busy man. He turned out some of the best basketball teams in his day. And he was so busy that he decided he needed an apprentice to spell him from his barber shop chores. One day told me he wanted me to cut hair. So under his tutelage I learned to be a barber. I was 15 years old.

To start me off and give me confidence Bob let me begin with the elementary school boys. The very first boy that climbed into my barber’s chair was my first cousin Pat Garnette. I was pretty nervous about cutting his hair but the Coach was right there guiding me along. After I finished I held up a hand mirror for Pat to look into and he seemed pretty satisfied with his haircut.

The first adult that sat in my barber’s chair was a senior, the captain of our basketball team, a young man named Joe Hawk from Oglala. I was pretty nervous about that, but Joe was a great guy and encouraged me along the way and after all was said and done he looked pretty good after the clipping stopped.

A new elementary student was brought in for his first haircut. And it actually was his first haircut because he had long hair hanging all of the way down his back. He started to cry when I approached him with scissors in my hand. I felt really bad so I went and got the Coach. Bob talked to the little boy in Lakota and told him that last year the school had an epidemic of head lice and so all of the boys got their hair cut short to get rid of them. This seemed to appease him and I am sad to say I had to cut off his long locks.

And then one day the school principal, a priest named Father Edwards, a priest feared by all, asked me to cut his hair. Behind his back we called him “Eddie Boy.” And so with shaky hands I set about cutting his hair. Unfortunately I must have done a really good job because from them on I became his personal barber.

My days as a barber went like this: I would start with the first graders and go all of the way through to the seniors and by then it was time to start again with the first graders. This trade served me well because when I joined the U. S. Navy I bought a barber’s clipper, comb and scissors and made a little extra money cutting hair on weekends.

Many years later I was filling my car with gas in Oglala when I ran into Joe Hawk. We talked for a little while and I told him about how nervous I was when I gave him one of my first haircuts. Joe laughed and said, “I don’t know how you did such a good job because I was sitting there shaking and sweating.”


Tim Giago is the Publisher of Native Sun News Today. He is a former Nieman Fellow with the Class of 1991 and the recipient of many journalism awards including the H. L. Mencken Award. He can be reached at najournalist1@gmail.com

Note: Content copyright © Tim Giago

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