Indian Boarding Schools

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Winning Nomination

A first grader, a federal boarding school.
Said Aaniin to the first grown up
got an icy blue eyed stare in return
Got a beating from a second grader
for crying about the stare
Couldn't tell maw or dad
both were 300 miles away
Couldn't write, didn't know how
Couldn't mail, didn't know how
Runaway, got caught
Got an icy blue eyed stare and a beating
Got another beating from a second grader
for crying about the blue eyed beating
Toughed it out

Here is a story of the nights at boarding school: The dormitory was a huge room with rows and rows of beds. A boy at one end would begin quietly crying. Maybe he was crying because he was homesick, maybe he was crying because he had been beat up. Whatever the reason the boys on either side of him would tell him to quit crying. When he wouldn't stop they would be reminded how homesick they were and begin crying too. We could hear the wave of crying start at one end of the dormitory and come traveling down until the boy in the next bed was crying and I was sobbing too. After a night like that we all got up and pretended like it didn't happen.

And now a story about running away: After a couple months at the boarding school I wanted to see my mother's face. There was always talk around the school about runaways so I thought I would try. My older sister Judy tried to talk me out of it but couldn't. She walked me to the rear gate of the school and told me two things, one was that we came to that school on Highway 23, if I just followed the signs north I would get close to home. She also told me to tell maw to send her some candy when I got home. I was six years old. I began walking north on 23, the thought of going home kept me putting one foot in front of the other. After a long time walking I found a hawk foot on the side of the road.

What a treasure, I thought, no one else I knew owned a hawk foot. It smelled a little ripe but I didn't mind because now I had company on my long walk home.

It was just getting dark when I heard a car sliding to a stop behind me. The doors opened and two big white people came running towards me. I turned and ran into the corn field. They chased me up and down the rows of corn. I even used my fall down-ball up trick once before they caught me and dragged me back to the car. Once in the car they told me I had made it nine miles. That's when they noticed my smell. One man took the hawk foot our of my pocket and threw it in the ditch. I don't remember the beating I got back at the school but I do remember feeling bad about that hawk foot. Later as an adult I learned area farmers were paid a bounty for reporting or capturing runaway Indian children.

Jim Northrup, Sawyer, MN

Runner-up Nominations

Boarding schools had a tremendous impact on the history of American Indians in Minnesota, as well as across North America. The Pipestone Boarding school in southwestern Minnesota was a government operated boarding school that educated Dakota and Ojibwe people in the region, in an era when Indian education meant learning English, adopting Christianity and Americanization and assimilation. Many tribal people feel the legacy of these schools is still felt today within their communities.
~Brenda Child



Nighttime was the worst

When he was six years old, Jim Northrup was sent from his home on Minnesota's Fond du Lac Reservation to the Pipestone Indian School in Pipestone, Minnesota. Life at Pipestone was hard, and homesickness and loneliness soon overwhelmed Northrup and his fellow students. "Nighttime was the worst," Northrup, now a successful author and humorist, recalled. "On one end of the room, a young kid would start to cry in his bed. It was like a domino effect; soon the whole room was sobbing. The next day everyone would carry on like nothing happened." Northrup tried running away from Pipestone several times and eventually completed his schooling at a Christian boarding school in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Why was Jim Northrup sent to Pipestone at such a young age? By the late 1800s, most American Indians were living on reservations, since much of their land base had been ceded to the U.S. government through treaties. Indians supported themselves by living off the land when possible, getting jobs wherever they could, and, if necessary, leaving their families and moving to cities in search of employment. To solve what federal officials often called the "Indian problem"--rampant unemployment, poor health, and few prospects--the government enacted a general policy of assimilation, from a belief that American Indians should suppress their own cultural practices, including speaking in their own languages and worshipping in traditional ways, and instead adopt the ways of America's majority culture. As part of this policy, boarding school attendance was mandated for American Indian children nationwide. When children arrived at boarding schools, they were given haircuts and European-style clothing and were expected to adhere to strict practices that, in an oft-repeated description from Captain Richard C. Pratt, founder of Carlisle Indian School, would "kill the Indian and save the man."

The first building at Pipestone Indian School was completed in 1892. Soon children began arriving from throughout Minnesota and across the Midwest. As in other federal Indian schools, students usually spent half of each day in the classroom and the other half learning occupations such as farming, masonry, carpentry, cooking, baking, and nursing. This vocational training was resented by many Indians, who saw their children being prepared for little else than lives of menial labor.

Life for many boarding school students was bleak, but not all experiences were negative. Some former students recall compassionate teachers, character-enhancing sports programs, and strong bonds forged through common experiences. Overall, however, strict assimilation programs were deemed a failure, and, over time, boarding schools closed or changed their curricula to better reflect their students' backgrounds and beliefs.

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