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Luther Standing Bear: Life at Boarding School (1879)
How do these passages explain the purpose of the Indian boarding schools? How does this excerpt reflect American Indian policy in the period after the Civil War?
From My People the Sioux by Luther Standing Bear (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928): 133-149. Excerpted from Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indians View of How the West was Lost by Colin G. Calloway (Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 1996): 172-178.
Luther Standing Bear, whose original name was Plenty Kill, became the Ogalla Sioux Chief in the early 20thcentury. He was educated at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, an experience that he related in his memoirs. The Carlisle Indian School, like several others, was established to “reeducate” the conquered Plains Indian to the American way of life. Many children did not survive their experiences in the schools.
Luther Standing Bear became a well known Native American writer who tried to keep the old ways alive through stories, poetry, and speeches.
At last the train arrived at a junction where we were told we were at the end of our journey. Here we left the train and walked about two miles to the Carlisle Barracks. Soon we came to a big gate in a great high wall. The gate was locked, but after quite a long wait, it was unlocked and we marched in through it. I was the first boy inside. At that time I thought nothing of it, but now I realize that I was the first Indian boy to step inside the Carlisle Indian School grounds.
Here the girls were called to one side by Louise McCoz, the girls’ interpreter. She took them into one of the big buildings, which was very brilliantly lighted, and it looked good to us from the outside.
When our interpreter told us to go to a certain building which he pointed out to us, we ran very fast, expecting to find nice little beds like those the white people had. We were so tired and worn out from the long trip that we wanted a good long sleep. From Springfield, Dakota, to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, riding in day coaches all the way, with no chance to sleep, is an exhausting journey for a bunch of little Indians.
But the first room we entered was empty. A cast-iron stove stood in the middle of the room, on which was placed a coal oil lamp. There was no fire in the stove. We ran though all the room, but they were all the same – no fire, no beds. This was a two-story building, but we were all herded into two rooms on the upper floor.
Well, we had to make the best of the situation, so we took off our leggins and rolled them up for a pillow. All the covering we had was the blanket which each had brought. We went to sleep on the hard floor, and it was cold! We had been used to sleeping on the ground, but the floor was so much colder.
Next morning we were called downstairs for breakfast. All we were given was bread and water. How disappointed we were! At noon we had some meat, bread, and coffee, so we felt a little better. But how lonesome the big boys and girls were for their far away Dakota homes where there was plenty to eat! The big boys seemed to take it worse than we smaller chaps did. I guess we little fellows did not know any better. The big boys would sing brave songs, and that would start the girls to crying. They did this for several nights. The girls’ quarters were about a hundred and fifty yards from ours, so we could hear them crying. After some time the food began to get better; but it was far from being what we had been used to receiving back home….
One day when we came to school there was a lot of writing on one of the blackboards. We did not know what it meant, but our interpreter came into the room and said, “Do you see all these marks on the blackboard? Well, each word is a white man’s name. They are going to give each one of you one of these names by which you will hereafter be known.” None of the names were read or explained to us, so of course we did not know the sound or meaning of any of them.
The teacher had a long pointed stick in her hand, and the interpreter told the boy in the front seat to come up. The teacher handed the stick to him, and the interpreter then told him to pick any name he wanted. They boy had gone up with his blanket on. When the long stick was handed to him, he turned to us as much as to say, “Shall I – or will you help me – to take on of these names? Is it right for me to take a white man’s name?” He did not know what to do for a time, not uttering a single word but he acted a lot and was doing a lot of thinking.
Finally he pointed out one of the names written on the blackboard. Then the teacher took a piece of white tape and wrote the name on it. Then she cut off a length of the tape and sewed it on the back of the boy’s shirt. Then that name was erased from the board. There was no duplication of names in the first class at Carlisle School!
Then the next boy took the pointed and selected a name. He was also labeled in the same manner as Number One. When my turn came, I took the pointer and acted as if I were about to touch an enemy. Soon we all had the names of white men sewed on our backs. When we went to school, we knew enough to take our proper places in the class, but that was all. When the teacher called the roll, no one answered his name. Then she would walk around and look at the back of the boys’ shirts. When she had the right name located, she made the boy stand up and say, “Present.” She kept this up for about a week before we knew what the sound of our new names was.
Next we had to learn to write our names. Our good teacher had a lot of patience with us. She is now living in Los Angeles, California, and I still like to go and ask her any question which may come up in my mind. She first wrote my name on the slate for me, and then, by motions, indicated that I was to write it just like that. She held the pencil in her hand just so, them made first one stroke, then another, and by signs I was given to understand that I was to follow in exactly the same way.
The first few times I wrote my new name, it was scratched so deeply into the slate that I was never able to erase it. But I copied my name all over both sides of the slate until there was no more room to write. Then I took my slate up to show the teacher, and she indicated, by the expression of her face, that it was very good. I soon learned to write it very well; then I took a piece of chalk downstairs and wrote “Luther” all over everything I could copy it on.
How lonesome I felt for my father and mother! I stayed upstairs all by myself, thinking of the good times I might be having if I were only back home, where I could ride my ponies, go wherever I wanted to and do as I pleased, and, when it came night, could lie down and sleep well. Right then and there I learned that no matter how humble your home is, it is yet home…
One day we had a strange experience. We were all called together by the interpreter and told that we were to have our hair cut off. We listened to what he had to say, but we did not reply. This was something that would require some thought, so that evening the big boys held council, and I recall very distinctly that Nakpa Kesela, or Robert American Horse, made a serious speech. Said he, “If I am to learn the ways of the white people, I can do it just as well with my hair on.” To this we all exclaimed, “Hau!” – meaning that we agreed with him.
In spite of this meeting, a few days later we saw some white men come inside the school grounds carrying big chairs. The interpreter told us these were the men who had come to cut our hair. We did not watch to see where the chairs were carried, as it was school time, and we sent to our classroom. On of the big boys named Y Slo, or Whistler, was missing. In a short time he came in with his hair cut off. They then called another boy out, and when he returned, he also wore short hair. In this way we were called out one by one.
[…] But when my hair was cut short, it hurt my feelings to such an extent that the tears came into my eyes. I do not recall whether the barber noticed my agitation or not, nor did I care. All I was thinking about was that hair he had taken away from me.
Right here I must state how this hair-cutting affected me in various ways. I have recounted that I always wanted to please my father in every way possible. All his instructions to me had been along this line: “Son, be brave and get killed.” This expression had been molded into my brain to such an extent that I knew nothing else.
But my father had made a mistake. He should have told me, upon leaving home, to go and learn all I could of the white man’s ways, and be like them. That would have given a new idea from a different slant; but Father did not advise me along that line. I had come away from home with the intention of never returning alive unless I had done something very brave.
Now, after having my hair cut, a new thought came into my head. I felt that I was no more Indian, but would be an imitation of a white man. And we are still imitations of white men, and the white men are imitations of the Americans.
Next we heard that we were soon to have white men’s clothes. We were all very excited and anxious when this was announced to us. One day some wagons came in, loaded with big boxes, which were unloaded in front of the office. Of course we were all very curious, and gathered around to watch the proceedings and see all we could.
Here, one at a time, we were “sized up” and a whole suit handed to each of us. The clothes were some sort of dark heavy gray goods, consisting of coat, pants, and vest. We were also given a dark woolen shirt, a cap, a pair of suspenders, socks, and heavy farmer’s boots.
Up to this time we had all been wearing our thin shirts, leggins, and blanket. Now we had received new outfits of white men’s clothes, and to us it seemed a whole lot of clothing to wear at once, but even at that, we had not yet received any underwear.
I now began to realize that I would have to learn the ways of the white man. With that idea in mind, the thought also came to me that I must please my father as well. So my little brain began to work hard. I thought that some day I might be able to become an interpreter for my father, as he could not speak English. Or I thought I might be able to keep books for him if he again started a store. So I worked very hard.
One day they selected a few boys and told us we were to learn trades. I was to be a tinsmith. I did not care for this, but I tried my best to learn this trade. Mr. Walker was our instructor. I was getting along very well. I made hundreds of tin cups, coffee pots, and buckets. These were sent away and issued to the Indians on various reservations.
After I had left the school and returned home, this trade did not benefit me any, as the Indians had plenty of tinware that I had made at school.
One Sunday morning we were busy getting ready to get to Sunday School in town. Suddenly there was great excitement among some of the boys on the floor below. One of the boys came running upstairs shouting, “Luther Standing Bear’s father is here!” Everybody ran downstairs to see my father. We had several tribes at the school now, many of whom had heard of my father, and they were anxious to see him.
When I got downstairs, my father was in the center of a large crowd of the boys, who were all shaking hands with him. I had to fight my way through to reach him. He was so glad to see me, and I was delighted to see him. But our rules were that we were not to speak the Indian language under any consideration. And here was my father, and he could not speak English!
(Captain Pratt, Founder of Carlisle Indian School, made an exception and allowed all the children to converse with Luther Standing Bear’s father in their Sioux language).