Tim Giago: Writing helped heal wounds of abuse

Why do some children survive abuse by growing stronger while others whither and die as the result of alcoholism, drugs, suicide or even as murderers at the hands of an executioner?

And why do many of those abused as children become abusers themselves in adulthood? These are questions I was asked last week by a reporter from the Albuquerque Journal and I don't think I answered them to the best of my ability.

The writer was doing an interview for my new book "Children Left Behind," a book that is a partial biography of the horrors I observed while growing up at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The press release by the publisher the reporter read goes, "Tim Giago weaves a memoir, commentary, reflection and poetry together to boldly illustrate his often-horrific experiences as a child at a Catholic Indian Mission boarding school where Indian children were forcefully molded to fit into mainstream America. This unholy experiment contributed to many of today's modern problems in an entire generation of Native Americans."

When she asked me how it was that I survived the experience and came out stronger my reply was that I attributed to my parents. I believe this was not the complete answer.

Make no mistake that I loved my parents, but after giving it much thought, I do not believe they were the only reason I made some success of my life after the boarding school experience. I think it was because I loved to write. When I was seventeen and on my way by ship to Korea in 1952, I started to write poems about my school days, the good, the bad, and the very ugly. I continued to write these poems for nearly 19 years and one day I mailed them to a Cahuilla Indian man named Rupert Costo, the publisher of the Indian Historian Press in San Francisco.

Costo, a victim of the boarding school system himself, called me a few weeks later and said, "Tim, these poems must be published." And his publishing house named the book of poetry, "The Aboriginal Sin." It was published in 1978. Many of these poems are included in my new and expanded book on the Indian mission boarding schools, "Children Left Behind." From the day the book of poetry was published the Catholic Church hierarchy and the Jesuit priests at the mission school went into denial. They denied that I ever went to school at the mission and they attempted to erase any evidence of it. I had to get affidavits from my former classmates to prove I attended school there. It seems that my small book of poetry was hurting the school's ability to solicit money.

By writing about my life, and the lives of my friends at the mission school, it was a cathartic experience for me. By putting my thoughts down on paper I was able to see my life's experiences for what they were, to analyze them, and to put them behind me. Many Indian people who read my book, then and now, write to me and say how much this has helped them to understand their own fears and anxieties. You must understand that America's "Cultural Genocide" against the Indian people encompassed more than three generations beginning in the mid-1880s and lasting until the 1960s.

When I read the reviews of the movie "Freedom Writers" in the New York Times I thought about my own life and how writing proved to be the catharsis that lifted me out of my pain and sorrow. When I was in the sixth grade I was writing down everything that was important to me. One day I handed in a composition assignment to my teacher, a Catholic prefect who would later become a Jesuit priest, and he read it, slammed it down on my desk, and accused me of plagiarism. I had no idea of what he was talking about. He said, "As a writer you will never amount to a hill of beans." His critical comments made me work all the harder to improve my writing skills.

Many years later I was given the Distinguished Achievement Award in Journalism by the University of Missouri School of Journalism. When I was asked at the banquet that night, "If you could name anyone in the world, who would you like to have sitting at your side tonight?" I replied, "A Father Fagan from the Holy Rosary Indian Mission boarding school who told me that as a writer, I would never amount to a hill of beans."

Anna Quindlen, writing a review on "Freedom Writers" in her weekly column for Newsweek quoted novelist Don DeLillo when he wrote, "Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals"

I say amen to that. Writing was my salvation and it was writing that took me all of the way from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to Harvard Yard. It was writing that helped me to see past the horrors of rape, psychological and physical abuse, and the sanctimonious religious indoctrination of the Catholic Church and enabled me to write a book that would remind all Americans that there is a portion of their history that has been swept under the rug and buried because of the shame it not only brought to the Church but to the Nation.

Too many Indians have been sacrificial victims of the boarding schools for me to ever let America forget. And I encourage all teachers worth their salt to take their students to see "Freedom Writers." It could change their lives.

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago's weekly column. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9244, Rapid City, SD 57709 or at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990-1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, "Children Left Behind."

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