Tim Giago: The dark legacy of boarding schools

It is not in the least bit uncommon for the thousands of Native Americans pushed through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Church operated boarding schools for more than 100 years, to have suppressed memories. I wrote a book of poetry that was published in 1977, called “The Aboriginal Sin.” A mainstream publisher would never have published the book, but the only Native American publishing house in the Nation, The Indian Historian Press, Inc., instead published it. The book is now many years out of print.

A Cahuilla Indian man from California, Rupert Costo, a man who had been a product of an Indian mission boarding school, read the packet of poems I had written in the 1950s, poems I wrote whenever I had this deep feeling of depression related to my 10 years at a Catholic Indian mission boarding school on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. As editor of the Indian Historian Press, Inc., he said to me, “These poems must be published.”

A young reporter working for the Albuquerque Journal by the last name of Talley did a book review for that newspaper. When she called the mission school I had attended, Holy Rosary Mission, she was told by one priest that I had never gone to school there and by another that I had only gone to school there for six months.

These priests could lie with a straight face because since I had been a student there the school had changed its name to Red Cloud Indian School. I had several of my former classmates write affidavits swearing that I had indeed attended Holy Rosary Mission. One former student, Gerald Clifford, now deceased, wrote, “I definitely remember Tim as a student at HRM during most of my school days there and although he may not have attended Red Cloud Indian School, he did attend Holy Rosary Mission.” Thank goodness my family had saved many of the photographs taken of me while I was a student there because when I visited the mission school after the book came out, all of my photos had mysteriously vanished.

I can understand why the Catholic Church and its servants at Holy Rosary Mission would deny my very existence. It was because I had opened a can of worms and they were trying to stuff them back into the can. They were afraid of the notoriety and of the possibility of losing the thousands of dollars they solicited every day for the school. They were also in denial that any abuses had ever taken place at the mission school. My book of poetry exposed all of that.

Many former students wrote or called me to tell my how much they enjoyed the book and how much it had helped them to face their own demons. Now remember, this was 30 years ago, long before the national scandals about the abuse of children by Catholic priests ever hit the mainstream headlines. I recently wrote a book, Children Left Behind, and added the poems from The Aboriginal Sin into the book because I felt that they were a vital part of my life’s experiences at the boarding school. I also included many of the photographs of me while I was a student at the school so that the Catholic Church would have a hard time denying my presence at the school.

Two months ago, at a book signing, I spoke to about 250 people at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. I noticed some of the elderly Indian women dabbing at their eyes during my talk. When I was done I took questions from the audience. A very elderly Indian man, with the help of his niece, stood up and leaned on his cane

The elderly man was from the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in Northwestern New Mexico. He began his question with, “I went to a mission boarding school,” and then he stopped speaking. Tears began rolling down his face and he apologized to me for crying. But he could not ask the question he wanted to ask because he was too overcome with grief.

I understand how this Jicarilla Apache man felt because when I speak about the time my eight year old sister, along with dozens of Lakota girls the same age, was raped at the mission school by a pedophile, I often get choked up, but I continue because I want people to know the horrible damage done to Indian children by the boarding schools over the more than 100 years they existed. I want people to know how we were beaten with leather straps, shorn of our hair, and used as child slave-laborers at these boarding schools.

Thousands of former boarding school students, now in their old age, experienced and witnessed the many abuses. The terrible impact of those days still haunt them and that is why I am glad that I have been able get many of them to unbind their years of suppression. When they start to speak, hesitantly at first, they soon get into the emotions of it and it seems that the floodgates are opened for the first time in many years, and the words and tears flow easily.

My younger sister told me about her abuse on her deathbed and I, along with her three children, finally understood why she had become a violent, alcoholic woman for so much of her life. She died angry at the world and all alone. If only she had spoken sooner maybe we could have helped her.

My book and my lectures are now opening many of the Native minds that have forced out these terrible memories all of these years. Many of the problems of alcoholism and drug abuse now prevalent in Indian country can be traced back to the physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered at the hands of our keepers in the BIA and mission boarding schools.

As we, the Indian people, revive the memories of those dreadful days, perhaps the process of healing can now begin.

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago’s weekly column. He can be reached 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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