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

Tim Giago: Bartering for butter at the Indian boarding school

Notes from Indian Country
Bartering for butter
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

At the old Holy Rosary Mission boarding school we didn’t have a heck of a lot to barter with, but being the industrious Indian boys we were, we found our ways.

It is in the nature of the Indian boys to be horse traders. It was in our blood. And since we didn’t have money, that is hard cash, we found that one of the most valuable commodities at the school to barter with was the small cubes of butter we got at our meals.

Nearly all of the toys we had as boys were the toys we made for ourselves. Wire cowboys, horses and Indians were our favorites. The talented boys would take bailing wire and twist it into the shape of a cowboy or horse and then they would somehow get balls of pretty colored yarn and wind the yarn around the wire cowboys or Indians to fashion clothing. They even made small hats and feathers out of other materials that were quite realistic.

Now suppose I saw one of the wire figures I really fancied, but I didn’t have any money to purchase the toy. I would then barter with the toy maker. “I will give you four butters for that cowboy,” I would say and the boy with the wire cowboy would think it over and if he said yes, I had the wire cowboy and he had my cubes of butter from four meals. He usually collected his butter at meal times.

Some of the boys would be so good at making deals that they would have a glass jar filled with butter they kept in their lockers in the Little Boy’s Gym. The butter went nicely with the choke cherry jelly their mother’s made for them. So why was there such bargaining power in a cube of butter?

Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

Every afternoon around 3 o’clock Brother Sears would bring a couple of baskets filled with fresh buns to the front of Red Cloud Hall. We would all line up and each of us would get one bun. If there were any extra buns Brother Sears would toss them in the air and we would scramble for them.

Now this is where that bartered butter came to the fore. The boys that really knew how to bargain and trade would rush to their lockers, secure the jars of butter they had stored there, and spread it on the fresh buns while those of us not so fortunate ate our buns dry.

Three o’clock was called “bun time” and once when I wrote about it my daughter Denise said, “Well, maybe “bun time” had a different meaning then than it does today.” Makes sense.

And so as the school year progressed some boys never had a cube of butter ever because they had traded all of their butter away. It was not uncommon too hear two boys arguing and one saying, “Ok, you owe me six butters.” Other boys came off as wealthy merchants because they always had something to offer the other boys for their butters.

And serious brawls could erupt over the butters. One day Aloysius Day Boy punched out Alonzo Two Bears over a debt of butter. The fight was memorable because it was a one-punch affair. Aloysius, known as Chief Day Boy, landed a left hook to the temple of Alonzo and we all stood there in shock to see the bump rise on Alonzo’s temple rise so big and fast it grew to the size of an egg. All because Alonzo owed Chief Day Boy six butters.

Many years later, after I had started the Lakota Times newspaper in Pine Ridge, I was eating dinner at a restaurant in Gordon, Nebraska when my classmate from Holy Rosary, Dickie Brewer, approached my table. He put two cubes of butter next to my plate and said with a wide grin, “Here are the two butters I owe you.”

None of us boarding school boys ever forgot about how we bartered with cubes of butter.

Alonzo Two Bears and his brother Pete ran away from Holy Rosary the day after the fight with Chief Day Boy. I heard the Chief mutter that day, “I guess I’ll never get to collect my butter.”

Contact Tim Giago at

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