By Dovie Thomason
Part One: Gertrude Bonnin
Part Two: Grandpa
The “Indian Experiment” in education, the government boarding schools, is unknown to many Americans, yet affects us all. Following forty years of study of these stories, Dovie knew she had to share what she’d learned that would be essential to her daughter, and all of us. She weaves history, biography, autobiography and personal reflection in this story that she never “wanted” to tell. But there are some stories that need to be told…
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For a lesson plan that corresponds with this story, click here: The Spirit Survives
- Had you heard about the Indian Boarding schools? Why has this part of American history been largely hidden?
- What political and economic factors caused the U.S. Government to wage genocide against the First Nations?
- How does witnessing and speaking about tragedies such as this help heal the spirit? What made it possible for Dovie’s Grandfather to start speaking out? How and when do you tell young people about the oppression of their group by others?
- What factors in First Nation cultures supported families in surviving the unthinkable and continuing to thrive?
- Impressions of an Indian Childhood by Zitkala-Sa
- American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin)
- Crossing Cultures
- Education and Life Lessons
- European American/Whites
- Family and Childhood
- First Nations/Native Americans
- Jewish Americans/Jews
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Part I-Gertrude Bonnin
Hi, my name’s Dovie Thomason and I’d like to tell you an excerpt from a larger story called “The Spirit Survives.”
In 1966, I went away to college on a minority academic scholarship. Ironically, my free ride to this posh private school was paid by a railroad dynasty. They got wealthy breaking their treaty with my tribe the Lakotas. And so I went to this school and somehow persuaded them to let me major in American Indian Studies. This major did not exist in the United States, as yet, so it was an independent study.
I was in the library one day. It was a massive library but it had only one book about Indians written by Indians. I remember this volume just fell off the shelf into my hand. It opened, on its own, to a page called School Days of an Indian Girl. The author’s name was Gertrude Bonnin. I didn’t know her name. I turned to the notes and some anthropologist had written, “One of the most important women ever in American history!”
“I don’t know her name,” I thought to myself! An Indian woman, one of the most important women in American history! I started to read that chapter. There I was, the only Indian girl in this posh college reading about this girl in 1884!
She wanted to go to college; she wanted to go to school and, ultimately, college. She’d heard about school from the big-hatted, big-hearted men, the Quaker missionaries on her Nakota reservation. Little Gertie Simmons wanted to go to school. She went to her mother; her mother did not want her to go. Her son had gone to school! He’d gone to school when the Indian agents came and threatened her, telling her they would withhold her rations unless she signed her mark on a document she could not read. She’d signed and lost her son! She wasn’t gonna lose her baby girl!
But little Gertie was strong willed and relentless! After a time, her mother sighed, I can imagine, and signed that document and little Gertie got on a train. She wasn’t eight years old; it was not even six years after the defeat of Custer. But this little one got on a train and took off!
She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t know it was hundreds of miles from her home. She didn’t know it would be years before she’d ever return! She just wanted to go to this place. This Quaker man had told her of a place where the apples were like rosy clouds in the sky.
They rode that train for days and when they got there, there was no one! There were no apples and so that child, she curled on the floor in her mother’s blankets at night. They weren’t ready for these children that were arriving and these children had never spent a night without their relatives. She curled on the floor in her mother’s blankets when another girl came up to her and said (whispering), “Tomorrow they’re gonna cut our hair!”
“Why would they cut my hair?” said Gertie. Now she was frightened. They cut hair when your families died. They cut hair for grieving. They cut hair if you’re a coward. “There’s no reason for them to cut my hair. They will not cut my hair.”
And the girl said, “You’ll see! They are strong.”
Little Gertie was strong willed and she decided to resist. When they came for her the next morning, she was hiding but they found her. They dragged her screaming out from under the furniture. They tied her into a chair and she felt the cold steel of those scissors as they cut her braids. She heard the heavy thump of her hair hitting the floor. That night she cried herself to sleep. Alone, until that same girl came and comforted her using words in our language, words a mother would use with a baby. And then she said (quietly), “Don’t speak these words where they can hear you. They’ll hurt you! They’re strong; you can’t fight them!”
But little Gertie was one to resist. She was a smart child; she’d wanted to go to school. And so the… though she saw children getting sick, some going home where they infected their families, some moving off campus so if anything happened they wouldn’t be part of the death statistics for the school, little Gertie, she tried to study! She wanted to be there. She wanted to learn and she had a gift for listening and repeating what she learned. She had a musical gift – a voice made for song! She found a Quaker sponsor.
She did well in school. And that Quaker sponsor watched her and in the school, Gertie got exposed to other ideas. She did well in that school. Some of the children didn’t do so well. They got nightmares, night sweats, sleep walking; they woke ready to fight. They had trachoma and tuberculosis, smallpox – but it was the loneliness, the homesickness!
After a time, Gertie finished with the school. She decided she’d go home and visit her mother. But when she got home, she found this was not a place she belonged any more.
“My mother has never read a book!” she wrote. “My mother has never been inside a schoolhouse. How could she comfort a girl who can read and write? I no longer belong here. I am not a wild Indian or a tame one.”
And so she turned her back on her mother. She turned her back on the reservation and she went east. Going east, she found another sponsor; she went away to college. She started the debate team. She won awards, she told stories and recitations for presidents. She got a scholarship, another sponsor. She was to go to the New England Conservatory for Music. She was supposed to perform at the Paris Exposition.
But while she was summering in New York, she heard of the death of her fiancé. Now when she heard of this, suddenly Gertrude Simmons ceased to exist.
She renamed herself “Zitkala Ša” Redbird! She took the pins out of her hair and let long braids fall. She put off her Victorian clothes and started to wear buckskin. She started to organize for a vote and citizenship for Indian people. She started to organize for an education that wouldn’t mean the extinction of a culture. She believed a race of people – rich cultures – could not be seen as a problem that the government needed to fix with an experiment. She lost her sponsor but she started publishing. She published a book called “American Indian Stories” in 1901.
That was the book that fell into my hand. That was the book that changed my life for the last 40 years. You see, I think I was looking for a long-lost Lakota grandmother and I found her in the pages of the stories this woman wrote. Collected stories from old people that she met and survived the Indian wars and her own memories of this debilitating experience in the government schools. To tell you the truth, when I tell a story, I don’t know if it’s mine, my grandma’s or Zitkala Ša’s. Her life is woven with mine. We keep running into each other. She’s been my constant companion for so long. You see, it’s people who’s names you may not even know. Those are the people who are history. That’s what history is. That’s one of the things that Gertrude Bonnin “Zitkala Ša” told me!
Hi, my name is Dovie Thomason. And this is a piece of a longer story called “The Spirit Survives.”
I was standing in a graveyard with my daughter on Labor Day weekend a number of years ago. She was just almost 13 and wondered about my choice of end of summer vacation locations. Other people were with us. We weren’t alone. There was a movement of many people going through headstones. Soft voices, gifts being placed on identical markers. We were in Carlisle, Pennsylvania near where we live, at the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. We were there as a part of a group of people who had come to put up a historical marker. Most of group descendants of the survivors of the school who had pressured the state of Pennsylvania to acknowledge the need for a historical marker in this place. You see, it’s a military base. It has always been a military base. It was won during the French and Indian Wars. It’s where Custer and his cavalry trained before riding west. And in 1918, it again became a military base and is to this day. Mostly residential barracks for military families. But for a brief time in 1879, it opened its doors as the first government residential school for Indian children. It was not voluntary. These children were considered hostages for the good behavior of their parents who were still at war with Custer and the cavalry. And now with all these graves, people would drive past and assume it was military graves. What they didn’t know was it did mark a battlefield but the victims were children. These were the graves of Indian children and no one knew. We wanted to shed light on this dark chapter of American history. We thought that the thing that had been concealed – it was time to bring it into clear view.
Now, my daughter knew some of this. Her grandpa had gone to government school, not this one, one of the later ones modeled after this one. But she didn’t know much about Carlisle. You see, there are some stories you don’t want to tell your children but those are the stories you probably need to tell them. Grandpa used to talk about the schools but in those times, well, years past when my daughter was not yet a teen, Grandma would stop him. “It upsets him,” she would say. “It does no good to talk about it. That was back then. That was long ago. It does no good. It upsets him.” There are some stories you don’t want to tell your children. Well, it did upset Grandpa and he didn’t tell them in front of Grandma. He told them to me and I shared them with my daughter. I didn’t want to tell my daughter. There are some stories you don’t want to tell your daughter but I knew it was a story I had to tell her.
Grandpa was taken when he was 4 to the schools. For 12 years he was there. He had been taken from his grandfather and for 12 years he never saw him. He was taken with other children. Little ones who only spoke their native language – the Oneida language. He was taken with those boys and the only time they could speak the language was when they snuck off out of sight. When they were supposed to be working in the fields. The children worked in the fields, they raised chickens… for the chickens and the eggs. Grandpa would always say, “Chickens and eggs! Never ate chickens and eggs. We ate mush every meal! The mush hole, that’s what I call that!” He’s still angry when he says those words, remembering the beatings he would get for calling it that when he was a child. “They just took the chickens and eggs for the government when they visited so they could see that the children were getting civilized and making progress! The mush hole!” They were little children. They were hungry. They were eating the scraps the staff threw out the windows for the birds. Grandpa does get upset when he tells these stories.
The children would take potatoes from the field and they’d stuff ’em in their clothes. Grandpa never could understand how something he had planted, something he had harvested wasn’t his and that if he took it, he was stealing. He could be beaten for that. But they were hungry, these children and they would heat them behind the boilers until they were roasted and eat them at night. So many stories he told me. So many stories he now tells his granddaughter. But on this day, on this day he was gonna tell a story that I never expected.
As I was standing there thinking about he had told me, my daughter waved at me. “Grandpa’s trying to get your attention.” We had a ceremony to go to. Hundreds of descendants there to unveil this marker. As we walked over, her Grandpa came up to me and said, “I wanna talk.”
I said, “Well, oh, really! Well, ok, dad, you know, it is a pretty big crowd. You’re gonna have to use a microphone. Um. But you just get up there… and you just get up there and you tell your story!”
And he said, “I ain’t telling no story. You tell the story. I just need to talk.” And he got up there and he talked. He wasn’t the only one. Old men, old women, they got up there and each one of them and they talked. They talked of hard times and good times. They told funny stories, sad stories, heartbreaking stories, careers in the military, Indian service, lifetime friends, marriages made, suicides. Disease. Brokenness, what they are now calling post-traumatic stress. They all told their stories and there were lots of tears. Grandpa spoke. He was so brave. Those people he was talking to, hundreds of them, they weren’t strangers anymore once they told their stories. He’s still talk’n. He’s part of those who’ve taken part of the class action suit against the Government of Canada, provincial government to the Church of England. He’s one of those people who came together when the prime minister, in 2008, issued that apology to native peoples, the peoples of the First Nation, for the treatment of children in the schools. That’s all he ever wanted. He didn’t want reparations. He didn’t want a check. He wanted someone to say what happened to those children was wrong. He wanted the decency and the respect of an apology.
And so, he’s talking still. He just worked on a memorial at the school where he went. They’re not shy about talking anymore. And my daughter, her senior project was interviewing them and people on the reserve about what happened there. And when she finished that paper and handed it into our history teacher her senior year of high school, her history teacher didn’t know a thing about what my daughter wrote her and thanked her for teaching her something she didn’t know about America.