by Dovie Thomason

Story Summary

Dovie shares her knowledge of the Indian Boarding School experiement with her daughter and us. She weaves history, biography, autobiography and personal reflection in the story that she never “wanted” to tell. But some stories need to be told…

Discussion Questions

  1. Had you heard about the Indian Boarding schools? Why has this part of American history been largely hidden?
  2. What political and economic factors caused the U.S. Government to wage genocide against the First Nations?
  3. 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?
  4. What factors in First Nation cultures supported families in surviving the unthinkable and continuing to thrive?

Resources

Themes

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript
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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!