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Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School

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A renowned activist recalls his childhood years in an Indian boarding school

Best known as a leader of the Indian takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969, Adam Fortunate Eagle now offers an unforgettable memoir of his years as a young student at Pipestone Indian Boarding School in Minnesota. In this rare firsthand account, Fortunate Eagle lives up to his reputation as a “contrary warrior” by disproving the popular view of Indian boarding schools as bleak and prisonlike.

Fortunate Eagle attended Pipestone between 1935 and 1945, just as Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier’s pluralist vision was reshaping the federal boarding school system to promote greater respect for Native cultures and traditions. But this book is hardly a dry history of the late boarding school era. Telling this story in the voice of his younger self, the author takes us on a delightful journey into his childhood and the inner world of the boarding school. Along the way, he shares anecdotes of dormitory culture, student pranks, and warrior games. Although Fortunate Eagle recognizes Pipestone’s shortcomings, he describes his time there as nothing less than “a little bit of heaven.”

Were all Indian boarding schools the dispiriting places that history has suggested? This book allows readers to decide for themselves.

ISBN-13: 9780806141145

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 03-19-2010

Pages: 248

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

Age Range: 15 - 18 Years

Adam Fortunate Eagle is an Ojibwe artist, writer, and frequent guest lecturer. As an advocate for Native civil rights throughout his life, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the State University of New York, New Paltz. He is the author of Heart of the Rock: The Indian Invasion of Alcatraz and Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School. Laurence M. Hauptman is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History in the State University of New York, College at New Paltz, and the author of several books on the Iroquois in New York state.

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My Life in an Indian Boarding School

By Adam Fortunate Eagle


Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8427-2


Life at Pipestone Indian Boarding School, March 1935–June 1945

Early this morning my mother runs down the noisy wooden steps, and yells, "Kids! Kids! Your father is sick—real sick!"

I don't know what she means, but my big brothers and sister act like they do, 'cause now they're real quiet.

I'm five years old and this is new and strange to me. My dad is never sick. He goes to work every day. I go upstairs to see my dad. He is laying in bed, and he is white like his sheets and real weak. He says he's going to be okay, and I believe him. I go over to his bed and give him a big hug. I don't understand why Dad's got tears in his eyes.

A little bit later, Uncle Ernest shows up and helps my dad into a car. Then they drive away. The next day I hear, "Tony Nordwall is dead." I know that is my dad. I know my family kills chickens, rabbits, and deer to eat. But this is the first time I've ever heard of a dad dying. My mother, brothers, and sister are crying, because they are so sad. A couple of days later some cars drive slowly into our yard. My big brother Alton and I run after the cars and climb on the luggage rack on the back of one. My mom, aunties and uncles, and friends get out of the cars, and they're all wearing black clothes. They're really sad, and they've got tears running down their faces. My oldest brother Stanley tells us, "They just came back from Dad's funeral."

Things get even more scary a few days later when Mom says six of us kids are going away to a school. This doesn't make any sense, because there are schools right here on the reservation. My older brothers and sister go to one school. And my brother Curtis goes to St. Mary's Catholic Mission School the other way on the road.

"How come we gotta go?" I'm five years old and nobody wants to tell me anything, like how and why did my dad die? Why's Mom sending us away to a school when we've got schools right here? I want to know.

"Addie, you're just too young to know." So are my little sisters, Viola and Gwendolyn. "Your daddy's gone away, and that's all you need to know." I ask a million questions, but nobody answers them. How come everybody knows what is going on but the three of us? I feel like I'm not being told grownup stuff.

* * *

A few days later Mom says, "You boys go down to the creek to fetch water."

I have two one-gallon tin cans with wire handles. When we come back, I hand my buckets to my older brother and he pours the water into the large copper boiler that's on top of the wood-burning stove—the same copper boiler we take baths in. Mom is washing all our clothes for us to take to school. Getting us ready to leave for school turns into a real family event when my aunties show up to help Mom. Sandwiches, apples, and oranges are packed in our cardboard lunch boxes. They say, "Addie, you are going on a long trip, way, way farther away than Bemidji." That means it's really far away.

We're ready to go before the sun comes up. My mom, aunties, and uncles stand crying with my two little sisters, Viola and Gwendolyn. They're saying, "Bye-bye." Viola's holding Snowball, our all-white longhaired cat, in her arms, and she waves the cat's paw to say, "Bye-bye."

Us six kids climb into the big, black, government car to go to school. Miss Kirkland wrestles that car over the deep muddy roads and through the thick woods of the reservation. As we leave the reservation, the tall pine trees look like dark warriors, standing there and watching us go.

I press my nose to the foggy glass window and see the forest change into logged-over cleared lands. Those patches of forests and cleared lands slowly turn into wide, empty prairies that are plowed up for spring planting. It's way after dark when we get to the boarding school hospital. They wake me up, and the six of us are checked into the hospital for the night.

The next morning they bring us breakfast and then we're taken to the showers. Oh my! This is my first shower—and with cold and hot running water! It sure feels good. Dr. Williams from Pipestone gives us all examinations. Us boys are okay, but my older sister Myra is kinda scrawny and has dry, flaky skin. Dr. Williams gives her a salve to help her stop itching.

After they give us different clothes we walk over to the administration building. My older brothers and sister go inside and I wait outside.

Ho wah! (Oh my!) I'm in a parking lot between two big buildings, turning round and round, staring at the buildings around me. Some are made of pretty red stone, and some are made of cream-colored yellow brick. It's a huge place—kinda scary. All these big, pretty buildings make me feel real small. None of them are like my log cabin back home or my neighbors' houses that are made of wood covered with tar paper.

My brothers and sister enroll us in school. Then my oldest brother Stanley comes up to me with an Indian couple. "Addie, while we are here at Pipestone, these are your new parents, Mr. and Mrs. Burns."

Oh geez! This is too much for me all at once, and I start to cry. Mrs. Burns takes me in her arms and tries to comfort me. She really is like a mom.

They give us beds in the boys' dormitory. Me, Alton and Curtis go to different rooms on the first floor. Wally and Stanley go upstairs with the older boys. We're divided by age. Mrs. Burns puts me in the first bed in Dormitory Five—the home of the bed wetters everybody calls "Stink Dormitory." When we go down the hall to the dormitory, the smell of stale pee is so bad it turns your nose sideways. Our beds are single-wide, steel frame cots with a thin, horsehair-filled mattress under a rubber sheet. Over that are two cotton sheets, a pillow, and a wool blanket. I am so sad and lonely I can only crawl into my bed and cover my head and cry. I cry so long that I start to remember home. I smile through my tears as I see those happy times.

I remember my last Christmas on the reservation. It was so special to me. I held my breath as pretty Junie Bert tore the paper off the present I bought for her. My reward was the happy smile she gave me when she held up the new pink panties I gave her. My special gift was a twirling top with a handle that I pushed into it. I could pump it hard and make it go fast. The holes in its side hummed as it went round and round. The faster it went, the higher the sound it made. Later, my older brothers and sister put me on a sled, covered me with blankets, and put hot bricks by my feet. Like pulling a dog sled, they pulled me over the narrow snowy path through the woods. We went to our Auntie Anna's house that was full of our cousins. Our uncles were outside skinning out three deer that they killed the night before. Uncle Charlie made that day even more special because he gave me a whole nickel to buy a candy bar. When we got home, we took off our frozen coats, caps, and gloves and stood by our tall oil heater to thaw out. My father put me on top of the warm heater. "Jump, Addie, jump!" The other kids cheered me on, and I jumped into the strong arms of my father.

I cry myself to sleep.

* * *

I turn six years old on July 18, and the end of summer brings an end to school vacation and the students go back to school, like ducks and geese flying south for the winter. New students and old students fill the dormitory. The sounds of boys crying in their beds prove that I am not the only lonely boy. I could call it the crying season.

All of us boys have to take off our clothes. The old raggedy ones are thrown away. They save the good ones and mark them with the boys' names in black ink.

After we shower we all go down to the basement. We are all as naked as newborn robins. In one of the basement rooms we form two lines that face long tables with sheets on them. As we get to the tables, Mr. and Mrs. Burns run fine combs through our hair. These combs have small teeth that pull out any nits or lice from our hair and we call them bug rakes. When any little bug falls on the white sheet, the boy is sent to the other side of the room where Paul Smith, the assistant boys' advisor, has a makeshift barber chair. He cuts all the boy's hair off with hand clippers.

I'm afraid when it's my turn to go to the table. I hold my breath as that bug rake goes through my hair over and over. It takes only one louse to fall on the sheet, and off I go to Paul Smith. I cry as those hair clippers chomp off my hair. Then he takes some salve out of a wide-mouth can and smears that awful smelling goo all over my head. He puts a homemade stocking cap on my head, but I can tell he isn't done with me. He turns me around and looks for signs of a rash. Sure enough, near my crotch I have a red rash. Another can is full of a yellow, sulfur-smelling salve. He rubs that icky stuff all over my rash. I stink like heck! I dress myself in denim coveralls that're too big and high-top shoes that're too big for my feet.

"Go out and play, Adam."

I go outside and around the side of the boys' dormitory to an inside corner of the building. I put my head against the hard stone and cry my eyes out. Soon other little boys come out, and we're all crying. We're lonely, bald-headed, our clothes don't fit, and we smell awful.

* * *

Us little guys are too small to play games with the bigger boys, so we make up games for ourselves. We lift a long bench and put one end of it on a big table, making a ramp. We run up the ramp, jump on the table, then jump off the table to the floor, and then go round again. That is so much fun for us little guys. Run, run, run, jump, jump, jump, laughing all the time, until I lose my balance on the ramp and fall on the corner of the table. Mr. Burns hears my screaming and crying and he carries me off to the school hospital. The doctor says I have two broken ribs, and soon my whole chest is wrapped in bandages and tape. Paul Smith gives me fresh coats of head salve and itch salve. With my stocking cap, coveralls, and oversized shoes, I'm now ready for school. I can't even laugh without crying, 'cause my ribs hurt so much.

* * *

Most of us kids come from reservations where most of our homes don't have electricity or running water. At Pipestone, the first big thing to get used to is how to use the flush toilets. They're terrible noisemakers that can swallow a full load of poop in one giant gulp. Us little boys never flush those toilets at night. I think we're scared of the story of Weendigo, the monster that roars and eats people.

We learn a whole new way of life at the boarding school. Lights go out at 9:00 P.M. Wake up call is at 6:30 A.M. We get up, dress, make our beds, and head down the hall to the lavatory to wash up.

Lineup's at 7:00 A.M. in the basement. We form three lines of boys: Companies A, B, and C. Because I'm the smallest, I stand in the front of Company A. My brothers Alton, Curtis, Wallace, and Stanley stand in the rest of the companies by how tall they are. Bill Burns or Paul Smith give the work details to the older boys and then give us younger boys our jobs for the day.

The front basement door is opened and we all go out single-file. I follow right behind Mr. Burns two blocks to the boys' door of the dining hall. The girls are doing the same thing, only they come in the other side. Three hundred of us kids go in for breakfast.

We stand behind our chairs, eight to a table. An older student is at the end of the table to keep us quiet. Us little guys with the stocking caps and baggy coveralls can't look at the girls because we're ashamed. We sure hope they can't smell us. If they do, they'll lose their appetite. We're lucky to be separated by a twenty-foot-wide open space between us.

Our dining hall matron is Mrs. Lucille Blyth, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota. She controls us three hundred kids with a bell—the kind used in boxing matches. Three quick rings on the bell and we all stand frozen at attention. When everybody stops moving, she rings the bell once. We all say grace, and end with "amen." I can't understand a word of our prayer. When Joe Crown comes to school, he tells me he spent three years at St. Mary's Mission School at Red Lake. He says he went to church every day and twice on Sundays, and he said grace before every meal. Then he asks me what the words are that we are saying for grace.

I answer, "I don't know, it's just the way I learned it."

He says it sounds like singsong gibberish, maybe pidgin English, maybe Latin. "I just don't know either."

Joe ends up chanting his version, just like the rest of us.

"Amen" means "let's eat," like weesinin in our language.

Then Mrs. Blyth rings the bell again, and we all sit down in a rush. We make a lot of noise. First it's the noise of the chairs scraping on the floors, then it's the clanging and banging of our metal knives, forks, and spoons on our aluminum plates.

Large aluminum pitchers are full of milk for our cereal. Another pitcher has hot coffee with sugar and cream already added. Mostly we get hot oatmeal or Cream of Wheat, and corn flakes and shredded wheat are our cold cereals. We never get any fried eggs. My favorite breakfast is either corned beef hash or chipped beef and gravy on toast. The salty flavor of the chipped beef tastes a lot better than bland oatmeal mush. I can't understand why the older boys call the chipped beef and gravy on toast "shit on a shingle."

At the beginning of the school day, all us kids line up in formation in front of the school building. There we put up the American flag and salute it. We all raise our right hands and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A photograph shows us with our arms raised up, like the salute of the Nazis that we see in newsreels and pictures.

* * *

My mom said that the teachers at the boarding school will teach us a lot of things, and I want to learn to make my mom happy. In kindergarten they teach us how to draw with crayons and sing little nursery rhyme songs.

Our teacher reads us fairy tales and stories like "Little Red Riding Hood," and rhymes like "Jack and Jill" and "Little Miss Muffett." That little Miss Muffett confuses us. "Sitting on her tuffet eating her curds and whey" doesn't make sense, just like saying a grace prayer before meals in words I don't understand. I remember the story of Waynebosho walking through the woods tired and hungry. He comes to a garden owned by an old woman who won't share any food with the tired traveler. Because the old woman is selfish, Waynebosho changes her into a woodpecker so she has to work harder to get her food. That story makes sense to me. Nothing they teach us has anything to do with my family. Well, maybe there is one thing, like teaching us how to count. Miss Baker, our teacher, has us hold up our hands and she touches each finger and sings, "One little, two little, three little Indians. Four little, five little, six little Indians. Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians. Ten little Indian boys."

Not long after I get to the school, while I am still real little, I give Mrs. Burns a real scare. She always checks our beds, because boys always run away from school to go home. If somebody isn't in bed the way he's supposed to be, she wants to know about it right away. One night little Adam is gone. The way she told it later, she said, "Adam was gone. I didn't know where he went." And she looked around and through all the dormitories and couldn't find him. She went to the boys' bathroom and he wasn't there either. And she said, "Now where could the little fellow have gone to?" Then she went down into the basement. The basement was almost pitch dark, because only the dim streetlights come in through the small windows near the ceiling. "Barely visible in the middle of the floor was this little boy, just sitting there." I'm just reciting it the way she told it. She said, "There he was sitting with his head hanging down." She stopped in the doorway and looked at him and said, "What a pitiful, pathetic little thing. The kid must be so lonesome." She was feeling sorry for the little boy. Just then, another movement caught her eye. She looked over to the side and there was a big rat, running straight for Adam. She grabbed a broom from the alcove where she was standing, and ran in screaming and hollering and beating the heck out of that rat. Adam just sat there and didn't move. She kept beating the rat with her broom, and then she realized that Adam was giggling.

Us boys had killed a rabbit and skinned it, and after we ate the rabbit out in the parching place, I took the fur and tied it up and added a little tail so that it looked like a big rat. I had my made-up rat on a string, and I just sat there, waiting and waiting, until Mrs. Burns finally showed up looking for me. I made it move toward me, and she saw it. Now it's my turn to get whopped by that broom. Mrs. Burns found out she has a little trickster on her hands.

The next day I tell Mrs. Burns how us little guys hunt rabbits. One way is really simple. We use a four-foot section of barbed wire with a small hook bent on the end of it. Our favorite hunting area is the prairie northwest of the campus. When we jump a jackrabbit, it takes off like an antelope across the prairie on its long legs. Cottontail rabbits just scurry into burrows, into holes under the big rocks, or into woodpiles. Once we corner a rabbit, we stick the barbed wire into the burrow or hole until we feel the soft body of the rabbit. Then we twist and twist the barbed wire until it snags the rabbit's fur. Then we drag the screaming rabbit out of its hole. At first I didn't know rabbits could scream so loud. It's so loud it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. As young hunters we get used to it. We stop that screaming as soon as we can by taking the rabbit by its hind legs and banging its head against a rock. Skinning a cottontail rabbit is as easy as peeling a banana. We save the fur to make little toys, like that fake rat I used to fool Mrs. Burns. Cottontail rabbits taste better than jackrabbits.


Excerpted from Pipestone by Adam Fortunate Eagle. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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