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Remembering When Custer 'Died With His Boots on'

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The year was 1937 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was just settling into his job as President of the United States.

America was in the midst of the Great Depression. Of course, as my father often said, living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota gave us a head start. "Things might have turned bad for the rest of America, but we were already there years ago," he would say.

In fact when the Works Program Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived on the reservation as a part of the New Deal, many Lakota men and women saw new jobs, many for the first time ever.

Motion pictures were still very new to the reservation back in 1937. I often think about the first movie I ever saw. I was three years old and the movie starred Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. A makeshift theater was set up in the gymnasium of Kyle Day School or as some people were calling it, Little Wound School, named after Lakota Chief Little Wound.

A square of white canvas was attached to two poles on the gym floor. Folding chairs were set up for the audience and a 16 millimeter projector was placed at the back of the gym between the last rows of chairs. The lights were turned down and the movie began. Since the folding chairs were reserved for the adults and the elders, all of us little kids were seated on the floor in front of the screen.

In those days movies always began with the news. The news on this night was about some of the Army training taking place using tanks. We watched with eyes wide open as a tank started toward us. It didn't stop but instead rolled straight at us and we all screamed and started to scatter in all directions to escape the tank. We startled a lot of the Lakota elders seated in the front rows and this was probably a first time movie for most of them. As we ran for cover, the elders and even the younger adults seated behind them began to scramble. The projectionist flipped on the overhead lights and in the glare of those lights one could see Indians in various poses of frozen flight. The theater erupted in laughter as everyone began to understand what had just happened.

That one incident made me a movie fan for life. If I had never seen a re-run of that Laurel and Hardy movie, I would still remember many of the scenes because that was how powerful my reaction was to my first film.

My brother and older sisters were students at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission Boarding School for nine months of the year. I remember them talking about movies they had seen when they came home for Christmas that year. They talked about Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters.

When I was six years old it was my turn to be taken to the boarding school. Needles to say it was a frightening and very sad occasion for me. But I believe that the one thing that took away the loneliness and fear for just one night of the week was the Sunday night movies. The Mission always showed films on Sunday night and people from around the reservation came to see the movies which were staged in the Holy Rosary gymnasium under the same conditions I described about Kyle Day School except at Holy Rosary there was a big screen mounted on a stage and a room above us for the projector. There was also popcorn and soda pop on sale at the back of the gym.

We saw Errol Flynn as General George Armstrong Custer in a movie called They Died with Their Boots On. Most of us never knew that in the movie the warrior Crazy Horse was an Oglala Lakota just like us. Our chests swelled with pride as Tasunka Witko (Crazy Horse) and the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors trounced the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry. We didn't learn these things in our history books.

The priests at Holy Rosary knew how much the movies meant to us. For a brief time the movies took us out of the harsh world of the boarding school and into a world made for dreams. For a short time we could shut out the world of reality and travel to places we had never been and meet people we would never know. And so one of the punishments passed upon us after we had accumulated a certain number of demerits was to have our movie privileges taken away. A prefect carried a little black book with our names in it and each time we did something against the rules, real or imagined, he posted a demerit next to our names.

Each Sunday evening, just before the movies, we would be lined up in company ranks by the prefect. He would look in his little black book and call out the names of the boys who had crossed the demerit threshold. The prefect would shout the name of each offender with, "Giago, to the wall" or "Little Wolf, to the wall." Usually about a dozen of us marched "to the wall" and watched silently as the other boys hustled down the hallway to the movies.

We all swore to ourselves to be better and obey all of the rules because taking away our movies was a form of cruel punishment. We didn't want to go to the wall next Sunday.

Tim Giago is the President of Unity South Dakota. He was founder of the Native American Journalists Association was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He was the recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985.