11/30/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Kill the Indian; Save the Child

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2014 Native Sun News

December 1, 2014

In the old days the education of American children was paramount to the Democratic system of government. The adage of the 3 R's, "Reading, Riting, and Rithmatic" was always followed by "Taught to the tune of a hickory stick."

The case of Adrian Peterson, a running back with the Minnesota Vikings, puts an exclamation point to the practice of corporal punishment. Mothers and fathers across Indian Country often used a twig of even a belt to mete out punishment to their children when they believed it was necessary. This was probably a crossover from the colonizers. Peterson was suspended without pay for the rest of the season for using a branch from a tree to administer punishment for what he perceived as infractions by his son.

The system of education wrought upon the indigenous people of America is largely unknown to the general American public. Most do not know that beginning in the late 1800s Indian children were forcibly taken from their homes and placed into institutions like Carlisle Indian School or in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, and when the government decided that the children had to be divested of their traditional religious beliefs, Christian boarding schools were constructed on or near the Indian reservations.

With assistance from the federal government to obtain land on Indian reservations, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian and other religious denominations built schools with the sole purpose of acculturation and assimilation of the children. When children were brought to the schools oftentimes by armed police men, most of them could not speak English. They were stripped of their homemade clothing and issued military styled clothing and they were taken to the barber shop and their natural long hairs, boys and girls, was shorn.

Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, a Sicangu from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, vividly recalled truant officers coming to the homes with children and rounding them up like cattle and forcibly taking them to the boarding schools. This often meant tearing the children from the loving arms of a mother or grandmother.

To this day Whirlwind Soldier abhors the system that divested the children of their language and of all the things that were natural to their traditional way of life in an effort for the white teachers to mold them into miniature versions of themselves. The ancient tiospaye system that had been a part of the Lakota culture for centuries was nearly destroyed. There were behavior patterns within the tiospaye system that regulated the camps or extended families so that they all knew their place in the tribal system. In order to break down the spiritual and cultural practices of the indigenous people everything they believed, everything that had been a part of their lives had to be eradicated.

The white educational system foisted upon the Native Americans was simply "Kill the Indian, save the child." And the United States government and the Christian churches set about doing this with a vengeance. While the children were being indoctrinated into a new way of life and a new religion, the federal government was quietly taking millions of acres of land from the different Indian tribes.

Life was not easy for the children forced to attend the boarding schools. The BIA and the Christian educators often physically, emotionally and sexually abused the Indian children. Corporal punishment with a hickory stick was nothing compared to the brutal beatings of Indian boys and girls with leather straps and even fists.

My friend Pete Cummings, now deceased, and I ran away from Holy Rosary Indian Mission boarding school in 1943. We were about 9-years-old. When we were captured and returned to the Mission a Jesuit priest named Father Edwards took us into his office and beat us viciously with a leather strap. The welts on our bodies were so severe that we had to go to the infirmary to be healed. The infirmary nun had tears in her eyes as she saw the damage that had been inflicted on our small bodies.

It wasn't the first lashing we had received nor would it be the last. Today those abusers would have been put behind bars. Father Edwards should have asked us why we ran away.

The sadistic keepers at the boarding schools were supposed to be there to protect us and to substitute as our parents while we were in their care. But the physical and mental scars left on us have brought about a common saying from those of us who were forced into the boarding schools: It is "We are boarding school survivors."

Many of my friends did not survive. They died in car wrecks, of alcohol and drug related diseases, and many of them took their own lives. Some died at the hands of the police while in the commission of a crime. Those that had been abused, physically and sexually, became the abusers. To this day the Indian nations are still in the process of recovery.

Yes, we call ourselves "survivors of the boarding schools" but there are times many of us wonder why we were the lucky ones.


Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the Editor and Publisher of South Dakota's largest weekly newspaper, Native Sun News. He can be reached at