THE BLOG
12/29/2013 01:11 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2014

The Indian Mission Kids Only Knew Him As 'Roch'

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2013 Native Sun News

December 30, 2013

My old friend and classmate, Patrick Red Elk, from the Catholic Indian mission boarding school we attended, died several months ago and as I read his obit in the local daily I swear that I would not have known who he was if I had not run into him last December.

During the annual Lakota Nation Invitational Basketball Tournament, probably the largest Native American basketball tournament in the United States, the host of the tournament, an Oglala Lakota named Bryan Brewer, decided he would use this tournament to honor the veterans of the Korean War.

As a Korean vet I was invited. All of us were issued large name tags, probably to make up for our weakening eye sight, and the man seated next to me was wearing a tag with the name Patrick Red Elk. All of us had aged. Our hair was grey or totally white and we certainly did not walk with the spring in our legs we had when we served in Korea.

Patrick and I studied each other for a minute and he knew me right off because my photo often appears with my weekly column. He said, "Tim? It's Roch." I thought oh my God, it's Rochester, a nickname we hung on him in the 1940s because as kids, we thought he bore a resemblance to the character in the Jack Benny movies, a guy named Rochester.

Well, Roch and I renewed our ancient friendship and, of course, we reminisced about the days and nights we spent at the Holy Rosary Indian Mission. Some of the conversations made us laugh out loud and other parts made us a little sad. But we shook hands at the end of the reunion and went our separate ways.

When Roch's obit appeared in my newspaper, Native Sun News, I made sure that he was listed as Patrick "Roch" Red Elk so that any of his old friends still living who only knew him by his nickname could offer him a silent prayer.

His death made me wonder how many more of my classmates had passed away and I never knew it because I only knew them by their nicknames.

If Mr. Lone Dog's name appeared in an obit many of his classmates would not know who he was because he carried the moniker "Dopey" given to him after we saw the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To all of us he was simply "Dopey" Lone Dog. To this day I do not know his real first name.

Nicknames were common and plentiful among the boys and girls of the mission school. The only other group I knew that handed out so many nicknames was the Cosa Nostra.

I cannot remember the first name of "Bozo" Richards. He died of a mastoid at the mission school when he was about 17 or 18. My friend "Chief" Day Boy and I were given the task of digging his grave. We took turns shoveling and using the pick axe. It was my turn with the pick axe and as I took one mighty chop and then pulled the pick axe in the air, there was a human skull attached to the blade. "Chief" saw the skull while I still had it in the air as he was sitting at the edge of the grave, which was now about four feet deep, and he let out a screech and started running down the hill. When I saw the skull I leaped from the grave, caught him and passed him in front of the Catholic Church at the bottom of the hill. I could have outrun Billy Mills, also from Pine Ridge, the Tokyo Olympics' 10,000 meter Gold Medal winner.

"Bozo's" younger brother, whose full name was Richard Richards, was tagged with the name Richard "Dix" after a cowboy character we saw in one of the Sunday night movies we all loved.

Ironically, one evening in Yokosuka, Japan, I was walking along the very long bar at the Enlisted Men's Club when someone reached out and grabbed me by the arm. It was Richard "Dix" and he nearly got punched in the nose because he startled me. I thought "what a small world." Here were two young guys from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation running into each other all the way around the world. Richard Dix passed away many years ago.

At the mission school we had Capone, Dillinger, Wobbie, Red, Heavy, Peter Rabbit (which evolved into Pete and then into Snow Shoe), Chesli (Lakota word for poop), White Man, Moot, Mouse, Chief, Bull Moose, Tiny Tim (not me), Squash Head, Spud Head and the list goes on.

All of these names popped into my head as "Roch" Red Elk, my old friend from the Indian mission, took his journey to the Spirit World.


(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.)