Luther Standing Bear (Lakota) on his experience at Carlilse Indian School, 1879

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At the age of 11 years, ancestral life for me and my people was most abruptly ended without regard for our wishes, comforts, or rights in the matter.  At once I was thrust into an alien world, into an environment as different from the one into which I had been born as it is possible to imagine, to remake myself, if I could into the likeness of the invader.

By 1879, my people were no longer free, but were subjects confined on reservations under the rule of agents.  One day there came to the agency a party of white people from the East.  Their presence aroused considerable excitement when it became known that these people were school teachers who wanted some Indian boys and girls to take away with them to train as were white boys and girls.

Now, father was a "blanket Indian," but he was wise.  He listened to the white strangers, their offers and promises that if they took his son they would care well for him, teach him how to read and write, and how to wear white man's clothes.   But to father all this was just "sweet talk" and I know that it was with great misgivings that he left the decision to me and asked if I cared to go with these people.  I, of course, shared with the rest of my tribe a distrust of the white people, so I know that for all my dear father's anxiety he was proud to hear me say "Yes."  That meant that I was brave.

I could think of no reason why white people wanted Indian boys and girls except to kill them, and not having the remotest idea of what a school was, I thought we were going East to die.  But so well had courage and bravery been trained into us that it became a part of our unconscious thinking and acting, and personal life was nothing when it came time to do something for the tribe.  Even in our play and games we voluntarily put ourselves to various tests in the effort to grow brave and fearless, for it was most discrediting to be called "can'l wanka" or a coward.   Accordingly there were few cowards, most Lakota men preferring to die in the performance of some act of bravery than to die of old age.  Thus, in giving myself up to go East I was proving to my father that he was honored with a brave son.  In my decision to go, I gave up many things dear to the heart of a little Indian boy, and one of the things over which my child mind grieved was the thought of saying good-bye to my pony.   I rode him as far as I could on the journey, which was to the Missouri River, where we took the boat.  There we parted from our parents, and it was a heart-breaking scene, women and children weeping.  Some of the children changed their minds and were unable to go on the boat, but for many who did go, it was a final parting.

On our way to school we saw many white people, more than we ever dreamed existed, and the manner in which they acted when they saw us quite indicated their opinion of us.  It was only about three years after the Custer battle, and the general opinion was that the Plains people merely infested the earth as nuisances, and our being there simply evidenced misjudgment on the part of Wakan Tanka [the Creator in the Lakota religion].  Whenever our train stopped at the railway stations, it was met by great numbers of white people who came to gaze upon the little Indian "savages."   The shy little ones sat quietly at the car windows looking at the people who swarmed on the platform.  Some of the children wrapped themselves in their blankets, covering all but their eyes.  At one place we were taken off the train and marched a distance down the street to a restaurant.  We walked down the street between two rows of uniformed men whom we called soldiers, though I suppose they were policemen.  This must have been done to protect us, for it was surely known that we boys and girls could do no harm.  Back of the rows of uniformed men stood the white people craning their necks, talking, laughing and making a great noise.  They yelled and tried to mimic us by giving what they thought were war-whoops.  We did not like this and some of the children were naturally very much frightened.  I remember how I tried to crowd into the protecting midst of the jostling boys and girls.  But we were all trying to be brave, yet going to what we thought would end in death at the hands of the white people whom we knew had no love for us.  Back on the train, the older boys sang brave songs in an effort to keep up their spirits and ours too.  In my mind I often recall that scene -- eighty-odd blanketed boys and girls marching down the street surrounded by a jeering, unsympathetic people whose only emotions were those of hate and fear; the conquerors looking upon the conquered.  And no more understand us than if we had suddenly been dropped from the moon.

At last at Carlisle, the transforming, the "civilizing" process began.   It began with clothes.  Never, no matter what our philosophy or spiritual quality, could we be civilized while wearing the moccasin and blanket.  The task before us was not only that of accepting new ideas and adopting new manners, but actual physical changes and discomfort had to be borne uncomplainingly until the body adjusted itself to new tastes and habits.  Our accustomed dress was taken and replaced with clothing that felt cumbersome and awkward.  Against trousers and handkerchiefs we had a distinct feeling -- they were unsanitary and the trousers kept us from breathing well.   High collars, stiff-bosomed shirts and suspenders fully three inches in width were uncomfortable, while leather boots caused actual suffering.  We longed to go barefoot, but were told that the dew on the grass would give us colds.  That was a new warning for us, for our mothers had never told us to beware of colds, and I remember as a child coming into the tipi with moccasins full of snow.  Unconcernedly I would take them off my feet, pour out the snow, and put them on my feet again without any thought of sickness, for in that time colds, catarrh, bronchitis and la grippe were unknown.  But we were soon to know them.  Then, red flannel undergarments were given us for winter wear and for me, at least, discomfort grew into actual torture.   I used to endure it as long as possible, then run upstairs and quickly take off the flannel garments and hide them.  When inspection time came, I ran and put them on again, for I knew that if I were found disobeying the orders of the school I should be punished.  My niece once asked me what it was that I disliked the most during those first bewildering days, and I said, "red flannel."  Not knowing what I meant, she laughed, but I still remember those horrid, sticky garments which we had to wear next to the skin and I still squirm and itch when I think of them.  Of course, our hair was cut, and then there was much disapproval.  But that was part of the transformation process and in some mysterious way long hair stood in the path of our development.  For all the grumbling among the bigger boys, we soon had our head shaven.  How strange I felt!  Involuntarily, time and time again, my hands went to my head, and that night it was a long time before I went to sleep.  If we did not learn much at first, it will not be wondered at I think.  Everything was queer, and it took a few months to get adjusted to the new surroundings.

Almost immediately our names were changed to those in common use in the English language.  Instead of translating our names into English and calling Zinkcaziwin, Yellow Bird, and Wanbli K'lesk, Spotted Eagle, which in itself would have been educational, we were just John, Henry, or Maggie, as the case might be.  I was told to take a pointer and select a name for myself from the list written on the blackboard.   I did and since one was just as good as another, and as I could not distinguish any difference in them, I placed the pointer on the name Luther.  I then learned to call myself by that name and got used to hearing others call me by it , too.  By that time we had been forbidden to speak our mother tongue, which is the rule in all boarding -schools.  This rule is uncalled for, and today is not only robbing the Indian, but America of a rich heritage.  The language of a people is part of their history.   Today we should be perpetuating history instead of destroying it, and this can only be effectively done by allowing and encouraging the young to keep it alive.  A language unused, embalmed, and reposing only in a book, is a dead language.  Only the people themselves, and never the scholars, can nourish it into life.

Of all the changes we were forced to make, that of diet was doubtless the most injurious, for it was immediate and drastic.  White bread we had for the first meal and thereafter, as well as coffee and sugar.  Had we been allowed our own simple diet of meat, either boiled with soup or dried, and fruit, with perhaps a few vegetables, we should have thrived.  But the change in clothing, housing, food and confinement combined with lonesomeness was too much, and in three years nearly on half of the children from the Plains were dead and through with all earthly schools.  In the graveyard at Carlisle most of the graves are those of little ones.

1933 Luther Standing Bear

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