Rites Of Passage
written by Tim Trudell
Playing with his toy trucks on the floor, a young boy listens as his grandmother and her neighbor share a conversation over coffee. Talking in their native Dakota language, the boy had no idea what they were discussing, not understanding a word of his tribe’s natural language. That was in the early 1970’s. Today, most elders enjoy conversation over coffee speaking in English. It would seem mission accomplished from the days of Manifest Destiny, killing the traditional languages of America’s first people. But, there remains hope.
As part of its plan to rid the United States of the “Indian Problem,” the federal government’s policy of assimilation–making Native Americans adapt to a white culture–developed a system of boarding schools in the late 1800’s where Native Americans would be stripped of their traditional ways and cultures–their long hair would be cut short to conformity, they would wear military uniforms and be forced to learn English, being forbidden to speak a word of their native tongue. The philosophy, according to Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle (PA) Indian school, was to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”
Ever since Christopher Columbus “discovered” North America and the people he erroneously called Indians, the relationship between the federal government and Native Americans has been delicate. Even the term Indian has been a source of conflict and hypocracy. Columbus, an Italian explorer seeking a shortcut to the East Indies while working for the Spanish crown, became lost as he led his naval exploration across the Atlantic Ocean. When he arrived in the Caribbean, in what is now referred to as the West Indies, Columbus believed he had discovered a new route to India, and, thus, referred to the dark-skinned locals as Indians, as many still refer to indingenous peoples today.
The term stuck with Europeans as they started to travel to the New World. But, in reality, this world was only new to the European invaders. Millions of people already occupied the lands across North America. They went by simple tribal names such as Diné (Navajo), Dakota, etc. But the term Indian has for the most part been replaced over the years by Native American or Indigenous, and more and more tribes have returned to calling themselves The People.
But beginning in the early 1870’s, less than a decade before Native Americans would be deemed human by the courts through Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s lawsuit, their children were forcibly removed from homes on reservations around the country and put on trains and wagons to travel up to hundreds of miles from their homes. Alone, frightened, thinking their parents didn’t want them anymore, young Native children were taught that the ways they knew–customs, language, traditions –were wrong. The best way for them to survive was to become white, cut their hair, speak English and act like the men and women who took their land, battled against them and, ultimately, defeated their way of life.thirtyyears
One of nearly 60 boarding schools across the United States, Genoa–one of a few boarding schools formed off reservations–opened in 1884, housing hundreds of Native Americans from 20 tribes across 10 states. The school operated for 50 years, eventually closing in 1934 due to a lack of funding during the Great Depression. While the Genoa school closed, others operated much longer, with some, such as Alaska boarding schools, only being forced to close in the late ‘70’s as a result of lawsuits. Others, such as the Holy Rosary Mission school in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, later became public schools, just with new names.
Life at boarding schools differed among students. While many students suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of school staff, others made as best of the situation as they could. They even developed a sort of school pride. At Genoa, students carved their names into the brick façade of the main building (some names can still be seen on the brick), as well as some of the barns around the campus, which are now privately owned by local residents. While most Native Americans adapted to the school, some couldn’t surrender their heritage. Many ran away. It’s unknown if they made it back to their homes, based on school records. They’re listed as only “runaway.”In the early 1990’s, Genoa alumni asked that the school host a reunion. A few of the then-surviving alumni attended. Today, most have passed away.
While at boarding school, indigenous youths were taught trades, which varied from school to school. This was in addition to the “three R’s” of education–reading, writing and arithmetic. At the Genoa Indian School in eastern Nebraska, boys were taught to be tailors and blacksmiths. Girls learned to cook and become housekeepers. As they learned their skills, some students were loaned out to area businesses to provide services, as well as improve their skills. It was considered to be a part of their education. As was a new game taking the Plains states by storm, basketball. And oddly enough, the boarding school kids, both the boys and the girls, formed winning teams with the trophys to prove it. And of course, the white headmasters, after stripping them of their cultural signifiers; their families, homes and land, couldn’t help but pull out the native dress when the World’s Fair came to town. The images are striking.
Considered the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century (and possibly the entire century), Jim Thorpe mastered the game of basketball, along with several other sports, while a student at the Carlisle school in Pennsylvania. A Sac and Fox tribal member from Oklahoma, Thorpe gained fame by winning gold medals in track events at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden and went on to become one of the early stars of professional football, playing for the Canton Bulldogs of the then-upstart American Professional Football Association, an early forerunner of the National Football League.
Thorpe also played professional baseball and toured the country on a barnstorming tour as a member of an all-Native American basketball team. Unfortunately, taking a few dollars to play pro baseball cost Thorpe his status as an amateur athlete and he was stripped of his gold medals by the International Olympic Committee. His family would later be given his medals, but the Olympic records he set in 1912 wouldn’t be recognized by the IOC. But his athletic legacy lives on.
While in South Dakota, author Charles Trimble remembers complicate feeling about his own life at boarding school. Dropped off at the age of four by his mother, the youngest of 14 children, Trimble says his experience was one of survival. His mother, widowed two years earlier, was being pressured to allow him to be adopted. “They even had a family picked out,” he says of state officials. Intent on keeping her family together though, his mother arranged a ride to Holy Rosary Mission school in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, about 100 miles from their home in Wamblee. She delivered three of her youngest–all boys–to be taught at the boarding school. “I think I may have subordinated my experience because mine was different than others,” Trimble, now 84, says.
He wasn’t stoic about it, though. He recalls an older brother taking him to another room to look at toys. Soon after, he became anxious and ran to where his mother had been. His brother took him to the other room to allow her an opportunity to leave without any further emotional scenes. Trimble says he hated his brother for a long time before realizing he acted to help their mother with her own emotional trauma and eventually forgave him, Trimble says in his book “Iyeska.” Recalling seeing classmates slapped because they refused to tell the missionaries what they said when speaking Lakota, Trimble believed it was only to embarrass the child, not to abuse them. But, he doesn’t deny abuse occurred. And with story after story in the news, it’s clear that systematic abuse on reservations continues to this day.
But Trimble found a way to use the boarding school education to his advantage. He graduated college from the University of South Dakota, served in the military and later worked in advertising. Trimble created the American Indian Press Association, an earlier version of today’s Native American Press Association and served as the national chairman of the National Congress of American Indians in the 1970’s. While people like Trimble and Thorpe made the most of their boarding school experiences, most “survivors,” as they refer to themselves, didn’t enjoy their time at boarding school at all. It was merely a way of erasing their identity; physically, spiritually and every other way one might imagine. In Alaska, Rosita Worl recalled being “kidnapped” at the age of six and sent to a boarding school hundreds of miles from her home. A Tlingit from Alaska, Worl remembers the abuse students endured at boarding schools. It wasn’t until a 1976 lawsuit challenged the legal standing of boarding schools in the 49th state that boarding schools eventually closed.
Studies conducted by University of Alaska-Anchorage staff in the early 2000’s revealed lasting trauma suffered by boarding school “survivors,” as people are commonly known. Diane Hirshberg, PhD, researched Thirty Years Later: The Long-Term Effect of Boarding Schools on Alaska Natives and Their Communities. Among the victimization of tribes, Hirshberg’s paper concluded that boarding schools severely damaged Native languages, cultures and traditions. Native children were physically abused for speaking their tribe’s language. With many not being around their home communities, tribal culture and traditions were lost.
But Southeast Alaska Natives learned English long before boarding schools, Worl says. “We saw it as key to our survival,” she says. Despite being bilingual, any student speaking Tlingit or any other Alaska Native tongue faced consequences. True damage to Tlingit culture came when children missed out on learning specific dances and traditions at certain ages. Overcoming the trauma caused by losing cultural identity takes years, Worl says. For Trimble, Holy Rosary staff looked the other way when it came to completely eliminating tribal customs. “We did Lakota cheers and kids danced before (athletic) games,” he says. That may have partially been because several students went home during summer months. They still had an opportunity to share and learn their tribal customs, at least for three months of the year.
Refusing to let their traditional ways fade completely into memory, today some tribes’ elders have taken to teaching the young their language, traditions and customs. In Nebraska, only a dozen people speak fluent Omaha (Umó Hó) and as the elders pass away, a large part of the tribe’s language dies. In an effort to prevent it from happening, elders teach the language to children as part of the school system’s curriculum on the Omaha Nation reservation in Macy. Trimble proudly says the Lakota language will live on through a program at the Red Cloud school system, where students start learning the language in grade school.It’s believed that just over half of today’s 300 federally-recognized tribes maintain their traditional languages.
Beginning about 20 years ago, Vida Stabler and other elders created a language program in the community’s schools in order to help the language survive. If you keep the language alive, she says, you keep traditions and customs alive. A staff of about eight people prepare lesson plans that teachers use to share the language, from kindergarten to senior year of high school. The Umó Hó hope to reach children while they’re in head start and preschool programs, when learning another language seems to be easier. Students meet in a round classroom, which resembles the tribe’s historical earth lodges that once dotted the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska. They learn the language, designed to be taught in everyday usage. Rather than just identify only words, students learn phrases, such as “Mi dabano-a?” or “what time is it?”
In addition, classes include tribal history and traditions, such as traditional dances, customs and outdoor living, like raising plants once used by ancestors. “It’s real life learning,” Stabler says.Working with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Omaha tribe created a textbook that is several inches thick that contains a portion of the tribe’s language. Additionally, thick files are piled together on shelves in the classroom, where staff members keep track of words they hear around town or people bring to them. It’s a never-ending project to keep the language relevant, Stabler says. Following the death of a tribal member, staff learned the word accepted for triplets, as no one had mentioned it for years due to the scarcity of such siblings. Stabler and others will write a word down on a notepad as they encounter them and follow up on them later for authentication and to add to the tribe’s lexicon.
The goal of the Omahas’ language program is to keep it alive, well beyond a student’s involvement with school. With a 60 percent graduation rate at its roughly 100-student school, Stabler understands that not all students will continue learning from school, so she hopes they continue to learn the language on their own. For tribal members who do complete the school program, they’re encouraged to continue speaking the language at home and around the community. Even adult learners can come to the school for booklets that help them with the language. She requires they show a real interest in learning the language by practicing with her, Stabler says. They usually leave with a book. The language department’s staff practices what it teaches. People are greeted in traditional language, as well as thanked as they leave a room. As you walk around the Omaha Nation school, which has elementary through high school in the same building, you see traditional Omaha words painted on hallway columns and walls.
More tribes are using technology to help teach their native language to young people, such as apps that are used with an iPad or mobile phone. In Macy, with their phone app, members can learn key phrases by speaking in English and hearing it back in Omaha, as well as see it appear on the screen. “In Alaska, programs to teach traditional language in schools is proving successful statewide” Worl says. “With language programs beginning more than two decades ago, about 300 elders were recruited to help teach language to young people. It’s believed that knowing their tribe’s language helps students succeed in school.”
As the program grew in Alaska, more people started to learn their traditional languages and help teach it. The key was finding the proper spot for the language program. Eventually language supporters found just the perfect spot in the least expected place–basketball camps. Immediately camp attendees embraced the idea of learning the language along with the game they love. As coaches bark out instructions during workouts, they’ll say it in both English and Tlingit. It helps to have the language become second nature. As young players dribble, pass and shoot at the camps, they also take time to learn words key to the game of life, Worl says.
Today they actually call it Rezball. It’s a fast-paced style of basketball where players just barely dribble, instead playing the ball quickly up court to score a basket, which may be somehow connected to Lacrosse, a game played by indigenous people in the Northeast and across the Plains. It’s true that Native American affection for the game invented by Dr. James Naismith dates to a dark chapter of America’s history, yet that love for the game led some tribes to a rebirth and appreciation of their traditional language and customs.
While most Native Americans don’t grow up to play in the National Basketball Association, they do see role models they can pattern their game after. Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics may be the best-known Native player today. Irving, whose mother was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, visited the reservation in 2018 where he was welcomed into the tribe and given a tribal name, Hela (Little Mountain). Besides Irving, other Native Americans playing in the NBA G League or overseas include Bronson Koenig (Winnebago/Ho Chunk), Chance Comanche (who is also Comanche) and Derek Willis, who is Southern Arapahoe, Pawnee and Muscogee.
As language programs grow, learning customs and traditions follow along. As a rebirth in tribal customs and traditions continues, some organizations have apologized for past behaviors and actions, including the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches in Alaska. While languages have been lost forever among some tribes, others work to overcome the lost years caused by decades of boarding school experiences. Like the trauma endured by many Native Americans, instilling tribal customs and traditions in young people will take generations.