Boarding Schools and the Cultural Genocide of the Lakota People
Cultural Preservation Officer Dana Dupris shares his upbringing and the effects of historic trauma on the tribe.
Listen to Dana Dupris recount his experiences of emotional abuse, “acculturation,” and physical control at a government boarding school.
This audio recording is excerpted from the conversation that has been transcribed and edited in the interview below.
Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros interviewed Dana Dupris in 2020.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros (AC and ZM): Can you tell us about your life growing up on the reservation?
Dana Dupris (DD): I was born in 1955 in a place called Cheyenne Agency1The Cheyenne Agency, which was set up by the US Army, was flooded in 1959 when the Army Corps of Engineers built the Oahe Dam., which is probably 60 some miles east of Eagle Butte, where I am today working. The Cheyenne Agency is under the water, under Lake Oahe. That was our agency headquarters, our main village that people would go to for services.
Each time we [the Lakota] had a treaty, we gave up land base. We used to have 100 million acres of land and now we’re down to 16 million.2The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie outlined over 100,000,000 acres of land that spanned from parts of modern-day Nebraska through South and North Dakota and west into Wyoming. After broken treaties from 1851 and 1868, the Lakota Nation was divided into six reservations, which covered about 24,000,000 acres. Today the outline of these reservations has been reduced to 16 million acres, approximately 8 million of which are held in trust for the tribes. We lost a lot of land. The government agreed to provide us with protection and retain our rights for hunting and fishing. But they also wanted to compensate us for the loss of the land, so they gave us annuities. Annually they would disperse equipment that we could use to work the home sites. Also, monthly there was a ration of food products that would replace our, I guess, our freedom, our lack of freedom to hunt and gather as we normally would. Our lifestyle was patterned after the Buffalo Nation. The area described as the Plains would be from Texas all the way to southern Canada and by the Big Horn Mountains over to the Mississippi River.
The Lakota were the last tribe to go on a reservation in 1890.3The Lakota did not accept the 1889 Congressional Act to break up the Great Sioux Nation and continued to fight for their land, culminating in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. That was after the Massacre at Wounded Knee in December of 1890. Once we settled on a reservation then I guess we accepted the treaty provisions, treaty rights that we were entitled to. With the establishment of the Cheyenne Agency, then there were places where the treaty rations could be distributed: Thunder Butte, Cherry Creek, and up in Blackfoot area there was a place called Four Bears—those were the major ration sites. Every month, depending on where your family was located, you would go to those areas and you would receive your rations.
Through time, there were also changes that were made to our social structure, the breakdown of the family structure. The first act that was taken against our people was to take all the leaders; they called them chiefs. We don’t call our people chiefs, but it’s an English title that was given to our leaders. They took all the chiefs and put them in various prisons throughout the eastern part of the United States.4As an example, the Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, SD operated from 1902 until 1934. “Canton was not designed to take care of the mentally ill. It was more used to incarcerate individuals who refused to conform to the strict laws of a foreign government system which labeled them mentally ill in order to confine, constrict and keep them from influencing others to do the same.” See: Richie Richards, “Asylum for Insane Indians,” Native Sun News Today, September 26, 2018. The whole idea was to break down the family structure and get the people to make a change from being a nomadic culture to a culture that would become more assimilated. They called it the acculturation process, where they would make us into a farming community. Various laws were put into place where they assigned us to a land base, then we had to work that land and become farmers, so to speak. From a hunter to a farmer: that’s a big change.
In 1944 there was the Pick Sloan Flood Control Act. That started a relocation period for not only our tribe, but all other river tribes that were located along the Missouri River. In the late fifties, ’58, they built a bridge across the Missouri, right where our agency was, and they gave notice that they’re going to flood that whole valley once the reservoirs were all completed. In 1959 they took action to relocate the agency to Eagle Butte. The agency’s still here in Eagle Butte.
There’s people that were living on that river bottom, and you imagine 90 percent of your natural resources were down in that river bottom where the agency was. It was over 100,000 acres that was lost because of the flooding.5 Karen M. Griffin, “Reservoirs and Reservations,” Nebraska Anthropologist 13, Paper 94 (1996): Table 2. When they gave word that they were going to open the dam gates and flood the whole valley, you know, the people were traumatized and they had no choice but to relocate. Our agency was relocated to Eagle Butte and they built a boarding school.
In 1959, before the flooding occurred, they bused over five hundred students from Cheyenne Agency to Eagle Butte daily to attend school. You imagine these children spending up to five hours a day on the bus to and from the agency to Eagle Butte. When the tribe was fully relocated, the boarding school was done, and that’s how people were housed, in the boarding schools here in Eagle Butte. There were 11 children in our family. All of us went to a boarding school.
We did have eight different public schools, or day schools, that provided education and services to the different communities. We currently have 22 tribal communities that are active. Right now we don’t have any day schools; they’ve all been closed. We do have two tribal schools6The Takini School between Red Scaffold, Bridger and Cherry Creek, and the Tiospaye Topa School in La Plant. that were built to address the needs of those residents of the communities that did have day schools.
In 1878 the government created the boarding school concept. Hampton was the first boarding school, and the next year it was Carlisle in Pennsylvania.7The Hampton Institute, now University, was founded after the Civil War to provide education to Black freedmen. It started accepting Native Americans in 1878. In 1879 the Carlisle Boarding School was opened by the federal government. Both were seen as prototypical boarding schools to assimilate Native American children. All these school-aged children that were living on the reservations or Indian communities, they were rounded up and put on a train and sent to a boarding school in the east coast—and once they got there, there’s no support for them, for the children. The only time they were allowed to return home was when they completed their studies, and that could have been when they completed high school or whatever requirements were set up for them.
We have family members that did attend Hampton and Carlisle. Some of them passed away over there in Pennsylvania so we’re trying to slowly get resources so that we can bring them home so that their journey can be completed spiritually.
My journey starts when I was in first grade, until twelfth grade. If you think about it, the second act of the government was to declare war on our children. The policy of the school was to separate the siblings so that they could not communicate or be a resource to each other. If you were lonesome, you couldn’t go to your brother or sister and get that comfort, because the government would punish you for those types of actions. You became isolated after a while. Expression of your feelings or emotions was very limited. Through forms of punishment and control, the government succeeded in the process of acculturating us to a different society or different world. They stripped us of our identity, so to speak. Once you come to the boarding school in the fall, you’re under their control.
First thing they do is they make you form lines and then they cut all your hair off. Then you go into the next line and they pour powder on you, because they say we’ve got bugs. In the next line, they pour kerosene on you to kill all the, whatever, bugs. Then in the next line, they give you a brush and they tell you, “Go take a shower, scrub your elbows and knees ankles, wherever there’s dirt,” or I guess darkness, because they want to scrub Indian off us. Then when we’re done scrubbing ourselves, we’ll go and get inspected, and if they find some dark area, we’ll have to go and scrub. A lot of times you scrubbed until you’re bloody. Your elbows or knees are bloody, because that was the whole idea: control.
We learned to accept that as a normal process. We had to march two by two through the kitchen; we had to stand in line. We had to go through a process of being served; we couldn’t choose what food would be wanted. Then we had to wait until we were allowed to be seated, then we had a certain amount of time to eat our food, and then we had to ask permission to return our food trays. Everything was really controlled. When everybody had finished eating, we’d march two by two back to the boarding school or to the dormitories.
We had very little recreation. On Sundays they gave us a choice of going to church. The choice was dependent on the location of the church. Right across the street was the Episcopal church, three blocks down was a congregational church or Catholic church. In the winter it was cold and if you had a thin jacket, you normally chose the church right across the street because it was closer. If you had a thicker jacket, you could probably go a little further out.
By the time I was in fourth grade, I was totally brainwashed, so to speak. It was a process that a lot of other people went through. Back then, if you ran away from boarding school, they brought you back and they shaved your head and put you in the spotlight. If you continued to run, then there was a threat of putting you in the state boy’s reformatory over in Plankinton township, and the girls would be sent to Redfield. If you got sent to a reformatory, you probably wouldn’t get out until you’re adult age. There were some that were sent there and never came back to the boarding school.
Through that process, you lost your identity. I think we came to the boarding school the third week in August and returned to our homes the third week in May. In the early years, we didn’t even have a Christmas break; we didn’t have any holidays. It was just 180 days, thereabouts, of being in a boarding school and no contact with your family. There were some times when you were released from the boarding school, you know, and nobody came. There were a couple of instances where me and one of my friends, we didn’t have family come pick us up at the end of the school year. It just so happened the county sheriff was going in the direction of where we thought our family would be. Because, you know, migrant work is kind of a term that I’ll use, because our families had to survive and there was no employment other than trying to work a farm. There were no resources if you look around Dupree, around the reservation. The soil is really bad; it’s not good for growing anything. And so our families had to work wherever there’s work available, could be working in the fields or working on ranches, doing various jobs to survive and provide for the family. And so sometimes we’d catch a ride to a community where we thought our family would be and catch up to them.
The whole idea was survival. You know, we survived, and what we learned in that process was survival skills. I could survive pretty much anywhere.
The most painful process in being in a boarding school, the worst traumatic experience would be if a sibling passed away. When I was 12 years old, my younger sister, she was ten years old, she passed away in a boarding school, and there was no grieving process. There was no emotional connection to that, because due to the government policies you were not thought to be emotionally attached to anything or anybody. If somebody died, you know, your life goes on, you still have to follow that routine that they set for you, you still have to continue on.
Boarding school gave us three meals a day, gave us shelter, and provided us with some kind of, I guess “environment,” that was stable. I graduated in 1973, but I didn’t have social skills. Because I grew up in a boarding school, I didn’t know that I had freedom to decide what I wanted to do, and that was sad. I had offers to go to different colleges, but I was so comfortable with the boarding school environment I chose a college that had a boarding school environment in Kansas. They call it Haskell. That was one of the congressionally funded schools. So I went from one boarding school environment to another and still didn’t realize that I did have freedom to do whatever I wanted. You think about people 65, that age group or even older, that went through that boarding school process, they’re still probably struggling with the development of life skills and survival skills.
From 1978, 1990, we were given our rights—call it freedom of religion. In 1978 the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act was passed, which allowed us to pray in public. And then in 1990 we were given the right to speak our language again.8Article 1 of the Native American Languages Act of 1990 states its aim is to “preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages.” Prior to 1990, US policy was to eradicate Indigenous languages with multiple laws, such as the 1883 Code of Indian Offenses, which banned all Native dancing and ceremonies. In 1887, Native languages were banned in government and mission schools. From 1890 to 1990 we weren’t able to speak our language for a hundred years, so that’s a loss that we can’t get back. There are programs now that encourage us to retain our language and culture, but how do you recover a hundred years of loss? I still retain some of my language, I try to utilize my freedom to pray in my own cultural ways.
Another aspect being traumatized is a lot of people that went through that boarding school system, they got sick because of the asbestos and lead poisoning. Three of my brothers, two died from cancer and one’s struggling with cancer right now.
AC and ZM: Can you explain the day schools more?
DD: In Iron Lightning we had a day school, I think it went to sixth grade. There is a curriculum that came with the boarding schools. If you researched Carlisle or Hampton, there was the basic educational reading, writing, arithmetic requirement in the morning, and then afternoon was more vocational, learning a trade. For the girls, it was cooking, housecleaning, you know, sewing. For boys, it was more carpentry or, you know, outdoor landscaping.
Carlisle and Hampton were the origins of that curriculum. These schools were run by the government. The whole idea is that, when school was out for the summer, it was too costly to send the school kids home for the summer vacation and bring them back, so they farmed them out to all the plantations in that area as free labor. For a couple months they would go to a plantation and they’ll be pretty much a slave to that plantation owner, providing a service. That’s why they had the vocational curriculum, to teach these students those skills.
Even today, if you go to our tribal school, they’re still encouraging vocational, they still encourage credentials over academics. When our kids graduate from school here today, they’re not prepared for college, they’re half prepared and they probably have better success going to a vocational school.
When a child graduates from high school here, they’re not on par with other students in the United States. Their choices are limited. A lot of times they have job corps programs in different locations where students can go and pursue their vocational. In order to get into a good university, they really have to have some kind of a support system in place. A lot of families don’t have that resource, so that if you look around Dupree, you look around the reservation, a lot of people don’t go off the reservation. Fortunately, we do have a community college here where they can get a degree.
AC and ZM: Are there a lot of mental health resources or resources for people in your generation or the younger generations? Is there anything you think would be helpful? Do you think you see anything that would help people process trauma?
DD: There was a volunteer group from the University of Southern California. They’re all graduate students and they come in March of every year. When they come, they visit all the areas of the hospital and different communities and try to provide some type of a resource for people. One of the things that is probably needed is a network that could reach out. We have 22 communities, but a majority of the services are here in Eagle Butte and some people don’t have the resources to travel to Eagle Butte on a daily basis or as needed.
They do have some outreach programs. One good thing is that we have a tribal radio station and there’s a psychiatrist who has a program at 10 o’clock five days out of the week.
One thing that we have is our traditional ceremonials. It’s a resource for a younger generation of people. I’m saying younger: maybe in their thirties, twenties. They’re realizing that they belong and that they have ownership in that process of improving their lives and their family’s lives and learning more about the culture and language. So I’m really happy that they’re catching that. When I was growing up, we didn’t have that resource. We missed out, but I’m glad that the younger generation is learning, is given that opportunity.