Note: all original writing (presented here) is copyrighted by the Library of Congress to Mary Magoulick. It may be used only according to copyright law and by permission of the author.


The bloody rout of 1890 gave tragic evidence that the old ways were gone; in their place came the challenge to Indians to adapt or vanish. The siege of 1973 had proved, at least, that they had done neither. In fact, the Indian population had more than tripled since 1890, when it stood at 250,000. And Indians seemed less inclined than ever to turn away from their ancient sense of tribal belonging. Their journey through history has not yet ended. They strive to prolong it, and to discover its meaning.       ~ Vine Deloria, Jr., 1974


A Brief History of Assimilation

and the Struggle for Recuperation

The history of European and American relations with the Native people they found on this continent is complex and multi-faceted. Certainly there were periods of friendly relations, sharing of land, goods, and lives, sometimes for periods of up to a hundred years in a given region. But in virtually every case, we (Americans) ultimately let greed and a sense of superiority dominate. Libraries and archives are replete with accounts of the brutality, humiliation, unfairness, racism, and countless crimes small and large suffered by Native peoples everywhere in this country at the hands of European and American people and governments. The well-documented programs of genocide and assimilation perpetrated by our government were both random and systematic.

Perhaps the most thorough such attempt at assimilation to eliminate Native American culture came in the form of boarding schools, seemingly helpful from some perspectives, but overtly and insidiously harmful to individuals, families, and communities. Anthropologist James Cleland summarizes the situation in Michigan:

In 1887, the government returned to the boarding school system and, thus, ushered in a program of ethnocide that had a profound impact on Indian culture. In twenty-five years, the boarding schools accomplished what armed force, starvation, disease, loss of land, and Christianity could not – a major and irreversible disruption of Indian culture. It also effectively prepared Indian young people, not for assimilation into middle-class America, but as laborers in American fields and factories. (1992, 245)


Children were often cajoled, tricked, or kidnaped into attending boarding schools, after which they were sometimes not even allowed to return home for summer vacations. At boarding schools they were required under strict punishment systems to speak English only (which many children had to learn once they arrived, often with no formal language instruction), conform to mainstream American dress and hair codes, and to study and work many hours a day. These children often received harsh treatment at school, such as poor food and sub-standard living arrangements, corporeal punishments, and forced labor.

There are many poignant and painful first-hand accounts published of boarding school experiences. There is irony in the fact that these children learned from the system to express themselves well enough to document and testify to their experiences. Once raised in the boarding school system, many Native people had trouble returning to their home communities, where they felt like outsiders. Many adopted Christianity and the Western lifestyle imposed upon them. In her fiction, Louise Erdrich offers chilling portraits of the Catholic reservation school system in her fictional North Dakota communities (Tracks, Love Medicine, The Bingo Palace, and Tales of Burning Love). Her fiction echoes many real life accounts of how the system could change people. Her character Pauline, attracted by Christianity, becomes twisted and violent, and teaches at the Catholic school which Indians attend. She seems especially prone to punishing these Indian children violently, in a desire to exorcize from them the Indian nature that she considers evil within herself.

Two of the consultants with whom I worked tell stories of being ridiculed and punished for speaking Ojibwe while going to school (in one case a Catholic school on the reservation; the other at a boarding school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario). They both remember feeling ashamed of their own language and culture. For instance, Wabagoni relates some of her feelings about being at boarding school far from her home in Northern Quebec:

So [at boarding school] we had to get back to not learning our culture. You know we weren’t allowed to speak our language then too. If we spoke the language, then we either got our mouths washed with soap or we got strapped. You know, if we insisted on using it, we got the strap next. You know, I used to get a lot of strappings, let me tell you, because I really resisted. I wanted to speak my language, because that’s, I knew that was very important to me. And so I still do speak my language [Cree], because I was one of the stubborn ones, you know and um, because I really thought that was, I knew deep down inside it was wrong for them to tell us that we couldn’t speak our language.


Wabagoni feels she successfully resisted the cultural onslaught of boarding school, and in fact she served as a cultural advisor to the charter school of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe. She also continues to live a thousand miles from her original home, married to a white man. She is proud of being instrumental in the cultural renewal taking place. Another consultant, who was ashamed at school not to be able to speak English, now finds pride and purpose in being able to speak Ojibwe, and to teach it in the community.

At various other times, people told me stories of being taken away from their families to be put in orphanages or institutions, “for their own good,” and of small indignities like having their heads measured by scientists at school who wanted to study the brain capacity of Indians. For instance, Linda Oberle’s mother and sisters were taken by the government when her mother was only seven and put into an orphanage several hundred miles away, for no other reason than that the government thought they’d be better off in this religious institution than with their Native parents. Linda explains:

Linda: So it’s–  She, um, My aunts and her were taken, uh, from their Mom in St. Ignace and sent to the Indian orphanage in Baraga.


Mary:            Oh really?


Linda: Yeah. And they don’t know a whole lot of heritage at all, and even my aunt, we took her –    My Mom won’t go the powwows, um –   took my aunt to a powwow, and she was so nervous the whole time she was there, that uh, she didn’t even enjoy it at all.


So her mother and aunts now have difficulty admitting they are Native at all.

Mary:            Were you aware of being Native American as you grew up?


Linda: No. My Mom always denied her Native American heritage. It’s really weird. I don’t know at what point. It was after we were living up here. I think I was already in the army, before she would give us the documentation to get our Indian card.


It took her Mom until Linda was in her twenties to even admit they were Native and give them the paperwork to become enrolled in the tribe, but she still won’t talk about it, and wants nothing to do with any ceremonies. Such efforts to completely assimilate Native people into the dominant culture clearly worked in part on fear. Making people afraid of being Native helps extinguish their Native identity. Linda is slowly trying to learn about her Native heritage, but it is difficult when almost everyone in her world has no knowledge or experience about it to share. Probably as a result of this part of her life, Linda’s Mom never seemed happy: “I mean my Mother was not a very happy person. She still isn’t most of the time.”

In more recent cases, complaints focus on the racism and intolerance of school teachers toward Indian students at the public schools in Sault Sainte Marie and environs. Partly because of such racism, the Sault Tribe has opened and runs its own “charter school,” in which the traditional practices and discourse, including Ojibwe language, are taught and fostered. Another consultant who grew up in a different part of the country had similar experiences. Sharon’s mother apparently was never comfortable with her Native identity after a negative boarding school experience the mother and her sister never discussed. Sharon’s parents were loggers and key members in the local protestant church where she grew up in California. Sharon does not clearly distinguish between her parents’ spirituality and her current regard for a more Native-centered spirituality. She sees her mother’s deep spirituality as something she passed on to Sharon which is Native “in spirit,” if not in particulars. Sharon’s view of “new age” religions is cautious and disdainful. She indicates that Native American ceremonies (like the sweat lodge, which she describes as very sacred and powerful) need to be kept secret and meaningful, so that the new agers can’t appropriate or interrupt them, which she views as destructive.

Ojibwe writer Basil Johnston, when discussing his life as a boarding school student, refers to himself as an “inmate” sentenced to his school in Canada (1988). Like others, his stories involve the brutality and hardships of boarding schools, yet they are also humorous. After hearing stories of her family’s boarding school experiences, Debra K. S. Barker writes about boarding schools in her article: “Kill the Indian, Save the Child: Cultural Genocide and the Boarding School.” Barker sees boarding schools as a, “process of education that . . . has emotionally and spiritually devastated generations of American Indian people, setting in motion a concatenation of repercussions, including cultural genocide and generations of family pain” (1997, 47). Barker presents testimony from numerous consultants relating negative experiences at boarding schools. The harmful effects of boarding schools are widely agreed upon, even by those Indians who benefitted from the educations they received.

A Lakota man, Severt Young Bear, summarizes his feelings about the effects of boarding schools on his community:

Starting with the 1880's the government attacked our traditional Lakota identity to make us into modern American citizens. The first step in this forced identity change was to kill our spirit. They cut our . . . hair . . . . [they made us wear uniforms] . . . . They shipped them away to school over to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to Oklahoma or Santa Fe. They made every effort to wipe out Indian culture and language. They would deny you bread and food and raisins and apricots . . . . Once the students from the schools returned home, they often didn’t come back to the Indian side of it. My own generation came back to Lakota tradition even less. They were often embarrassed and ashamed of the traditions and didn’t want to keep up their language and the Lakol wicoh’an, the Lakota ways . . . .  (1994, 111-112)


A common theme in accounts of boarding schools is that many indignities were suffered, even being denied the little luxuries of the life into which they were forced, like raisins and apricots. Such meanness accumulated to wear down the will to be Indian in many cases.

Ultimately, rebellion was finally possible only at the point when most Indians were speaking English and following many of the outward trappings of mainstream American culture. Mary Crow Dog, who wrote her life story as Lakota Woman (1990), has been active in her culture’s renewal since the 1970's.[1] She explains her early history in the 1960's:

When I was a small girl at the St. Francis Boarding School, the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called “disobedience.” At age twelve the nuns beat me for “being too free with my body.” All I had been doing was holding hands with a boy. At age fifteen I was raped. If you plan to be born, make sure you are born white and male.

It is not the big, dramatic things so much that get us down, but just being Indian, trying to hang on to our way of life, language, and values while being surrounded by an alien, more powerful culture. (1990, 4-5)


Crow Dog and others had had enough. As the civil rights movement was succeeding for other minority groups, Indians also began to clamor for equal rights. Almost thirty years after the struggle for Native rights to which Crow Dog helped draw attention, others continue calling for and enacting healing and cultural renewal today.

Barker summarizes such feelings: “As tribal nations regain control over the education of their own children, . . . Indian teachers have been able to teach our young people about the relationship between this history and our parents’ personal experience. In doing so, we are able to help young people to make strides in recovering their culture, learning a history of America that does not demonize their ancestors, and regaining pride in tribal heritage” (1997, 65). This ability to instill a lack of pride, and lack of familiarity, for traditional practices and discourse was probably the biggest reason why boarding schools were so successful as an assimilation process.

The amazing thing is that in the face of racism, lack of opportunity for jobs, and official efforts to enforce assimilation, somehow many Native people managed to find their way back into “the light” of recuperating their heritage and identity. “Standing in the light” is Severt Young Bear’s title image for those who fully embrace participation in and renewal of culture. It refers to the circles of participants at a powwow. The dancers and drummers in the center dancing ring, under the electric lights, are most strongly embracing the practices that make up culture today. But many others besides those “in the light” attend powwows. Spectators watch from chairs and stands at the edge of the light. Others walk around the outside of the dance arena, eating food, visiting, and watching. And so the circles grow outward to the farthest edge, where people stand against pickups, perhaps drinking beer or smoking cigarettes. Even those present only at the outermost margins participate, but with much less responsibility and commitment than those at the center. Young Bear hopes more and more people will find their way to “standing in the light” both literally and figuratively.

Thirty years ago, there was no light to stand in. What few ceremonies were held were usually secret. Mary Crow Dog, Young Bear, and others have noticed a big change after the civil rights protests of the 1970's. Specifically, the occupation of Wounded Knee helped change attitudes. Wounded Knee, South Dakota was the site of a brutal massacre of nearly 300 people – mostly old people, women, and children – who were peacefully praying in a “Ghost Dance” ceremony in 1890 (Brown, 1970). The Ghost Dance religion was an effort to revive traditional values and beliefs, and to offer people a means of being Indian spiritually during a time when their traditional ways of living had been effectively subdued by the American military and huge waves of immigrants in the West. As Mary Crow Dog describes it: “the Ghost Dance was a religion of love, but the whites misunderstood it, looking upon it as the signal for a great Indian uprising which their bad consciences told them was sure to come” (1990, 149). The U. S. government refused to allow such renewal efforts and therefore ordered the massacre.

Traditional Native American religions (including most rituals and ceremonies) were officially against the law until the civil rights battles 30 years ago. In 1973, A.I.M., (the American Indian Movement – a civil rights alliance of Indians from various tribes) occupied the Wounded Knee memorial site in remembrance of the violence there. They demanded their rights to practice their religion and ceremonies. Mary Crow Dog, who was at the occupation, relates her husband Leonard’s words of explanation and encouragement for the occupation:

“We’ll elevate ourselves from this world to another from where you can see. It’s here that we’re going to find out. . .

“Everybody’s heard about the Ghost Dance but nobody’s ever seen it. The United States prohibited it. There was to be no Ghost Dance, no Sun Dance, no Indian religion.

“But the hoop has not been broken. So decide tonight – for the whole unborn generations. If you want to dance with me tomorrow, you be ready!” (1990, 154)


The FBI and military surrounded them at Wounded Knee, initiating a stand-off that lasted many months.

Events such as Wounded Knee II helped make Native Americans cognizant of their history and identity, and helped give them cause for hope that they could revive their culture, and thereby a sense of purpose. Young Bear notices just such a positive change:

After Wounded Knee II in 1973, I saw lots of signs of a growing positive identity among our young people. I saw lots of young boys and young men growing their hair long again and identifying themselves as Indian. Even women started wearing their hair long again and were now fasting and Sun Dancing. They had many of those AIM leaders and those who took a stand with them to look up to as models. It was a time of real positive identity. (1994, 157)


The changes among Native Americans as a result as Civil Rights struggles and victories have been immense.

Wounded Knee II had a national impact. Even among my consultant, it was important:

Linda: I also followed that Wounded Knee thing when it was happening, while I was in high school. I was in Minorities class then and I kept a running documentary on it for the class, had like a journal type thing, I did that.

Mary: What’d you think about that?

Linda: I don’t know. I guess I, I used to wear a red band around my leg, just above my knee, just like everybody did, all the other Natives that were in the school did. And I guess they had rights that they weren’t going to get. I think there are other ways about it now. I think now, as opposed to when I was a kid. When I was a kid there are other ways of getting what you want than to fight with people. And I think that’s more of the Ojibwe tradition, because they never really fought unless they had to, unless it was opposed, I think, to the men, they didn’t— And I guess I don’t know, I don’t like it, I don’t like fighting.

While her response is more sober now, this is one of the few instances Linda can remember from her youth when being Native was a focus for her. Although she doesn’t like fighting, she was made aware of her heritage through this event, and it even has led to a sense of pride about her specific tribes. Regardless of the accuracy of her ideas about Ojibwe, these events helped her to consider her heritage.

After participating in the Sun Dance, one of the revived sacred ceremonies that Wounded Knee II made possible, Mary Crow Dog feels joyful and whole:

I could hear the spirits speaking to me through the eagle-bone whistles. I heard no sound but the shrill cry of the eagle bones. I felt nothing and, at the same time, everything. It was at that moment that I, a white-educated half-blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness. I heard a cry coming from my lips:

Ho Uway Tinkte.

A Voice I will send.

Throughout the Universe,

Maka Sitomniye,

My Voice you shall hear:

I will live!   (260)


Such feelings of hope and potential signify a change in the Native world. Individuals within Native communities are subject to the pressures and problems that were always there, and may at times falter on their path. Mary Crow Dog went through hard times after feeling the joy of the sun dance ceremony.[2] Likewise, some of the consultants with whom I worked are now struggling again with alcoholism, unemployment or other problems. Yet the discourse and practices of renewal and hope remain in place, and have helped many Native people to come to life as positively as these hopeful images of change suggest.

     [1] Mary Crow Dog divorced her husband after the publication of Lakota Woman and now goes by her maiden name Mary Brave Bird. But for purposes of clarity I will refer to her by the name under which she published Lakota Woman, Mary Crow Dog.

     [2] See her follow-up story Ohitika Woman, 1993.