Introduction by Robert Bensen
Stiya’s promise of “untold satisfaction and happiness” for Carlisle boarding-school graduates was not kept for Black Bear (“Who Am I?”). His account creates a different portrait of the graduate, of one who suffers extreme emotional, physical, and spiritual damage, and whose identity and life are determined by the efforts he or she makes to over come that damage.
[Adailyriot disclaimer- Trigger Warning: TW for domestic violence, rape, abuse]
Who Am I?
By Black Bear
Who am I? I am a Blackfeet Indian from Montana. I am more Cree than Blackfeet, and I hardly look Indian, but I am enrolled Blackfeet. I am not quiet half Indian- some French, Irish, and Scottish too. I was my Grandpa’s Blackfeet Indian boy. That is all I ever knew.
I am a little boy who grew up with drinking and fighting all around him. I remember the sounds of beer bottles hitting the wall. I remember my father thrusting his fist through a glass door in a drunken rage because my mother tried to lock him out –shattered glass and blood where all over the floor. I remember loud angry voices and the terror of silence, waiting, for the next act of violence. My mother was beautiful with dark brown hair and hazel eyes. She liked laughter, hot jazz, and good times. She dressed in expensive clothes and preferred Chanel #5 –most say she was a very classy lady. My father was good looking and a star basketball player. He liked pretty women and he lived fast and fought hard. My mother and father drank and partied all the time. Pretty soon they drank and fought each other. Then I had many stepfathers and stepmothers. Drinking and fighting is what I remember most about growing up. That is all I ever knew.
I developed a bone disease in my right hip when I was six. I was in and out of hospitals, on crutches and braces. I spent two years in hospital in Helena, Montana. I wasn’t sick; I had all the energy of any six-year-old. They strapped me to the metal frame with a canvas covering to keep the weight off my hip. The nurses were mostly kind, but they could not nurture me. I don’t remember my mother coming to visit very often, and I never remember my father coming at all. I remember looking out the window, watching other kids play, and crying. Dying cancer and tuberculosis patients were in the next wing. I remember the screams at night. I remember being scared, and my skin yearned for a comforting, loving, nurturing touch. I remember going inside to entertain myself, for eternity. That is all I ever knew.
I am a boarding school Indian. When I say this, you know something about me already. I had to work details, slopped dishes, mopped and polished floors. I scrubbed toilet bowls and scoured sinks. Memories of nights on hard bunks still haunt me –a scared little kid, eyes wide open in the dark. One night a big boy came to my bed. He told me that if I told, he would hurt me good. He did –pain of penetration, stifled screams, and “lost innocence.” The dorm attended kicked our asses up the stairs if we didn’t move fast enough. The kind war vet with the slow mind used to take us upriver and show us how to make fire and boil coffee –the best I ever tasted. That is all I ever knew.
I survived on the streets of Portland, Spokane, Cut Bank, and Browning. My parents still drank. I lost count of how many stepfathers and stepmothers I had. I lived in foster homes, mostly with white folk. Some were good to me, and some were not. They needed money, and a few needed an extra hand with work. They did not teach me about being a good Indian boy, but they did teach me how to survive in the cities among non-Indians. Once my father came home drunk and beat up a woman he was with. She whacked him with a vacuum cleaner hose. I knocked on the ceiling with my crutches to signal the neighbors upstairs to call the police. The police came. They took my father away to jail. The woman took off. The neighbors went home. The social workers put me in a detention home for six months, because they didn’t know what else to do with me. My father came to see me once. He was drunk. I told him that I didn’t want to see him anymore when he was drunk. That is all I ever knew.
I went back to boarding school in Montana. I was older now, but it was the same old stuff. Only now the fights were over whether I could speak Blackfeet or whether I knew my Indian ways –and I was teased because I did not. The ones who did know were called blanket-asses and teased or beat up anyway. You weren’t supposed to know your ways or speak your language in those days. I went to high school in Browning. I began to drink and party and found I liked women just like my father did. I stayed in town on the weekends with my dad at the old Yeagan Hotel. He was still drinking. He slapped me once when I told him that I hadn’t been drinking that night. “Don’t lie to me, boy!” he said with stale booze breath. During my sophomore year I met a pretty girl at a river party in Cut Bank. We got real interested in each other. When I told my dad, he said “No. No. She is your sister!” “Oh!” I sad, “you never told me about my sister.” That is all I ever knew.
I left Browning and went to Haskell when it was still a high school. It was pretty good: three squares and a roof over my head for more than a year at a time were new to me. There were over a thousand students from many different tribes at Haskell. Today I have relatives anywhere I go. It feels good. I received a full National Merit Scholarship to the University of Kansas. I felt lucky as I had no other hope of going to college. My father had a years sobriety when he came down to my graduation. I was very happy and proud that he was there, but he got drunk and thrown in jail. He didn’t come to the graduation. That is all I ever knew.
At Kansas, they gave me all of my scholarship money at the beginning of each semester! I learned how to shoot pool pretty well, and I learned how to play a good hand of cards. I liked to party, and I still liked women. I ran out of money before I flunked out. After I left school and worked for a while, I came back to Kansas and played even harder. Then I got a rancher’s daughter pregnant. That is all I ever knew.
As a father, I tried to be responsible for the first time in my life. I worked at whatever I could find for eight years before returning to Kansas. This time I worked for my degree during the day and worked at night to support a family. I graduated –first in the family! I became a bureaucrat with the federal government. I had muttonchop sideburns and wore wingtip shoes and pinstripe suits. That was the American dream, wasn’t it? I drank more and more and ran around on my wife. For me, “Indian Affairs” wasn’t about politics or the BIA. I played and drank hard. I hurt people and lost wives number one and number two and three wonderful children. Now I was just like my parents. That is all I ever knew.
I quit drinking in Tucson, many years later. I had gone to a four-day Indian golf tournament in Phoenix. Stayed drunk the whole time. When I drove home, my bones ached. I quit cold. They call me a dry-drunk because I never went to treatment. I was sober, but not healed. I looked around me. I didn’t like my job. I didn’t like my friends; we just drank together. I didn’t like myself. I knew that I had hurt many people and was not a responsible person –to myself, to my family, as an Indian person, or to my community. I realized that the world would be a sorry place to live in if everyone was like me. That is all I ever knew.
I quit a promising career and good money and left Tucson to start over in life –sober. I consulted for different tribal groups for several years. I married a Pueblo woman and went back to school. Also, I learned how to make pottery. I sat on the plaza in Santa Fe for four years selling my wares and paying my dues. But I still had not dealt with my addictive behaviors. I lost wife number three. This time I felt the loss. That is all I ever knew.
I met some Lakota friends who began taking me to sweats and teaching me about spirituality and responsibility. I stopped toking and got clean. I went home to Montana to learn about my own ways. It is not easy to humble yourself in your mid-forties and tell “elders” who are fifteen years younger, “I am ignorant but I want to learn!” I learned about Blackfeet teachings, language, and songs. I was brought out from behind the barrier at Sun Dance and given my Blackfeet name in ceremony. I now had a Blackfeet identity. The name was given to my father by his father. I have the right to give the name Black Bear to my son, and it has dignity. Today I have a good relationship, a garden, and a home. Yes, I know what the Gallup drunk tank smells like. I experienced and survived boarding school. I understand the pain of abandonment. I know the terror of sexual abuse. I understand the shame of not being a good parent. However, now I try to be a good person and use my experience and understanding to help others. Now I know what I never knew. I know who I am, and it is all I ever knew.
Thank you, Creator.
Introduction by Robert Bensen
The assimilated boarding-school graduate is epitomized in Stiya: or, a Carlisle Indian Girl Home (1891), a work of fiction that provided Carlise graduates with model attitudes and behaviors for returning home as educated young people. The novel also reveals what Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna) called the “white perspective of Pueblo people” and the author’s “projected […] fears and prejudices.” At first disgusted with her parents and home and everything Indian (chapters 1 and 2), Stiya decides to change them (chapter 3). Her project meets with success, as her father ges a job with the new railroad that brings tourists and business to the Southwest (chapters 15 and 16)
[ADailyRiot disclaimer: Though these excerpts of Stiya, found in Children of the Dragonfly, do speak well of the boarding school Carlisle and the experience there, I would encourage people to read this critically and/or as they said in school “read between the lines” to see the devastating effects that the boarding school’s assimilation process had on people whom were forced to attend those schools and the communities of the people whom went to them in turning native/first nations people from their traditional ways and rejecting their own culture. Remember while reading this, that this is literature that a non-Native person wrote and that this was the literature that was being given out to people graduating Carlise to encourage them in further assimilating their culture to that of the Euro-American dominate culture. This document does not provide an accurate representation of the Pueblo Native cultures and people. It holds racist stereotypes of Pueblo and Native people in general. I would encourage folks reading this, perhaps those of you browsing the #Native American tag whom have never heard of Carlisle or other Boarding/Residential Schools or the general Boarding/Residential School Era to go to research it.. google, youtube, or books are good resources for that.]
by Embe (Marinna Burgess)
Chapter 1: Disappointment
When I was told at Carlisle that I could go to my home in the West –a place I had not seen for five years –I was truly delighted; and all the time I was packing my trunk, and all the way while we, a merry party of forty Indian girls and boys, all going home, were laughing and having a good time, at every thought of home and mother and father and he friends I should find on my arrival, my heart gave a great thump of joy.
After five days and nights of travel, every mile of which I enjoyed, for we were so very comfortable in the cars, and we saw so many interesting things which then I could understand about, in the middle of one hot afternoon the train stopped at the station at which I was to get off, and I realized that I was at the end of my railroad journey.
My father and mother, who were at the station waiting for their daughter, rushed in my direction as soon as they saw me, and talking Indian as fast as they could tried to help me from the train.
My father took my valise, and my mother, seizing me by the arm, throw her head upon my shoulder and cried for joy.
Was I as glad to see them as I thought I would be?
I must confess that instead I was shocked and surprised at the sight that met my eyes.
“My father? My mother?” cried I desperately within. “No, never!” I thought, I actually turned my back upon them.
I had forgotten hat home Indians had such grimy faces.
I had forgotten that my mother’s hair had always looked as though it had never seen a comb.
I had forgotten that she wore such a short, [strange]-looking black bag for a dress, fastened over one shoulder only, and such buckskin wrappings for shoes and leggings.
“My mother?” I cried, this time aloud.
I could not help it, and at the same time I rushed frantically into the arms of my school-mother, who had taken me home, and I remembered then as I had never before how kind she had always been to us. I threw my arms around her neck and cried bitterly, and begged of her to let me go n the train again.
“I cannot go with that woman,” I pleaded.
My school-mother, in a voice so tender I shall never forget, said, “My dear girl, you must stop crying. You u must not feel in this way towards your own parents. This is your mother. She loves you. You will get used to her and her ways by and by. Come, now,” she continued, trying to withdraw from my embrace, “be a woman! Make the best of these people, and go to your mother. Go, now, to your mother. Shake hands with her as a dutiful daughter should.”
Almost broken hearted, I did as I was bid, for I knew nothing else than to obey my school-mother.
I also took my father’s hand, and through my tears smiled as best I could; but he never shall know how I suffered with mortification and regret that he was such an Indian.
Somehow, I had my mind made up that my parents would be different, and it was hard for me to realize that they had been going backward while I had been going forward for five years.
By this time the locomotive been began to ring, and my school-mother stepped aboard the train.
Soon she and the coach full of school companions I had left passed out of sight, and as I gazed after them, my eyes thoroughly blinded with ears, my heart felt heavy with sadness.
“Oh, my! Oh, my!” I sighed; “what have I come to?”
Chapter 2: My Home
The landing at the op of the ladder was the flat roof of the house underneath ours.
This roof had been covered with dirt, which had in time become thoroughly packed and almost as hard as flagging, so it really formed a stone-like balcony to our house.
There was no railing around it, and I don’t see how the Indians manage to keep their babies from falling from the tops of these houses. There are many in the village just like ours, and in many there are more children than at our house.
There were only six of us children, everyone of whom, except myself, died when quite small of the small-pox and diphtheria, and at the time of which I am writing I wish I had gone with the rest.
So, If I haven’t already, I will be posting excerpts from Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices on Child Custody and Education.
As I said before, the adopting out of Native American and First Nations children into non-native homes was and is (in some areas) a very large epidemic. It’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about too often. I’ll be posting excerpts from this book as a means to promote discussion around this topic (once again) and for folks to learn about it.
I will begin with posting information about specific points in and about Native American/First Nations history to bring focus and a background understanding to the stories that will follow. ‘Children of Nature, Children of the State’, ‘Education’ (Boarding School/Residential School), and ‘Indian Child Welfare’ will be the first three excepts. They will build upon each other and will shed light to a history folks may not know. I encourage everyone to read these excerpts along with the stories written as personal accounts, or stories based off of personal accounts that Native people from all over North America have written.
Not all of these stories are light hearted as the history of both Boarding/Residential Schools and the Indian Adoption Project era that followed (as part of the continuation of genocide) are not light-hearted subjects.
However, I hope that you will read these as a means to learn more history, see the perspective of Native folks, and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of why stereotypes of native people and cultural appropriation is a big deal (though these will not directly speak to that, however it’s good to know this info to ‘connect the dots’ on that sort of thing).