“She often longs for ‘Old Carlisle.’”
These are the words that haunt me, the words of my long-dead grandmother.
These are the words that I’ve kept hidden since I discovered them years ago, telling no one, because they destroy the narrative I’ve told myself and others.
These are the words where she reveals that she liked the Native American boarding school she attended, the notorious Carlisle Industrial Indian School, the first and most hated of the boarding schools. The institutions where Native children were taken after being abducted and separated from their parents. The institutions where the children were robbed of their language, their culture, their spirituality. The places where they were sometimes physically and sexually abused, the places where they too often died, buried in the sad cemeteries on the grounds, their parents not informed until much later. Natives have known the pain of involuntary child separation for generations, long before this became official policy for undocumented immigrant families seeking a better life across the border.
My grandmother liked it there. I know this because she sent an alumna note to the school: “Marie Beauvais writes from Cantonment, Oklahoma, that she is perfectly delighted with her work and surroundings, but that she often longs for ‘Old Carlisle.’”
Let me back up here. My maternal grandmother, Marie Beauvais Cordry, was a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe—known as the Sicangu Nation in Lakota—on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She was born October 23, 1890, just two months before the Wounded Knee massacre at the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian reservation. So she was born almost exactly at the turning point for American Indians in the United States, that final heartbreaking moment when the last bands of resistant Indians were defeated by American soldiers and forced to move to reservations, which were really prison camps at that time. Most historians view the Wounded Knee massacre, which occurred on December 29, 1890, as the end of an era for Natives, the moment when one way of life ended and another began. Being born at that moment, my grandmother only knew life on the reservation, but it’s almost certain that she heard considerable lamentations from elders for the customs and traditions that had become a thing of the past, almost in the blink of an eye.
She died when I was very young, so I don’t have any real memories of her, beyond a few hazy images. Perhaps my strongest memory is of her funeral, where I remember the sadness of my mother and aunties, and that I placed my silver dollar—an unimaginably large sum for a six-year-old back then—into her casket before she was lowered into the ground, wanting to give her something to take with her to the spirit world.
Now, as a middle-aged professor of Native American Studies, I have so many questions I wish I could ask her—family questions, historical questions, personal questions. But I’m forced to piece together what scraps of information I can from the slender official record and from my older cousins who have better, more robust memories. My cousin James tells me that his most vivid memory is of her silently pumping water outside of her house so that she and her grandkids would have something to drink. He tells me that she’d be completely focused on her task—no speaking with the children running about, no hugs, no stories. Just trying to get enough water to survive before the weather turned bitter.
It’s distressing to realize that many homes on the reservation still don’t have adequate water today, decades after her death. I visit the rez two or three times a year to see family, take part in spiritual ceremonies, and get away from the clamor of the city. When I go there, I always make a pilgrimage to the ruins of her final domicile, a hundred-foot-square shack with no electricity, no running water, and no indoor plumbing. This miserable structure was where she spent the last years of her life, a woman in her late seventies, gathering firewood to stave off the brutal South Dakota winters, trudging out into the woods to make her ablutions, gathering what food she could in the wild and dependent upon family members for sustenance when she couldn’t. The shack now lies in pieces, the wooden boards and planks rotting on the ground, no one caring enough to cart them away. I’m filled with anger whenever I visit, as I can’t understand why none of her grown children agreed to take her in and instead left her to her own devices in this primitive shack. My mother and all my aunts and uncles are gone, so I’m left with no answers and no one to ask, only a hazy feeling of resentment toward my family for their abandonment of my grandmother.
From the official records I obtained from the National Archives years ago, I know that my grandmother was born at Rosebud to Benjamin and Amy Beauvais, and that she had eight brothers and sisters, two of whom died, ostensibly from “rheumatism” and “brain fever,” and that her father was dead at the time of her matriculation at Carlisle. Life for her own mother, Amy Beauvais, must have been hard after living through the death of her husband and two children as well as having six living children to support at a time when traditional Lakota lifeways had been wiped out by the U.S. government. Natives were forced to rely upon the meager rations shipped to the reservations and frequently sold to outsiders by corrupt agents. The official records tell me that Marie Beauvais attended the White Thunder Day School in Wood, South Dakota, from ages nine to fifteen, then one year of school at the St. Francis Indian School, and possibly one year at another Indian school in Chamberlain, South Dakota, although the records are not clear. Then she traveled to Carlisle.
I wonder what it must have been like for her, that trip to Pennsylvania, her first time leaving South Dakota, taking a train across the rolling hills of the Midwest, being joined by other Indians, some younger, some older, all of them going to the school about which they’d almost certainly heard terrible rumors and stories, but perhaps also some positive accounts about the institution and the students there.
What is clear is that she traveled across the country and arrived at the Carlisle Indian School on September 16, 1910, when she was twenty years old. This was not unusual at the time, as many students somewhat older than traditional school ages would enroll at the boarding school for a variety of reasons, usually poverty or the death of a parent. Younger students, however, were often taken to the boarding schools through coercion or force, especially in the early years of the institutions. Government authorities would withhold rations, annuities, and other necessities unless parents agreed to send their children. If the parents continued to resist, state officials would seize the children. The historical literature is replete with references to the drills that Native families practiced, where young children would sprint for the woods when alerted by their parents that the government officers had arrived. It is difficult to imagine the pain these parents must have felt to have their children—some as young as five or six—ripped from their grasps and taken away without any idea of when they would see them again.
But that wasn’t the case with my grandmother. The available records suggest that she was not taken by force to Carlisle, but went voluntarily. Voluntarily, that is, if you consider privation and poverty as creating a set of voluntary choices. Marie had been shipped from school to school in South Dakota, almost certainly because her own mother couldn’t adequately provide for her and the other five children after the death of their father. Remember that Indians were not always allowed to leave the borders of reservations back then, and there were no jobs, of course. The U.S. government had pursued a policy of extermination of the buffalo, so there was no hunting, even if they had been allowed to leave. The people were forced into a position of dependency where they had to rely upon the goods provided by the government and the almost total authority wielded by the reservation agent. This power tended to encourage corruption by the local officials, and they would withhold food and other items from Indians who were deemed to be too vocal or rebellious. Little wonder, then, that alcohol sometimes became a problem later for the proud people who’d been forced into this miserable existence.
When my grandmother arrived at Carlisle, she received a physical examination by a doctor, who noted that she was 5’8 ½” tall, weighed 153 pounds, and was in good health. How did she feel when she arrived at the school? Was she excited to be among Indians from hundreds of different nations, or was she apprehensive about the harsh disciplinary practices she’d soon encounter?
I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who aren’t aware of this disgraceful episode in our history. Some scholars estimate that, in the period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as many as 30 percent of all Native children were separated from their families and taken to off-reservation boarding schools. If Indian day schools and reservation boarding schools are included, then the numbers indicate that over 80 percent of Native children were educated using these methods. The professed objective was to assimilate Indian children into American society, but most scholars agree that the true purpose was cultural genocide. Perhaps it is not surprising that this shameful period is ignored in nearly all primary and secondary education today, given that it goes against the story that we tell ourselves as Americans, the story that says we love freedom and value children.
Nearly every indigenous parent who’s raising a child away from traditional lands is aware of the difficulty in reconciling what’s being taught in schools with the reality of being Native. I recall my younger son, Sasha, then in second grade, asking me one day about Christopher Columbus. His teacher had told him that Columbus brought indigenous people back to Spain from the Americas because he liked them and wanted to help them. I’d hesitated, wondering if I should explain that Columbus actually sent a contingent of Natives back to Europe to serve as slaves. Then I considered whether I should talk to Sasha’s teacher and try to convince her to change her whitewashed view of American history and adopt a more historically accurate perspective.
But I took the easy way out, deciding to avoid putting a target on my child. I told myself I was doing the right thing, that I’d tell him the truth at home, that his social standing at school was important. When I told this story later to a Native friend, she called me a coward. Although I bristled at her insult, I realized she was right. I’d made one of those countless accommodations every parent of color makes, but at what cost? And of course, the compromises I’ve had to make for my children pale in comparison to the truly terrible choices faced by Native parents back in the boarding-school days.
In 1885, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price stated, “it is cheaper to give them education than to fight them.” He was referring to what was known as the “Indian problem.” The problem, of course, was what to do with all of the Natives who inconveniently refused to vanish and remained as a living and breathing reminder of the massive injustice that had been committed on a continental scale. Millions of Indians had succumbed to disease, and millions more had been killed in wars, but hundreds of thousands remained in the late 1800s, even though most Americans had never laid eyes on a real Native.
The famous slogan from that time was, “Kill the Indian to save the man.” This was Captain Richard Henry Pratt’s guiding philosophy for the creation of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School. Pratt used his experience educating Native prisoners using a military-style form of education to convince Congress to grant him the use of an abandoned Army barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to found the first off-reservation Native boarding school. He equated indigeneity with ignorance, poverty, and immorality, and he was firmly convinced that Native Americans required only the introduction of “civilizing” practices to convert them to the capitalistic ways of the new nation. Pratt believed that inculcation into Western values would convert backward Indians—who believed in communal ownership of property and the sharing of wealth—into hardworking capitalists. William Torrey Harris, later the U.S. Commissioner of Education, summarized these principles at the 1883 Lake Mohonk Conference on Indian Affairs; the quotation comes from the book Education for Extinction by David Wallace Adams:
[A]ttributes of civilization included a commitment to the values of individualism, industry, and private property; the acceptance of Christian doctrine and morality, including the “Christian ideal of the family”; the abandonment of loyalty to the tribal community; . . . the willingness to become both a producer and a consumer of material goods; and finally, an acceptance of the idea that man’s conquest of nature constituted one of his noblest accomplishments.
To achieve his goals, Pratt instituted a program of extreme militaristic discipline—one that served as a model for other boarding schools—that caused incalculable damage to generations of Native children. Upon their arrival to Carlisle, students had to cut their hair, which was especially disturbing to Indians given the symbolic importance of long locks. They were required to abandon their Native names and adopt Anglicized ones, as well as shed their traditional clothing and don military-style uniforms. Only English was allowed at the school; any child caught speaking his or her Native language was severely punished. Historical records show that the food was substandard and usually not provided in adequate amounts. Sanitation practices were poor as students had to share towels and drinking cups, and illnesses spread quickly as the school’s leaders rarely segregated sick children. Native spirituality was completely forbidden, and the students were forced to convert to Christianity, which was part of the official curriculum. Any expression or practice of indigenous spirituality brought the most severe punishment.
As for education, the students were trained in basic English, science, and math, and also received substantial vocational training. After a half day of general education, the boys would study farming or a trade such as blacksmithing or carpentry, while the girls would learn sewing, cooking, cleaning, and nursing. It was no secret that the children were being prepared for lives as servants and laborers. Indeed, the “outing” program allowed for the students to live with nearby Anglo families during summers, assisting with household and farm duties, sometimes for a small stipend. It should come as no surprise that some of these local households viewed the Native children as free labor and often exploited and abused them.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of the boarding schools was the athletic program, with various sports made available to both boys and girls. Extracurricular activities such as school newspapers, drama, and music were available as well. Any fair examination of the boarding schools has to acknowledge these opportunities for the students, and the historical records indicate that many of the students took advantage of these activities, including the famous athlete Jim Thorpe. However, even the famed Carlisle athletic program was plagued by corruption in the later decades of the school.
But the fact that drama, sports, and choral groups were encouraged does not absolve the dehumanizing totality of these institutions and the damage done to the Native way of life. Runaway students were common at Carlisle and other boarding schools, and some institutions created jails where captured runaways were imprisoned. Other schools forced recalcitrant students into stints of hard labor or corporal punishment. There is evidence that some rebellious male students at Carlisle were hung up by their thumbs for hours. Extreme whipping and flogging, sometimes resulting in death, was common at the schools. Suicide—usually by hanging—was a frequent occurrence, and every boarding school had a cemetery on its grounds. Heartbreakingly, the students were often tasked with building the caskets. This fact fills me with sadness as I imagine the young students sawing, sanding, and nailing the pine boxes, the final terminus for one of their friends.
There is also evidence of severe sexual abuse, and numerous lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. and Canada alleging long-term rape and sexual molestation by teachers and administrators at various boarding and day schools. In July 2011, a Dakota man, Howard Wanna, detailed his sexual abuse at an institution in South Dakota in the magazine Indian Country Today. “He’d also turn me around and rape me, hurting me badly as he used his hands to grip my hair, neck, or shoulders. He rotated among about five of us younger boys, which left me with such confused emotions. On days it wasn’t my turn, I was so grateful, yet I felt terrible that one of my little friends was suffering. I also dreaded the fact that my day was coming again soon.”
This brief overview of boarding school life can’t really do justice to the horrible and inhumane conditions there. Although there were some opportunities for students to succeed, the living conditions were generally miserable, the educational and disciplinary practices were brutal, and the entire enterprise was designed to completely eliminate the culture and spirituality of American Indians and replace it with a Western capitalistic philosophy. This is the very definition of cultural genocide.
Pratt’s methods were so successful in assimilating Native children that two dozen other boarding schools were created, and Indian day schools and reservation boarding schools copied his techniques. However, Pratt was forced to retire from his position at Carlisle in 1904—his criticism of the reservation system and the Indian Bureau had proven to be too much for his superiors. He fervently believed that Natives were best served by complete assimilation into white society, to be accomplished by the dissolution of all reservations. That opinion, then and now, was not shared by many. The Carlisle Industrial Indian School closed on September 1, 1918, becoming U.S. Army Base Hospital Number 31.
The boarding school system continued, though, until 1928, when the Meriam Report issued a scathing critique of the schools, noting the malnutrition, poor teaching quality, and excessive disciplinary sanctions. Many of the remaining off-reservation boarding schools closed as a result, but Pratt’s methods continued to be used in the reservation boarding and day schools for generations, his legacy of cultural assimilation secure.
The Carlisle Barracks remains an active military base, having served as the home of the Medical Field Service School and the U.S. Army War College after the closing of the school, but its tragic legacy remains in what’s known as the Indian Cemetery, where about two hundred children are buried. These young students died due to disease, trauma, suicide, or abuse, and school administrators—shamefully—declined to return their remains back to their homelands, and often failed to notify the parents.
However, some of those children may finally be going home, as several Native nations have requested the disinterment and return of their ancestors, including the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. I spoke with Ben Rhodd, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Sicangu Lakota Nation. He said that they’ve identified eleven Sicangu children at the Carlisle cemetery and requested their return to South Dakota. However, he told me that their first request was denied by the Army because the tribe had not provided signed affidavits from surviving members of each child’s family.
“They told us we couldn’t make the request as a nation,” Rhodd said. “We had to track down the living descendants and get their approval.”
That’s exactly what Rhodd and his team have done. They’ve positively identified family members for each child through painstaking research, obtained all signatures, and are now attempting to secure funding for the process, which will involve a group of people traveling to Carlisle to ensure that appropriate spiritual procedures are followed throughout the process. Rhodd told me that a medicine person will be at the Indian Cemetery and spend most nights in ceremony. Ten of the children will be draped in their own buffalo robes, but one will be enveloped in a white elk hide at the request of her family. There will then be a blessing and ceremony of thanks, and the children will be taken back to the Rosebud Reservation in a caravan.
I’m pleased to learn that these Lakota children will be returned to the reservation and their families, but it’s no cause for celebration. The fact that so many Native children died—far away from home and their loved ones—fills me with sorrow, and I wonder if my grandmother lost any of her friends during her year at the school. The last student listed on the death record is Lottie Sireech, a citizen of the Ute nation, who died on January 28, 1906, four years before my grandmother Marie arrived there. But of course, the official records from the school are notoriously inaccurate.
It’s important to acknowledge that my grandmother’s experience at Carlisle—enrolling in the last decade of the institution—was likely somewhat different from those students who were educated at the school in its earlier decades. The institution had become less significant beginning in the early twentieth century due to the proliferation of local reservation boarding and day schools. In a sense, the popularity of Pratt’s Indian educational philosophy contributed to the demise of his signature school. In the institution’s final years, the student body consisted of several cohorts: orphans; children who were thought to have discipline problems; athletes; and legacies—those students whose parents had gone to the school and wanted their own children educated there. However, the educational philosophy remained largely the same. The prohibitions against speaking indigenous languages or practicing Native spirituality were still enforced, more strictly than ever. Perhaps the most noteworthy change in the post-Pratt era was a lessening of the use of corporal punishment, due to the school’s second superintendent, Moses Friedman. But the policies of cultural assimilation and elimination remained largely intact.
It is difficult to reconcile the historical overview of the Indian boarding school system with the apparent positive experience of my grandmother—her longing for “Old Carlisle.” Of course, it is easy to surmise that she was indoctrinated—brainwashed even—by the propaganda of the Carlisle administration and teachers. But this answer is too simple. It assumes that the Native children were modest, diffident youngsters, incapable of thinking for themselves and unwilling to assert their own opinions. This caricature doesn’t fit with any Native people I’ve ever known. The Indians in my family are pretty stubborn and persistent, to say the least. I decided to dig deeper into some of the history of Carlisle, find out what I can about the students back then.
Barbara Landis is a historian with the Cumberland County Historical Society and one of the people who’s done the most to provide access to the Carlisle School and its history. Landis is friendly and knowledgeable, and provided a great deal of information that’s not present in the scholarly record. When I interviewed her by phone, we spoke about numerous topics, but my most urgent questions were regarding the issues of assimilation and acculturation—the degree to which most students at Carlisle tried to hold on to their traditions.
In response, Landis told me of the interview she conducted with the last living female Carlisle student, ninety-nine-year-old Maggie Tarbell, who spoke of her days at the school before it closed. Tarbell recounted that she would sneak into her room and “talk Indian” with other students as an act of resistance and rebellion. But Landis noted, “She always ended any story she told us with these words: ‘It was a good school and I got a good education there.’ We were asking pretty leading questions, but I think she felt like these two white women were coming to check on her, and so the company line came back to her.” The company line. Even eighty years after leaving Carlisle, Tarbell felt the need to protect the school and echo the words they’d been taught.
Then I shared with Landis the alumna note my grandmother had sent to the student newspaper, the one where she longs for “Old Carlisle,” and I expressed my dismay that my grandmother apparently liked the institution, rather than acting as an agent of resistance, the role I’d have preferred she play.
“She was probably following the line she learned. The language of complacency and endearment. That’s not genuine,” Landis said.
“What do you mean by ‘line’?” I asked.
“The company line. It’s like the, uhh, when someone gets kidnapped.”
“Stockholm syndrome,” I said.
There was silence for a moment as I processed what Landis had told me. In that instant, the disappointment I’d been carrying largely vanished, as I realized that my grandmother was also echoing the Carlisle line in her correspondence. Toeing the company line was a concept with which I was quite familiar, as well as the rationalizations that accompany those actions. It was unfair of me to hold her to a higher standard, especially given the level of indoctrination she’d experienced while at Carlisle.
Near the end of our conversation, Landis recommended that I look at the student publications that are now digitized and available online in order to get a sense of the propaganda to which the students were exposed. I quickly located the digital archive and was surprised by the sheer number of documents available. Student records, photographs, historical documents, school publications. The official publication list alone has twelve different titles from different eras of the school. The Carlisle Arrow, the Indian Craftsman, the Indian Helper, the Morning Star, and the Red Man are just a few of the newspapers and journals the students worked to publish and distribute.
I was delighted to connect with the words of these Native young people of the past and eager to read their thoughts and opinions. I started with the Red Man. This student-edited journal published articles from various sources outside of the school as well as student-written commentary. Randomly, I found an article that is indicative of the attitudes of the time, an essay from June 1912 entitled “Sanitary Homes for Indians,” by one Edgar B. Meritt. He was not a Carlisle student nor a Native, but worked as a law clerk for the Indian Bureau.
In his article, he argued that Indians should abandon their traditional housing structures for standard Western homes (and even included blueprints for said houses):
There are to-day thousands of Indians who are wards of the Government living from four to eight to the family in one-room shacks, cabins, wickiups, or tents, some of them on dirt floors, and under the most revolting, unsanitary conditions—conditions that must of necessity cause the propagation and transmission of most dangerous diseases, such as tuberculosis and trachoma, not only to each member of the Indian family, but to other Indians of the immediate vicinity, as well as the whites with whom they come in contact.
This horseshit isn’t surprising, but is still appalling, given that traditional Native homes were exactly the opposite of what the author contends—clean, safe, and environmentally friendly—and served Indians well for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the settlers and their diseases. I wondered how the student journalists felt about this piece, whether they were again spouting the company line or if they truly believed that their traditional homes were breeding grounds for disease.
I turned then to the student newspaper the Carlisle Arrow, which focused on alumni and student news rather than longer essays and features. I opened up the issue from September 1910, likely the first one that my grandmother read upon her arrival to Carlisle. It was written in a cheery, snappy style, and the school news section resembled the alumni news columns from the college newsletters I receive. As I scanned more issues, the phrase “Old Carlisle” came up again and again in alumni notes, and I saw how deeply rooted the process of indoctrination was for the students. “Louis Dupuis, Class ’ll, from his home in Horton, Kans., writes: ‘I often think of dear old Carlisle and wish I were there.’ ” Charles Dagenett, Class ’89, reported, “I am ever thankful to old Carlisle for having taught me my trade. I am endeavoring to make use of it and by constant practice am adding a little to it all the time. I am enjoying splendid health here and am not confined to the office all the time. I keep a team and buggy which affords us much healthful pleasure. I am ever mindful of the Captain’s kindness to me.”
But from my previous research, I knew that there had been significant acts of rebellion and resistance by some Carlisle students who were less enamored of Captain Pratt’s kindness. The scholarly books I’d read had documented numerous acts of student agency and resistance, including running away, violent and passive resistance to school rules, and secret gatherings where the students would conduct Native religious ceremonies. David Wallace Adams in Education for Extinction discusses an incident at Carlisle in 1897 where two female students, one Lakota and one Menominee, lit the school on fire—twice—before being caught and confessing to the arson. Rather than deal with the girls himself, Pratt turned them over to local prosecutors and they were convicted and sentenced to eighteen months in the penitentiary. I appreciate the girls’ spirit, if not their method, but it’s hard to imagine how they fared in the state prison for a year and a half.
I’d like to think that my grandmother tried to hold on to her culture and resist some of the Carlisle policies, but of course, there’s no way to know if that ever happened. Barbara Landis had told me one other thing, a fact that I’d not read anywhere else. She’d said that by the twentieth century, the Carlisle Indian School was considered to be the elite institution of all of the boarding schools, and that some students derived status from their time there when they returned home. In fact, Landis said that they were called “Carlisle girls” by some, and an elder had told her, “You could always pick out the Carlisle girls. They had a way about them.”
As much as I’d like to think that my grandmother had resisted the school administration to some degree, it’s entirely possible she’d viewed her attendance at Carlisle as a prize, something of which to be proud, one of her great accomplishments. She spent just one year at the Carlisle School, not returning, presumably, because of her marriage to my grandfather.
Shortly after our interview, Landis sent me a list of documents from Carlisle—newspaper items, official documents—in which my grandmother appeared. I learn that, on her trip to Pennsylvania, she was accompanied by five girls and six boys, and that the family of one of those girls, Amy Gunhammer, would later send a letter to Carlisle accusing the school of keeping their daughter as a prisoner and demanding her release. I also learn from the documents that Marie later wrote to the Carlisle Arrow telling of the dressmaking skills she’d learned there. I see four more alumna notes where she’d written to update her classmates. In the February 18, 1916 edition of the Carlisle Arrow, this item appeared: “Mrs. Clarence Cordry, née Marie Beauvais, writes that she is now located at Wood, S. Dak. She is keeping house for her husband, who is employed as farmer on the Rosebud Reservation.”
I also find an item from her school days and see that she had been a bridesmaid during her last months at Carlisle for a friend, Margaretta Reed, for her marriage to another Carlisle student, Lewis George. This suggests that she made friends easily during her one year at Carlisle. The note fills me with delight as I try to imagine the little ceremony at the school, the vows and best wishes, the future looming ahead of everyone. The newspaper reported that, “The ceremony was witnessed by a large audience of schoolmates and friends. The bride was attired in blue silk and wore a wreath of orange blossoms. The two bridesmaids, Miss Marie Beauvais and Miss Nora McFarland, were attired in white and wore white veils….After the ceremony a reception was given by Superintendent and Mrs. Friedman for the bridal party and their friends, after which amid a shower of rice and good wishes, the bride and groom departed for their future home in California.”
I like to think that she was happy during her time at Carlisle, that it was a time of friends and fellowship, and that she was excited by her prospects—those vistas of possibility—in front of her. Of course, I know of the sadnesses she endured in later years: thirteen children to raise; a dead husband; her favorite daughter and grandchild murdered; and her final years in that tiny shack on the reservation. I hope those months at Carlisle were enough to sustain her over the long haul of family life, grinding poverty, and the chasms of grief we all must face when a loved one dies.
I stand with my cousin James in South Dakota and we discuss our grandmother. He’s one of the last descendants of Marie Beauvais still living on the reservation, and, being a decade older than me, he remembers more, knows more. We’re at the ruins of her little cabin, where her decades of “keeping house” came to a bitter end.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I say, looking at the wreckage of her shack. “How could her children leave her here? Why didn’t any of them take her in, let her stay with them? I know some of them had decent houses.”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “You don’t get it. She wanted to be here. She insisted on living here. This is where she wanted to be.”
As the enormity of this sinks in, I slowly begin to understand. My grandmother resisted the entreaties of her children to live with them, and she chose to return to the land, living as her ancestors had done. This was her reclamation of Native identity, her last act of resistance, a final rebellion as she sought peace at the end of her life.
I think of her there, surrounded by the land, the silence enveloping her, and I hope that she heard the voices, the voices of her parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, and also the happy murmurs of her classmates at Carlisle, as she sat there alone, finally alone.
Later that day, I go to the little cemetery on the reservation where she and the rest of my family are buried. Grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and my cousin Gregory, murdered at age twelve, the same age as my youngest son. Emotion overcomes me as I realize all that’s been lost, and I’m weeping for Marie, for Gregory, and for those students buried at Carlisle who will never come home. My grandmother longed for Old Carlisle, yes, but I believe that she longed for the time before the sorrows came, the time when she wandered the grassy hills of the Rosebud, her sisters and brothers at her side, the prairie stretching out before her.
The sun begins to set as I stand there, the shadows lengthening and the clouds gathering. I’m alone on this trip, but I’ll bring my sons next time and force them to put down their gadgets for a few days. We’ll visit these graves and burn some sage, then I’ll take them to the ruins of Marie’s little shack and tell them all I know about her. How she lived and how she died. The stories of Carlisle and the stories of the Lakota people. We’ll shake off the city and look out into the horizon to the very edge of the reservation.