My Life in an Indian
Boarding School

Adam Nordwall
(Adam Fortunate Eagle)

(University of Oklahoma Press)
Nordwall's father died when the boy was but five years old. His mother ran away with another Indian, away to Montana. Adam and his four brothers (and one sister) were sent away to Pipestone, a school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

If you are expecting one of those let-me-tell-you-how-much-they-beat-me stories, forget it. If you are looking for they-wouldn't-let-me-speak-my-own-language tales, you can forget that too. Evidently Pipestone, when Adam was there (1935 - 1945), was run sensibly, in a way that let the kids be normal, uproarious ... and themselves. They had to work --- in the garden, in the bakery, in the laundry --- but they were treated humanely.

And Adam is no "apple" --- American Indian on the outside, honky on the inside. He was one of the originators of the idea of occupying Alcatraz in 1969. As the scholar Laurence M. Hauptman says in his astute "Afterword" to Pipestone:

    This was the same man who conceived the idea that the Indians were so desperate on reservations and in urban areas that they would be better off breaking into an abandoned maximum security prison.

It's not that Pipestone was a lark. It was in Bemidji, Minnesota, and the winters there could be fearful. But there was food; there were warm, clean beds; there was even an hospital. Many of the teachers and administrators were Cherokee, Cheyenne, Sioux, or Chippewa.

Sometimes the readers wonder if Adam will survive, but it's not because of the discipline; it's more the willingness of the staff to let the kids go their own way in the woods and countryside near the school.

There are cuts and bruises; a kid named Joe loses an arm trying to catch a ride out on a nearby train; Adam almost cuts off his thumb with his pocket knife; one girl who has a crippled leg is called "slew foot Mary." Sugar Mahto rides the winter ice down the river until he gets to "the lip of the falls. If he missed, he would have been killed on the rocks."

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For those of us who grew up during World War II, Pipestone will bring back many memories. Like collecting metal for the "war effort:" open an empty can on both ends, stuff in the top and bottom, flatten it for the scrap drive. Make model planes so you can identify the German or "Jap" planes when they fly over. Watch out for rumors ("Loose Lips Sink Ships.") Like the ones from the west coast because: the Japanese subs were surfacing to float paper balloons with a candle inside to set the woods on fire (after the war we found out that this was true).

One of my favorite stories is about the kids from the Indian school going into town to see "Cowboy and Indian" movies. "The Indian kids and white kids all cheer when the bugler sounds 'charge' and the soldiers ride to rescue the settlers fighting off the savage Indians that are circling the burning wagons."

    Joe Bebeau gets mad at us for cheering the cavalry. "Hey, you guys, you're cheering for the wrong side."

Once, they cut Adam's hair, and "Joe Crown checks my head and exclaims, 'My gosh, Adam, you've sure got lots of scars.'"

    I just laugh, and Joe starts counting and finishes with "nine, ten, eleven. Dang, Adam! You sure have been beat up a lot."

Adam concludes his introduction: "I realize there will be critics of my book; however, I will only listen to individuals who are over seventy years of age and who were boarding school children themselves."

I qualify, so I can tell him here: they changed the salute to the American flag in 1942, not earlier (I was in the second grade at the time). I remember the teacher telling us not to extend our arm towards the flag because it was too much like the salute in another country, namely Germany.

Adam Fortunate Eagle is a great raconteur. You are there in Pipestone School as they are raising hell, being kids, getting into the usual trouble. As Huaptman writes, "the children were allowed to speak their native languages, they were punished for cursing, not for speaking Ojibwe or Lakota."

--- Richard Saturday
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