At the Heritage Center Museum at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, stands a replica of a one-room schoolhouse where the White Man first indoctrinated Indians by civilizing them into the White Man’s Ways and disseminating from their own people. Young Indians were taken from families into boarding schools to be brainwashed. If a child spoke Lakota, his mouth was washed out with lye. Lakota language, religion and customs were forbidden. White men annihilated an ancient culture that lived in harmony with the land, at peace with their souls, as one with the Great Spirit.
In 360 degree turn a bout, another kind of school now does all it can to preserve the Lakota culture. Red Cloud School educates 600 students in primary, middle and high school, by trying to give Lakota children the skills to compete in society, while retaining traditional values and culture of Lakota heritage. Along side basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic courses in ethics and religion, Lakota culture, religion and language are required.
Red Cloud, the Indian chief who led the most successful military campaign against the US by an indigenous group, saw that their way of life was ending. For his people to prosper, they needed to learn to walk in the way of the White Man. The school inspired by Red Cloud’s vision was started in by the Jesuits order in 1888. One hundred percent of its 2010 graduates went on to college, yet it receives no national or state aid. No longer a boarding school, some students ride an over an hour to get to and from school.
My brother-in-law’s Uncle, Mike Zimmerman, who entered the Jesuits, first worked in Argentina, before his transfer to the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota in the center of the Oglala nation. He agreed to show us around the school.
I expected Brother Mike to be dressed in clerical black robe, but instead a tall, slender man in grease stained green work suit, thrust his large hand into ours. His eyes were soft brown and kind. I wondered who was this simple, soft-spoken, articulate man who had dedicated his life to serving the Lord.
Our greeting was awkward, for he rarely had visitors and here we were eight tourists from the Carlson-Zimmerman clan. When his colleague introduced us to the Indians on campus, she said, “These are Brother Mike’s family, either related by blood or the heart.”
First, Brother Mike stopped in front of the school and told us about the fire that destroyed it in 1996. He pointed to a display of flames devouring the wooden buildings, turning his head away. “It still pains me to look at the photographs of that awful time.”
Mike led us into the new church that had been rebuilt after the fire. The wooden pews formed a semi circle in front of the alter which the Indians requested be built in circle representing their belief. In a picture window, Jesus is surrounded by Asian, Eskimo, Indian and white children.
“Each window forming the circle around the worship area told a story, but in Lakota tradition all stories must be told orally,” Mike told us. “They refused to write it down or tape record it, for they said that it is not their way.”
Mike invited us to lunch. In a small cafeteria, we filled paper plates with corn, beans, salad and hot dogs and fresh fruit from the self-service counter. We were urged to take seconds, but I felt guilty eating knowing that they subsisted on so little. We offered to pay for our meals, only a mere two dollars a person, but Mike waved us away.
In the history classroom, where they learned world, national, state and Lakota history, the unabridged edition, phrases in Lakota, had been written on the blackboard. The school also had a new computer lab and the flat screens looked top of the line, but the desks were old, wooden relics from long ago. The textbooks were worn and outdated. Nevertheless Red Cloud School continues to draw interest in the wider community. For instance, Dr. Jane Goodall visited the school in several years ago to share her ideas.
As we left, I wondered what the Indians thought of us, this white-faced tribe invading their territory. Only our 6’2 “ daughter drew a few glances from the short, stout brown-skinned workers. With Brother Mike at our side, we were welcomed as special guests and I felt privileged for this peek into the life of the Lakota.
The school exemplifies Red Cloud’s dream for Lakota children to learn to walk equally in both worlds. As I walked across the grounds by his grave, I felt honored to follow in his mighty steps on this hallowed land.