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Linda Grover: When Grandmother went to school

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, how and where my relatives had been schooled was rarely mentioned and never discussed. Instead, the education of American Indians prior to my generation was a topic to be avoided, a source of secrecy ...

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, how and where my relatives had been schooled was rarely mentioned and never discussed.

Instead, the education of American Indians prior to my generation was a topic to be avoided, a source of secrecy and sadness.

One of my uncles told me, when I was six or seven, that he had gone away from home to school. This was a different kind of school that he didn't like.

He also advised me that it was not good to think too much about it, that we didn't need anyone to feel sorry for us.

My mother told me later that before I was born most Indian children were removed from their homes by the federal government and sent away to boarding schools, that the story was a sad one and would make me cry if I knew about it, and that I should be thankful for the life I had.

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I spent my child and teen years protected from, yet mindful of, the sorrows of the past, trying to be a good student, trying to walk with dignity through the annual Indian unit at Thanksgiving time, trying to play the clown through thoughtless children's jokes about "scalpings," trying to displace myself into another dimension when a boy imitated the staggering walk and slurred speech of an Indian man he saw going into a liquor store.

I knew that I was luckier than my elders had been, and that my own school experience was a better one.

I owed it to the past to appreciate and survive in the present.

I owed it to the mysterious and heartbreaking experiences of my elders to be the best student I could.

It wasn't until I was a mother of school children, and working in an Indian education program in our small school district in northern Minnesota that my Aunt Carol began to talk with me about the educational experiences of American Indians, and those of our family in particular.

Her story, told to me over several years, was a multi-generational one of boarding schools, homesickness and the resulting cruelty, racism, and, most of all, the hopes broken and revived in the survival of an extended family.

From the beginning of her story, when my grandmother was sent to a Catholic mission school in Canada, to the heyday of boarding schools in the 1910s and 1920s, through the 1930s when the Indian Reorganization Act provided the monies to allow American Indian children access to their local public schools, I experienced through Carol my family's role as participants in and witnesses to a vast experiment in the breaking of a culture through the education of its young.

She would talk for an hour or so in the late evenings, until she had shared enough of our story to become sleepy, and I had absorbed enough to become sleepless. Drained by the tale and honored with the burden, I would get up in the morning to get ready for work.

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One morning, the feeling of my littlest girl's hair in my hands as I braided, then crossed and tied her braids behind her ears, brought to mind that she was the age my grandmother had been when she left home for boarding school, just five years old.

My own five-year-old would be walked a few blocks to school by her mother, and we would see each other again that very afternoon after work.

I began to appreciate more fully the struggles and tenacity of my family as well as all Indian people, whose valuing of family and tribal culture made it possible for people like me to live with our own families and have our children experience an education that is, in so many ways, so different from that of our grandparents.

Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Grover writes once a month for the Budgeteer.

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