© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Take Five: Native American storyteller shares tales of an unspoken past

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 30, 2012 - Storyteller Dovie Thomason knows that many in her audiences have not heard about government boarding schools when she presents her tales about the attempt to re-educate and assimilate Native American children into U.S. society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Thomason, 63, who is of Lakota and Kiowa Apache descent, said she herself knew nothing of the schools until she began studying Native American history during college because her own family members never spoke of their experiences.

“There are some stories you don’t want to tell your children,’’ she said.

Thomason, who is participating in this week’s 33rd Annual St. Louis Storytelling Festival, takes a gentle but thought-provoking approach to this tough topic. She says it is not about blame but about understanding -- and moving forward.

In her presentation Thursday at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Thomason will introduce her audience to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School that opened on the site of an old Army barracks in Carlisle, Pa., in 1879. The institution, near the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park, operated for 40 years and was initially a model for similar government schools located around the country.

Thomason says the experience was traumatic for children who were separated from their families and culture and sent hundreds of miles away from home to live in dormitories at Carlisle, where a lack of funding added to the harsh living conditions.

Upon arrival, the children were forbidden to speak in their native languages. Their hair was cut, and boys were outfitted in uniforms and girls in Victorian-style dresses. They were taught trade skills, along with academic lessons -- and how to drill at the military-style school.

The schools had a lasting impact on Native American families that is still evident today, Thomason said, pointing out that Carlisle opened just three years after Custer’s Last Stand -- the notorious defeat of the U.S. 7th Cavalry near the Little Bighorn River in Montana.

“This is not ancient history,’’ she said. “The legacy and impact and consequences of this are with us right now. It’s not, ‘Oh, that’s ancient history; get over it.’ This is a recent story -- 1879 is a blink. It was right before my grandma was born.’’

Thomason grew up in Texas -- the ancestral home of her father -- and it was her paternal grandmother who told her many of the stories she recalls today. Her grandmother was sent to a mission school but never spoke of it. Her father was sent to one, as well.

“My grandmother who told me most of the stories I know never told me about being in a mission school. And whether she signed over her son voluntarily or involuntarily, I don’t know. My father and uncle are gone,’’ Thomason said. “My mother, I don’t know. Mother went to her grave not talking about it. People were taking those secrets with them. It was too traumatic.’’

Thomason said that many early proponents of the schools had good intentions -- to prevent the extermination of Native Americans. On the other hand, she says, historic documents also describe a more nefarious philosophy -- taking the children away from a reservation would promote good behavior of their families left behind.

Thomason said a historical irony is that the schools produced prominent Native American artists and activists who learned fluency at the schools and then worked to close them. Famed U.S. athlete Jim Thorpe began his athletic career at the Carlisle school.

“Everybody’s got a different story about this experience,’’ Thomason said. “I wouldn’t say that someone who remembers the school fondly is wrong. That was their experience. Sometimes, children were put in the schools to get them away from tuberculosis outbreaks or poverty.”

Here are more excerpts from a recent interview with Thomason:

What prompted you to become a professional storyteller?

Thomason: I have been surrounded by storytellers my whole life.  I have seen how effective storytelling is. How powerful it is.  It reaches people in a different way than lectures.

And there was a gap in people’s education when it came to native people. We were still talking about native people in the past tense. And talking about aspects of material culture: They lived in tepees and longhouses. They ate corn.

It was very archaeological and nothing about what the people believed and what was important to us. How we interacted with others when cultures came together on this continent. To tell stories is a wonderful way to share the heart of a people. It is what’s important -- not the dry data about names and dates and what we ate and what our houses used to look like.

What message would you like people to take away from your story about the boarding schools?

Thomason: The common American response is, “It’s so sad. I think it’s horrible what happened to the Indian people.’’ And there’s sorrow and sometimes shame or sometimes a rather aggressive denial. I believe we need to move past those responses. I do not perceive myself or that this piece of history makes me in any way a victim. This is not based in anger. This is based in what is the legacy for our children.

The message that means the most to me is, “How can we move beyond surviving?’’ We survived the federal policy that was meant to end our existence, either physically or culturally, as a distinct people in this country. What have we done with that? What can we do with that? It’s not enough to be a survivor. You want your children to be self-aware people who have a huge range of choices and will make a difference.

It is interesting that your family members -- who shared many traditional stories -- never spoke of their experiences regarding school.

Thomason: Each generation wants to protect their children from the horror that has happened, but it is something that cannot be forgotten. It has to be transmuted into something that isn’t destructive anymore. The balance has to be restored. Healing has to take place. It has to be told and whatever shame or fear or negative things that restrain us from talking have to be confronted.

Storytellers come from either the desire for change or the desire to teach or to share something. I don’t think anybody says, “I’m going to go out there and entertain.’’ The desire is to communicate. This is important. I need to share it.

You now live in Pennsylvania, near the Carlisle school. What was your reaction the first time you visited the site?

Thomason: I drove past it on the highway for years. It scared me. It’s just down the road from Gettysburg, and everybody stops at Gettysburg and grieves and says, “Something horrible happened here. Brother against brother.’’ Something happened at Carlisle, too, that was brother against brother. It was children. I go past Gettysburg, and I shudder. I go past Carlisle, and I shudder.

There’s a cemetery [at Carlisle] and when you go by a cemetery at a place that’s near an Army barracks, you think it’s military. But this is [a cemetery of] children. It’s Indian children who never made it home.

This story has to be told without beating people up with images of headstones. I don’t want people to be horrified. Or ashamed. Or sad. I want us to take the next step. Why do we have such a difficult time dealing with these histories? How can we look at them differently? We avoid them because they’re painful or they’re conflicted. We’re clever people. We’re good people, but there are still cultures where people are trying to subvert or assimilate or undermine other people.

The premises [of Carlisle] are fundamentally flawed. Can I find fault with the Quakers and abolitionists and suffragists at the time who said, ‘You are not going to exterminate all the native people’? Their intention was to stop extermination. You can’t find fault with it. But if you don’t think these things through, your intentions only get you so far and then the politics of the situation twists and turns things and despite your intentions to save children’s lives they were stripped from their families, their communities, their cultures, their languages. And they were traumatized forever. For those children, this is a true statement.

You point out that other nations are also dealing with similar legacies regarding native peoples.

Thomason: There are countries from South Africa to Canada dealing with issues of reconciliation. My daughter did research on this story in a personal way: She interviewed her grandpa who went to one of the schools in Canada. She went around the reservation talking to people who are part of the program of the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission] in Canada, which we don’t have in this country.

We need an informed citizenry. Native Americans are a small percentage of the population in this country. Issues are unresolved. These things haven’t been acknowledged. The public should be informed so they know how to respond. 

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.