BOARDING SCHOOL STATEMENT BY LEONARD PELTIER TO BE READ INTO THE RECORD SPECIFICALLY FOR THE BLUE SKIES FOUNDATION TRIBUNAL HELD IN ONEIDA WISCONSIN ON OCTOBER 22-25th 2014
By Leonard Peltier
In the fall of 1953 I was living with my widowed Grand mother Mary Dubois Peltier (originally from Canada), my sister Betty Ann and cousin Pauline Peltier. I was 9 yrs. old Betty and Pauline 6 years old. We lived in a log cabin made into two rooms on what was known as the highest hill on the rez. Grandpa (Alex O. Peltier) built it in the late 40's. Grandpa had just passed from pneumonia around Nov or Dec, 1953. We were living on the Turtle Mountain Little Shell Band of Native Nations in Belcourt, North Dakota.
On this particular fall September day, I was outside playing, waiting for breakfast. I could see coming down the road a few miles from our place this huge cloud of dust that could only be made from a high speeding car. I knew the only people who had cars that went that fast was the B.I. A. I knew that I was supposed to run into the woods and hide, this was normal and as children, we were taught this from an early age. If we didn't hide, the government would steal us and we may never be returned. I was curious and wanted to see where this car was going so fast. I watched as if in a trance and hypnotically watched as this car drove right up into our dirt drive way. This white man got out and started to talk with our grandma.
Unknown to him, grandma could speak very little English and was having a difficult time understanding him. I also could not speak good English and had a hard time understanding him, but I heard the words boarding school. Those are words all Native children knew, and would become terrified at hearing them spoken. I became scared. I wanted to run and flee into the woods to hide but I did not want to leave my grandma, sister and cousin. All I wanted to do now was to start crying and screaming to leave us alone. I could see that this man was getting frustrated and angry as hell because grandma was not understanding everything he was saying. I was now afraid he would hurt them.
Grandma was telling me, "Leonard, run and hide” ( in midcef, a French and Chippewa Language Native people created). But I felt as if I was hypnotized. I could not move and stood frozen in place. Finally, grandma understood that she could be taken to jail. As she cried, she told us we had to go with this man or he would take her to jail and take us anyway. Betty and Pauline started to scream and cry, which made chills run up and down the back of my neck. Grandma kept saying to me that I had to be strong, to be a man and take care of my sister and cousin. She said, "Don’t let them see you crying, or they will punish you." BUT I didn't want to be a man. I wanted to cry for help. I have not let them see me cry since, even when my supporters had them give me a bedside phone call in prison when my father passed.
We were being driven at a very high speed and I could see nothing but a large cloud of dust through the rear window, on our way to Belcourt, our main community on the REZ. In the Belcourt school yard, we could see school’s late 1940's or 1950's yellow buses lined up. Poor Betty and Pauline was still crying and making pitiful baby sounds. To this day, I cannot forget those cries. I tried everything to make them stop crying They were so young, I believe today they couldn't stop if they wanted too. The fear on their faces is an image that I have tried to forget but still haunts me all of these years. I tried to explain to them that they had to pay attention because what if we could escape. WE NEEDED TO KNOW WHICH WAY TO GO TO GET HOME. THAT IS All I COULD THINK OF ESCAPING from THESE people WHO captured us, we did not know if we were going to jail or what, as no one explained anything to us, except we were going to a boarding school. We were taught to run from them and into the woods, or when our elders wanted to scare us into being good, they would threaten to take us to what had to be to us, a monster, an Indian boarding school, that was all I could think about for the next 250-300 miles. I just didn't know how i was going to protect my sister and cousin.
IT seemed as if we had traveled all day. I remember we had one stop to use the bathrooms at a Roadside rest stop. In those days, they were all out-houses. Betty and Pauline would not budge from their seats so I had to beg them to go to the bathroom. They gave us a sandwich to eat but the girls would not eat so I put the sandwiches in my pockets, just in case we escaped. I found out later they would not eat UNTIL THE FOLLOWING DAY AND THAT WAS ONLY AFTER THEY SAW ME IN The DINNING HALL.
Betty tells me she doesn't remember all of that. I guess that was one memory she never wanted to remember. Who would? I know I have tried to forget them memories all of my life. Pauline never fully recovered. She was put in a mental institution in Grafton, North Dakota for a number of years, until the laws in the late 60's and 70's became more liberal and she was released. They claim she fell off the cement steps at the boarding school and had a mild brain damage. I went to visit her once and could not stand what I saw. I could never go back. I regret that now, and will until my death. I grew up wondering what crime we had committed, except to be told we were just Indians. We arrived a few hours later at Wahpeton Indian school in Wahpeton North Dakota. I would say the time was around 2-3 pm. We were all told to line up and they started to arrange us in age and school grades. I did not know what grade I was in, so when the kid next to me said 3rd, I said yes, third grade.
We were all lined up in rank and file, age and height and made to stand in formation like a reformatory school. We were then marched to what came to be known as Center Hall. They had east side and west side rooms, all in the basement. On the east side was the laundry, barber shop, clothing issue and shower rooms. The west side was recreation rooms for the winter months, and for when it was too cold/raining to go outside.
We were then told to line up before the barber shop chairs and each one of us had our hair cut off and into a military buzz cut. All of a sudden, we all looked different and did not recognize the kids we made friends with. The younger ones began to cry again, us older ones, well, who we now believed were the older ones, tried to make them stop and even gave them hugs to be assured they was still with their friends. One little guy Macloud held on to me with all his might, and became assigned to me to wash, to make sure he got up in the mornings and was in bed at 9:00 pm every night, got to chow, make our beds, which I did not know how myself but was taught by older kids how to put military folds on the foot ends. The boys and girls all ate in the same dining hall.
We then went to the shower room but before we got in line they poured DDT all over us to kill any lice. It burned like hell. Again the younger ones begin to cry. As it got to our turn to go into the shower, since the little guy was hanging onto me, I was told I would have to wash him and was instructed how to use the (what I learned later the same type of soap and brush's used to scrub our cement floors) soap and brush to scrub behind out heels and forearms, elbows and private parts with a wash cloth. Vaseline would be applied to our forearm's, elbows and heels of our feet and with a white towel they would rub those areas and if any dead shin came off, those of us responsible to wash someone would be struck with the thick school ruler. The matron would be doing the hitting. Some of the older kids refused to hit any little ones.They were called the trouble makers, we called them the resisters THE WARRIORS!! The others who would beat the little ones, we called the B.I.A Indians, the sell outs, white mans Indians. We had a lot of names for them.
At this first shower, I got my first taste of this ruler, because the little guy started to cry when I scrubbed/washed him to hard and they found dead shin on the back of his heels. So I quickly joined up with the resisters and hated the matrons and tattletales.
We then went to the laundry section and were issued bib coveralls like farmers used to wear, along with brown work shoes. We were given bed assignment and it was time to eat super/dinner. We were all hungry as hell. I could not wait as I was told I would be able to see Betty and Pauline again.
Earlier I was called and taken to the girls dormitory and told I had to make Betty and Pauline stop crying. I explained to them that I could not stay but I was just right next door and if they did not stop crying they would punish me more. I showed them what they did to my hair and the still visible red marks on my back. I said, “please, don’t cry any more. I'm not going to leave you. Please. We are going to eat soon so I will see you at dinner time."
When we went to chow I saw Betty and Pauline sitting at their assigned table with their heads down. Every once in a while Betty would look up, looking for me. She finally saw me and started to yell to Pauline, "There's Leonard,” waving excitedly! I smiled and signaled to them to eat, so they begin to eat. I don't remember them ever crying for me again.
The first time I was able to meet with them alone in the school yard, I told them that we had to grow up and be strong so that we could escape. It WAS ALMOST 2 YEARS BEFORE I TRIED TO MAKE MY FIRST GET AWAY AND ALMOST DROWNED in the Red River. It was the spring of the year, and my cousin Daniel Peltier told me he wanted to go home and asked if I run away with him. The weather was warming up, BUT I longed for my home and also was lonesome for grandma as she was the only mother I had known or could remember, I told him I could not leave my sister and cousin Pauline. They would miss me, and start to cry again, but Danny was persistent so I agreed. With no money or change of clothes, certainly nothing to eat, we took off not knowing which was the right direction we had to go. We just took off and as we got what we thought was a long ways away, we laughed, cheered and danced around to our new found freedom. Then we came to the Red River and we saw that the ice was thin and would be very dangerous to cross. Since we could not find any place to cross and we knew had to get across, we selected the narrowest place we could find and separated to about 20 feet apart.
I remember being told by other older kids on the Nation how to cross thin ice if I really had too, what to look for, and to listen to the ice. I told Danny, “Watch the ice, and if it cracks look for the shortest route to the rivers Bank. If you have to, lay flat on the ice.” So we began to cross. As we got near the bank, Danny made it and started to laugh in joy. I was probably 4-5 feet to the bank and the ice started to crack, and it cracked so loud, I knew it was going to break. I tried to slide my feet and make myself even lighter than my 90 lbs. I saw this tree limb from a very young tree hanging over the bank and I went for it. Just as I got there the ice gave and I went completely under the ice cold water. My hand grabbed the limb and I hung on and pulled myself back up. when I got my head out of the water grabbed another limb and pulled myself out, Danny grabbed my hand and pulled, and I got back on land, wet as hell but alive. After a few minutes I started to shiver like crazy as it seemed as if the sun went down and it was growing cold fast. I took all of my clothes off and we rung them out and we wondered how to make a fire as it was growing colder fast. It was getting dark fast and I was getting cold so we wondered what to do next. Danny said, “Lets go back,” so we thought about it for a second and decided maybe it was for the best and we started to walk in a chosen direction until we came to a road. We walked for a short distance and a car came by and gave us a life back to the school. We noticed that we had not really gone that far and was sort of ashamed of our attempt to run away.
Now we had to face the music. We decided to say it was both of our ideas and we were lonesome for our homes as we had not seen our parents or relatives for over 2 years. But since we broke the rules we still had to receive our punishment Ten whacks with the ruler on our butts and our hair given another buzz cut and we had to wear over size clothing and shoes so people would know we were runaways. We also could not go to movies in town for a year. That didn't matter anyway, as we did not have any money to buy 10 cents movie tickets.
I was finally able to get out of Wahpeton after changes were made in Washington D.C. 1956, one rule change was they could no longer keep us there if we had some where to go. Now they could no longer hold us there in the summer months, for just minor violations of the rules and so that the employees had a reason for being there and getting a pay check. If our parents wanted to come and get us, we could go home. I wrote a letter to my mom, still thinking I was hundreds of miles away, to see if she would come get us. She came as soon as she got the letter, which was just a couple of days from when I sent it, but she could not take Pauline as she was not her child, which Now came another hard part to this. We had to leave poor Pauline and from we heard she cried for days. Shortly after, she was put in an institution.
So after 3 years, I was out of boarding school's prison. I don't how much has changed since my days. Some say it is no longer like it was in my days, some say it is. I know none of my family/children has ever been put in one of those schools. Yet, I know because some families don't care for their children, some boarding schools are needed. BUT I know my experiences with Wahpeton will be a memory of a hell, I take with me to my death.
I have been a resister to the attempted genocide of my people ever since those days, and for this I will more than likely die in a prison. On February 6th, 2015, I will have served 40 years in a federal prison, even after the prosecutor said in 1984 in a high court, the government doesn't know who killed their agents and have no proof against me, because there is none. I was sentenced to 2 life sentences to run consecutively. When I was indicted a life sentence was 7 years, which means I have served 5 life sentences and 4 years, for resisting genocide against Native people. I am only guilty of being Indian.Boarding School Tribunal Findings and Recommendations
Written Testimony by imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier. Testimony read into the record by Dorothy Ninham, at the Boarding School Tribunal in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014
Govinda of Earthcycles, and Brenda Norrell of Censored News, provided live coverage of the Boarding School Tribunal. Earthcycles provided livestream and video archives, and Censored News provided live print coverage. Both are volunteers and were the only media present at the three-day Boarding School Tribunal on Oneida land in Wisconsin in Oct. 2014.
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