Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 35 Number 3
Spring 1996


Brenda Child

Rebellion was a common feature of government boarding school life during the period from 1900 to 1940. Boarding schools imposed stringent regulations regarding home visits, and running away allowed students and families to circumvent the harsh system. Letters written by students and family members reveal factors that motivated students to run away, the different forms rebellion took, and the strong emotional history of the boarding school experience. Letters show that rebellion evoked anger and frustration in administrators, anguish and worry in parents, and demonstrate the considerable humor, resilience and resourcefulness of boarding school students.

In September of 1907, a teen-aged runaway from the Haskell Indian boarding school in Kansas, Isaac Plenty Hoops, wrote the following letter to his father from Missouri:Whether one agrees or not with Castile's characterization of some Indian policy as "afterthought," he reminds us that to fully understand Indian education we must look beyond the boundaries of particular Indian schools and Indian educational policies. Sometimes, however, it is through attention to the particular that the web of connections to the larger world is made visible. Indeed, at the level of the individual, we can trace routes as ideas become realities, "influences" dictate actions, and personalities shape institutions.

Dear Father,

I am working in St. Joseph, Missouri and get $1.75 a day. If you want me to go home write and tell me and send me some money to go home. I am not going to tell you why I run away in this letter but I will tell you when I get there, I guess I will tell you some so you understand. I do not like the food and we have to pay for everything we do. I am going home so you must not be sorry I will get there some day if you send the money. I have to pay 15.00 dollar to go home if you send it I go home right away.

Let some white man write if you right so I can get it. I am getting along fine and I hope you are the same. Do you know that I ran away from school? I know you want to know where I am so I am going to tell you. I have not much to say so I have to close. So good bye.

Answer Soon
Your Son
Isaac Plenty Hoops (see Note 1)

Isaac Plenty Hoops was one of many Native students during the boarding school era who expressed his overwhelming frustration with school life by running away. Administrators from the government schools, acting in cooperation with Indian agents back on the reservations, spent much of their time trying to track down these runaways, or "deserters," as officials called the recalcitrant students. Rewards were offered to town-dwellers near the government schools who captured runaways, and railroad officials were encouraged to advise their workers not to allow Indian children to ride their trains. As a further preventative measure, Native students were sometimes locked up in rooms at boarding school to prevent their desertions, as was the case after two Wisconsin boys, Isadore Doxtator from Oneida and Francis DeMarr from Hayward broke out of Flandreau in 1925 and were later apprehended in Nebraska (see Note 2). A concerted effort was made to prevent such escapes, but Native students like Isadore and Francis were remarkably resourceful and usually succeeded in their efforts to break out of school. By the time of Isaac Plenty Hoops' departure in 1908, and certainly during the Wisconsin boys' terms at Flandreau, desertions were as common a feature of boarding school life as dull uniforms and monotonous food.

Native students sometimes explained why they felt compelled to run away from boarding school. Their stories illustrate the shortcomings of the Indian education system as it developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Isaac Plenty Hoops said he disliked the poor boarding school diet. Other children complained that they were poorly treated by teachers, felt burdened by the work load, or were unhappy with the kind of work they were assigned at school. Homesickness was a persistent problem. When loneliness or tensions inevitably surfaced, the typical response of Indian students was to abandon school, usually for the security of family and tribe, though for some running away turned into an unexpected adventure.

In the fall of 1913, a boy named Charlie deserted the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota, after complaining to his family about continually being assigned to the school's farm detail. Charlie had little interest in farm work, and had come to Flandreau expecting to learn a trade. Charlie's mother knew her son was unhappy, and wrote to the school saying, "Charlie has always wanted to learn a trade and thought that he surely would be allowed to . . . this winter and I also wanted him to learn a trade as he has to depend on his self to make a living" (see Note 3). Charlie had also confided to his family that a teacher at Flandreau had mistreated him in the past, and his mother reasoned with the school's superintendent in her letter, asking him to deal with her son fairly, consider his request to learn a vocation, and not overwork the boy upon his return. Like many Indian parents, Charlie's mother considered counseling, rather than harsh punishment, a more productive way of dealing with children and she asked the superintendent,

if Charlie is found and taken back to the school please do not be to hard on him as I cannot help but think there must have been something that was very hard for him to do or he would not have ran away . . . I don't know if it will be of any good to say it [b]ut I can do so much more with Charlie by talking to him in the right way.

Like a true Indian mother, she also firmly informed the administrator that if the situation did not improve for her son, and if Charlie's teacher "hurt him in any way I just feel like sett[l]ing with [him] myself" (see Note 4).

For most of the boarding school era, visits home were infrequent and frowned upon by administrators who believed that they impeded the assimilation of Indian children. In fact, visiting was deliberately made difficult by a school policy that dictated that trips home, when permitted, were to be paid for by families rather than the school, and Indians were responsible for putting up funds for a round-trip deposit before students were sent home for the summer. Though some families managed to save enough money to pay for the fare home, they often lacked the resources for the advance deposit. As a consequence, students who missed their families, and who could not afford the expense of train travel, or those who simply wanted to avoid the bureaucratic details of gaining formal permission to go home, often just skipped the premises. After a lengthy stay in boarding school, most students grew weary of the regimentation and confinement, and some defiantly left for home. A young Chippewa girl from the Red Lake Reservation offered this simple explanation after she and an accomplice broke out of Flandreau late one Saturday night, saying "We wanted to go home because we were just sick of this place" (see Note 5).

Runaways were frequently considered hard-working students who were well behaved while in school, and their first desertions often caught officials by surprise. A 15-year-old boy, Martin, from Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, became a chronic deserter from Flandreau, although the superintendent acknowledged that the "boy is quite well behaved when he is in school" (see Note 6). Nevertheless, within a single year Martin had been discovered in Elkton, South Dakota, in Wilmar, Pipestone, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and in Chicago, Illinois. Girls were just as inclined to run away as boys, and one year the matron at Flandreau reported that Mary Badboy had the distinction of holding "the run away record for the year" (see Note 7).

Parents of runaways had mixed feelings about their children's desertions. When runaways came home, they were almost always made welcome by families happy to see their long-absent children. However, when students deserted school and their whereabouts were unknown, parents agonized until they learned their children were safe. In the spring of 1926, a girl named Grace left Flandreau. When Grace's mother in North Dakota heard the news, her response was to say

this is the first time [Grace] ran away and I hope shell never do it again . . . when I think of it made me cry and I cannot forget it . . . but [I am] so far away and I cannot do anything but cry. (see Note 8)

The following year, a family from Keshena, Wisconsin also learned that their girl, Rose, had deserted Flandreau, and Rose's mother confided, "what I am worry about she might get hurt" (see Note 9). And when Henry Smith's son left Flandreau for his home in Minnesota in October 1924, the man wrote an angry letter to the superintendent of the school saying, "What for did he runaway? I want to ask you what you call it when he left his Suitcase over there when he came here, he all most [didn't] have any shoes" (see Note 10). Though Mr. Smith clearly wanted his boy to have an education at Flandreau, he was in no hurry to relinquish his son, and he said to the administrator, "I send him when I feel like it" (see Note 11).

Indian families in the upper Midwest were especially concerned about children deserting school during the winter. In December 1924, a Flandreau boy's grandfather wrote to the school in order to warn the superintendent "to keep close watch on my Grandson [Barney] so he may not run away from your School."" Barney's family lived in northern Wisconsin, and as his grandfather pointed out, "it is a bad time as you know for any one to run away . . . [Barney] has threaten that he would run away when ever he has a chance to do so so do not give him a chance" (see Note 13). During the winter of 1909, a boy named William from the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota, who had deserted from Haskell in September, solved his problem of being on the run in frigid weather by dropping in at the Flandreau boarding school for winter accommodations. Superintendent Peairs of Haskell sent a letter to his counterpart at Flandreau, asking him to hold the boy until Peairs had time to retrieve him by car. If the boy were not closely supervised, Peairs warned, he would "probably skip early in the spring" (see Note 14).

Native communities, often sympathetic to the plight of boarding school runaways, were known to shelter Indian children from authorities who tried to arrest and return them to school. The Iowa tribe of northeastern Kansas developed a reputation among school administrators for taking in runaways from Haskell. In 1908, after authorities had been unable to track down a runaway named Jesse, Superintendent Peairs at Haskell thought Jesse, though from Pine Ridge, was likely to be still in Kansas because "We have had one or two reports from that section of the country that strange Indian boys have been seen in that community" (see Note 15). Peairs complained that the Iowa Indians "harbor the Indian boy runaways and do everything to assist them in avoiding arrest" (see Note 16).

While some Indian communities gave asylum to runaways, others ignored compulsory attendance laws and simply did not send their children to school, either on or off the reservations. Communities sometimes encouraged children to leave boarding schools they considered inadequate, and others refused to cooperate with officials who tried to apprehend deserters. During the 1920s, the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School in North Dakota was boycotted by people from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation. A school inspector who worked to apprehend runaways commented that there had arisen

a prejudice against the Wahpeton school . . . [by] Indians of this Reservation founded upon tales spread by disgruntled parents and runaway boys, and undoubtedly this feeling is responsible for the epidemic of desertion of pupils, the difficulty of getting our children to return from vacation on time, and the clamor of parents for transfer of their children to other schools. (see Note 17)

For some Indians, like the residents at Sisseton-Wahpeton, fostering deserters became a viable form of protest against a substandard school. A site on the Big Sioux River, not far from the town of Flandreau, came to be generally known by the townspeople as the place "where girls go that run away from the Indian School." Boarding school girls were granted fewer privileges than boys, and were more likely to be chaperoned on their outings from campus. Female runaways were more obvious to the townspeople of Lawrence and Flandreau, thus affecting their success as deserters. A significant number of runaways, especially girls, were apprehended near government schools after they had grown hungry, tired, or weary of sleeping outdoors. Two Red Lake girls said they camped by the river after leaving Flandreau, but grew discouraged over being "awake at nights because there were too many mosquitoes" and shortly after this brief foray returned to school (see Note 18).

However, for some boarding school students, running away turned into one of the great adventures of their youth. This was the case for a young boy named Victor, a White Earth Chippewa boy, born in 1914, and his "partner," Morris, another Chippewa boy from Hayward, Wisconsin. While teenagers, both were students at the Flandreau School in South Dakota. On February 20, 1931, Victor's father learned from the White Earth agent that his son had deserted school. That same day, a remorseful Victor wrote the following letter to his father from Hayward, Wisconsin:

Dear Dad

I suppose you will be surprised to know that I am here. I know I have made a big mistake and it is hard for me to think of the grief it will cause you Dad.

Dad I was discouraged I just went mad. I realize what I have done and am very sorry. I'll go back next year and like it. The main thing is getting out of here and home now. I have had good luck in the bum world but I don't like it somehow. We left Flandreau Saturday afternoon about four o'clock. We slept in a straw stack Sat. night. Stayed there all day Sunday. 11:30 we caught a passenger out of Pipestone to Wilmar from there we caught another passenger from there. From Granite City, I think it was, we rode a deadheader to Minneapolis. We walked all day and slept in a straw stack. In the morning we finished our journey to Hudson. Here we got each an orange, three graham crackers, [for] 30c. We bought a loaf of bread, can of sardines, three milky ways and some chocolate peanuts. We then caught a time freight from there to Spooner. We rode between the cars from Hudson to New Richmond. Otherwise we rode the blinds and a dead-header all the way. We walked 29 miles from Spooner to Hayward and then ten miles to my partners home.

They are good to me here. Insisted I stay till I get rested up. I was going on, but they insisted. It is a nice place.

Dad I just want to forget the cause of my running away. I have to get home Dad. Write and tell me what you think. I hate to start bumming for home but I can't raise any money.

I'll promise I'll do my best to make up for my mistake.

Your son
Victor" (see Note 19)

By early March, Victor and his traveling companion, Morris, had been sent for by automobile by the school superintendent, George Peters. The superintendent assured Victor's father that he would have a "good talk" with Victor, try to determine the cause of his dissatisfaction, and re-arrange "his program so he would have special opportunities in the shops." By March 3, 193 1, the boys were back at Flandreau and Victor had promised "to make good." He offered no explanation for leaving except to say "he had not heard from home for so long so he decided to go and see what was the matter" (see Note 21).

Running away was the most popular form of protest used by boarding school students, but certainly not the only kind of rebellion. In 1912, the Haskell students sent a petition to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, asking him to close their school. The embarrassed Haskell superintendent, J. R. Wise, dismissed the petition as a hoax by students who "did not appreciate their opportunity" to attend Haskell, but he nonetheless interrogated students whose names appeared on the list and worked hard for several weeks to discover the identity of those who had devised the scheme. Wise later speculated that the petition had been started by students from "the five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma" or perhaps by a student "who was held here against his own personal wishes" (see Note 22).

In 1918, a boy named Joseph was expelled from Flandreau after "attempting to burn the small Boys' Dormitory" (see Note 23). Joseph's attempt at arson was not an isolated case among the Indian schools. Many years earlier, in 1891, a "mysterious" fire destroyed a boarding school for Winnebago students, after which "the children were all sent home" (see Note 24).

In 1919, a full scale rebellion had to be put down at Haskell. The rebellion occurred one Thursday evening in October, soon after a number of students had assembled in the chapel to hear a speaker who had been invited to the school. Just as Haskell's assistant principal went up on stage to introduce the speaker, all the lights in the building went out. Thinking that a fuse was the problem, the principal left to examine the switchboard. Finding everything in order, the principal went outside and was shocked to find the entire campus darkened, and all the Haskell boys lined up on the road.

While the principal tried to gain control of the situation, the Haskell students broke loose, smashing light fixtures, looting the food supply, and ringing the school bell. Several boys still standing on the road were said to have yelled "Are you with us-" to a group of girls who had not yet joined in the rebellion. Another boy reportedly shouted, "Let's string him up!" as the principal worked to restore order. After a full evening of commotion and considerable damage to the school, the student rebellion ended. After the episode, nine Haskell students were quickly expelled for insubordination and damage to property. Four Haskell boys were also sent home, including the one who had cut the cable, turning off the campus lights, and the boy who had shouted, "Let's string him up!" (see Note 25). Five girls were also expelled for taking an active part in the rebellion.

This incident in 1919 was no doubt the most organized student protest that took place at Haskell or Flandreau during the boarding school era. Most rebellions were small, personal, and far more subtle. But rebellion was a permanent feature of boarding school life, and runaways and stories of resistance figure prominently in the Haskell and Flandreau records during the years they operated as Indian boarding schools. Some spirited Indian children never adjusted to boarding school life, and their time at school was sheer misery punctuated by episodes of rebellion. This was the unfortunate situation of a young Mesquakie boy named Gaston, who wrote a series of letters to his mother begging her to get him out of boarding school. Gaston was a sensitive boy, prone to getting into trouble, and once wrote home after a fight at school, saying "I got a black eye and I didn't eat for 2 days now. And I am sick about coming back home. Help me out. Please!" (see Note 26).

Gaston felt that he and other Indian boys at Flandreau were unfairly criticized by school officials who belittled them by commenting on their poverty and poor clothes. Gaston talked about this in one of his letters to his mother, written after he and two other Mesquakie boys had been called into the superintendent's office.

Gaston wrote:

Well, I am going to tell you what they told me this morning. Of course, it isn't me alone. All of us Truman Norval and myself. But I don't like what they told me. This morning they called us in the office. First they ask us why we don't make our beds. Heck! We always make them before we leave. But no use. After we told them what they ask us, they start talk about me. They don't like how I dress. Handkerchief around my neck. Poor jacket and all that. How dirty my clothes was. They told me this: Maybe you think we're going to buy you a new Jacket. Well, I told them this, if you advisers don't like the way I dress you can send me home. Boy! They sure got mad. You know that's the only Jacket I got. I told them that too. so I don't like that what they told me. I almost cry too. so please try and send for me. I am willing to come back. If you can do nothing, go up to Dr. Nelson [the Mesquakie superintendent] tell him what I said. I want to get out of here soon. I also don't like it up here. It no good for me. So do your best. You can show him this paper. I like to get out of here sometime next week. Do your best mother! Please!

Well, I guess I better close here for this time until I hear from you again. Answer soon and be sure to do your part. Answer right away.

Your Son
Gaston (see Note 27)

As it turned out, Gaston did not return home to his family that year, even though his parents were very anxious about him. The local superintendent worked hard with Gaston's parents in the Mesquakie community in order to gain their promise not to immediately send money for him to return. Later in the school year, according to the school administrator, Gaston and his Mesquakie school mates were adjusting better to Flandreau. The boys had even received a great deal of favorable attention at school, after traveling to Omaha to perform on a Mutual Broadcasting radio show, where they sang a Mesquakie dance song and a deer hunting song.

From Gaston's perspective, however, boarding school had changed little. This was his last correspondence to the Flandreau school, addressed to the school superintendent:

I am now answering your letter about school and I am sorry to say that I am not coming back, but that's it, I am not coming back, because I am in the same fix as last year, not enough clothes and everything else.

Gaston. (see Note 28)

Native children who attended government boarding schools were frequently rebellious. When students deserted school or were defiant in other ways, they often found sympathy from parents and other tribal adults, who believed that boarding school pupils were justified in their resistance. At the same time, running away was rarely easy for children, who often expressed ambivalence and regret about their behavior. For most runaways the decision to desert was a last resort; it was a way of coping with the many inadequacies of the boarding school institution.

  1. National Archives, Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs [hereafter NA, RG 75, BIA], Haskell Indian School, September 8, 1907. The records of the National Archives contain hundreds of letters written by boarding school students and their family members. Many of the letters students wrote to their families at home ended up in the boarding school files because parents frequently enclosed them with letters they sent to superintendents detailing problems. For examples of boarding school letters see Child, 1993.
  2. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Indian School, Superintendent's Correspondence, April 8, 1925.
  3. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau, letter from parent, Wakpala, South Dakota, October, 1913.
  4. Ibid.
  5. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Student File, Miscellaneous Reports on Student Misconduct, April 6, 1942.
  6. NA, RG 75, BIA. Flandreau, Superintendent's Correspondence, December 1931.
  7. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau, Matron's Report, July 20, 1933.
  8. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau, letter from parent, Oberon, North Dakota, May 28, 1926.
  9. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Student File, parent's letter, Keshena, Wisconsin, April 1927.
  10. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau, parent's letter, Ponsford, Minnesota, October 1924.
  11. Ibid.
  12. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau, letters from family, Suring, Wisconsin, December 29, 1924, and February 6, 1925.
  13. Ibid.
  14. NA, RG 75, BIA, Haskell, Superintendent's Correspondence, October 12, 1909.
  15. NA, RG 75, BIA, Haskell, Superintendent's Correspondence, Pine Ridge Agency, January 20, 1908.
  16. Ibid.
  17. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau, Inspectors' Correspondence, October 1928.
  18. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Student File, July 25, 1941.
  19. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Student File, letter from student, Hayward, Wisconsin, February 20, 1931.
  20. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Student File, letter from Superintendent George Peters, March 2, 1931.
  21. Ibid.
  22. NA, RG 75, BIA, Superintendent's Miscellaneous Correspondence, letter from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, June 28, 1911.
  23. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau, Miscellaneous Superintendent's Correspondence, August 20,1918.
  24. This and other incidents of boarding school arson are discussed in Adams (1988).
  25. This interesting event was discussed in detail by the assistant principal at Haskell in a letter written to H. B. Peairs in the Indian Office in Washington, D.C. NA, RG 75, BIA, Haskell, October 24, 1919.
  26. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Student File, letter from student, November 23, 1941.
  27. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Student File, letter from student, January, 1942.
  28. NA, RG 75, BIA, Flandreau Student File, letter from student, August 26, 1942.

Brenda Child, Programs in American Studies and American Indian Studies; The University of Minnesota.

My research and writing about boarding schools and American Indian families has been supported by the Graduate College of the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the University of Minnesota. I would like to thank Professor Karen Swisher for suggesting this special issue about boarding schools and Professor Tsianina Lowawaima for her own exemplary scholarship in studying the history of the American Indian boarding school experiences.


Adams, D. W. (1988). From bullets to boarding schools: The educational assault on the American Indian identity. In P. Weeks (Ed.), The American Indian Experience (pp. 230-237). Arlington Heights, IL: Forum Press.

Child, B. (1993). Homesickness, illness and death: Native American girls in government Boarding Schools. Bair, B. and Cayleff, S. (Eds.). Wings of Gauze: Women of Color and the Experience of Health and Illness. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 169-179.

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