Patricia Heinicke, Jr.
The rez ramps up the fear factor of any scary activity. Halloween. Spooky stories. Camping. B-grade horror movies. You already live in a state of low-grade anxiety, where ghosts walk the earth for real—what more do you need for the ultimate fright fest?
You need a basement. A dorm basement. A boarding school dorm basement.
* * *
I have to confess right off that there are huge, confounding gaps in my memory. But I am confident that a few days after my eleventh birthday, in August 1972, my family moved from a small green college town peopled by Missouri Synod Lutherans of German descent to a tiny high-desert village peopled by American Indians.
A rough dirt road curved down off the highway into the village, with its rough homes and rez runners, its liberated dogs. A quarter mile or so down, the road hit pavement and the school grounds. Just beyond the school was a field, and then school staff housing—a single block of one-story houses with lap siding in U.S. military surplus pastels. Our house was on the northeast corner of this block.
A stone’s throw from our house, on this side of the field, stood the two dorms, relatively imposing both in size and design. They were the only brick buildings in sight, two stories, plus basements and attics, with dormers and pitched roofs and porches and everything. The dorms, which had “served” the region’s reservations since the school was established in 1904, had until very recently been staffed by federal employees.
* * *
One night after we had lived there for some time, our parents pitched the camper in the yard and let the four of us girls sleep out there. From our beds we could look out at the dorms and the school beyond. Bats fluttered in the lamplight, and the air was permeated with spirits. By this time we knew enough to imagine the Little Hairy Man running down from the hills behind us, or the Rolling Head, freed from its body to terrorize us. We stared at the dorms until our eyes hurt, looking for the woman in the long white dress said to haunt its hallways.
The skin of the camper top was too thin to withstand any of them, and we never slept out there again.
* * *
We had made the move because things were changing. In 1971, the tribe had elected to take control of the school, pursuant to the recent federal legislation that permitted recognized tribes to assume control over a number of BIA-operated programs. A school board was elected to prepare tribal operations and develop policies governing staff, finance, administration, and other aspects of school operations. In the spring of 1972, the board began to hire nonfederal teaching and support staff, and the school opened under tribal control that September. My father was hired as curriculum developer; he would serve in a variety of other roles in the five years we lived there.
Most of the members of the new school board and many parents of the school’s students had experienced federally run schools first hand, and not surprisingly, the board determined that eventually the school’s dormitories should be closed. But until that could be arranged, the dorms were administered by the elected school board, and run by people it hired.
* * *
Like many kids of our heritage, my brothers and sisters and I took in a lot of what transpired around us without explicit question. And I did not question the dorms; they were simply there. I did not know that for decades the dorm kids had been taken every fall from their families, perhaps without explanation, perhaps in that silence that comes over generations of this same routine, to a place where the violence was institutionalized as well as random, where it came from non-Indian adults in authority as well as from other children. None of this was spoken of in my hearing. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the non-Indian children who lived in our house before us, perhaps the children of dorm staff hired by the BIA, had been as ignorant as I about what went on in there, yelling distance from their home.
Now we are learning more about what went on “in there” throughout the boarding school system. What happened there, some may point out, occurs everywhere children are housed by strangers away from home without strict protective oversight. But in the reservation boarding school dorms it was more than that. Here there was not only physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, but cultural ravaging. If teachers can abuse their power at elite East Coast boarding schools, imagine how much more impunity was leveraged by those who found themselves with power over children they saw as the vanquished. Here there was no promise of escape to a better life after graduation. Here the dynamic was shaped by the peculiar history of Indian Country, a history of brutality and dispersion, of both resignation and resistance.
As in other dorms across the system, the generations of terrified, uprooted children haunted the place. And us kids? Although we did not question, although we were not given the facts, we did see what we saw, and we did believe in ghosts. And even for us outsiders, us white kids, the spirits were undeniable.
* * *
Movie night was usually held in the school auditorium. Every so often, those big reels of film would appear, selected by some student group or another. (I remember the catalog, and thinking about budget, so I must have been involved at some point.) There wasn’t much else for young people to do, so for movies it was usually standing room only. This was about as close as I could get to “going out,” and I can still recall the birr of adolescence quickening the darkness at the back of that auditorium.
Mostly the scary movies remain for me now: The Frozen Dead, Count Yorga, Cheyenne Autumn. In a perverse way, those movies opened up for us the outside world, and they all had their particular impact on me: The Frozen Dead added a new level of horror to my growing obsession with the history of Nazism. Count Yorga was just plain scary; it kept me awake with the light on. And Cheyenne Autumn, not well known as a horror flick, complicated my lived existence as a miserable sinner and white girl with the cinematic truth of my nation’s sins.
But for some reason one particular movie was shown not in the auditorium, but in the basement of one of the dorms. Probably the dorm staff sponsored the event. Up for our viewing pleasure this time: Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Many things about this movie struck me: the color and exuberance of the Parisians, the extravagance of the costumes, the novel idea of being smothered by a pillow, having acid thrown in one’s face, or being buried alive. But other things were somehow familiar—the heightened emotions, the bizarre events difficult to distinguish from the theatrical or from the past, the meaningful nightmares. And, truth be told, the large shadowy buildings with hidden passages, perhaps bodies. The specifics were fantastic, but the mood, the atmosphere, seemed akin to ours. The rez, especially during adolescence, is nothing if not fraught. Some might say haunted.
Now I doubt that the dorm staff was making a statement with the showing of this film. I can report nothing dramatic from that night. The community held a gathering, and then everyone went home. But looking back I can’t help but wonder if with that movie, in that place, something was said. Something about us. Something about the dorms.
* * *
Tribal control of the school was necessary but not sufficient to overcome the ravages of the reservation system. Usually still portrayed as a place of dire poverty, the reservation continues to provide evidence for all of the worst stereotypes we can conjure up of the oft-cited “bleak reservation environment”: a long history of poverty with entrenched, systemic causes, and intergenerational psychosocial damage resulting from years of forced cultural change and subjugation—both resulting in heightened vulnerability to despair and depression, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, violence, and poor health.
This is clearly part of the truth of the matter: The rez structure breaks people. The place itself, the land, the traditions that come from the land and from the people’s experience and memory, these and other forces can counter this brokenness—they can lift people up and bring people together. But the imposed structure is wrong, and what it is based on is wrong.
With the keen eyes of childhood my siblings and I could see this truth: The rez is what happens to you in America when you lose. My youngest sister, who was five when we moved there, saw it perhaps most clearly and immediately; as soon as she was able, she left the country and never came back.
We didn’t just see it, we partook of it. The rez happened to every one of us who lived there—Indian and non-Indian. We all experienced, in varying combinations and degrees, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and we all witnessed the traumas experienced by others. Many among our schoolmates went hungry and ill clothed, some did not have heat or running water, and someone froze to death every winter.
All of this goes without saying. Little of this has changed.
The main problem for me in the decades after we left was that I saw my resulting brokenness as evidence of my worthlessness, rather than as evidence that the system was broken. I thought I had been targeted, scapegoated, guilty. I felt exiled. (The specifics of my brokenness should evoke nothing more than the specifics of my classmates’ brokenness. My brokenness is not remarkable. People gasp, they can’t believe it when I, over time, reveal more of it, laying piece upon piece into its own little pile. But it’s nothing, relatively speaking. If anything, my brokenness should evoke less, as I am still alive and have benefitted from decades of education and therapy and whiteness.)
I didn’t know even what my siblings went through, much less anyone else. Indeed, the thing that strikes me most now is not the conditions themselves, but how isolating it all was. It’s probably safe to say that most, if not all of us kids—Indian and non-Indian alike—suffered alone. There were no school psychologists, no group counselors, and no PSAs about how to handle bullying or abuse. Families were not schooled in openness or discussion. Even if we had known how to contact the police, I for one wasn’t clear on who the police were or if they were allowed to protect me. I was actually pretty sure I didn’t deserve protection, and I now know that I was not alone in this assumption.
The isolation made it difficult to find a safe place. Many of us faced torment both inside and outside the home, and so had only moments of freedom—say, in sport, or nature, or certain classrooms. I never imagined that anyone found security in the dorms.
* * *
In the years after we moved away from the village, I recalled the dorms as particularly dark and scary places. My memories of them focused mostly on the dorm kids I knew, on the ghost said to haunt their halls, and on that movie night in the basement. Gradually my recollections became colored by what I learned about BIA boarding schools in general, and by what people have told me about their experiences at this particular school.
But now, as I learn more about what others went through, my memories are becoming somehow less complicated. The more I place myself within this community of people touched by the rez, instead of irrevocably outside it, the more I see that there is no one to blame for it, not even myself. And somehow that makes it easier to talk about it, safer to get angry about it, more possible to think about what can be done about it.
I visited again last year, after being away for thirty-five years. The dorms had been razed in 1984, and the empty place where they stood seemed a mere absence, as if those two old buildings were simply out on a walk in the hills and might suddenly return. On Google satellite images, you can still see their imprints, rectangular shadows on the land. With my typical pessimistic foreboding, I imagined that those shadows would remain forever, or at least as long as their stories remain silent or ignored.
But the rez, and Indian Country in general, is a complex place with a complex history, peopled by individuals who choose to live there for positive as well as negative reasons. The land is itself an entity, a place that produces both brilliance and despair. The people have a long history of resistance to the negative forces in their lives, whether that be exploitive federal policies, profit-driven coal companies, or toxic thinking clothed in religiosity. Who knows, maybe one day, poof!—the ghosts will be gone.
Recently I remembered that the boys’ dorm had a rec room, with a foosball table and a soda machine. Village kids could come there and hang out. The room is sunny in my recollection, and relatively relaxed. I was also reminded of a pool tournament held there, which my dad, improbably, won. And a friend who stayed in the dorm in the late seventies, while his mom was in another state receiving treatment for a stroke, tells me he has fond memories of the place.
All of this makes me wonder about those years after 1972. I wonder if the dorms, with their communal living and presumably more careful, sensitive oversight, became a kind of safe haven, at least for some kids. I wonder if some of their haunted history was healed.