Wakan Tanka


37977783_10217508485087371_2869012130521153536_n.jpg
EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK:  

Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors 


I interviewed Erich Longie (b. /953) in his office located on the Spirit Lake reservation.  Erich works as the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, reflective, soft-spoken, and sipping on tea, he sat for several long interviews after his office closed/or the day.  I knew Erich from our days at the University of North Dakota while we completed our doctoral degrees.  Erich is known nationally for his anti-Fighting Sioux logo activism.

I was born in Devils Lake, North Dakota, in 1953.  During my infant and toddler years, I lived in the East End. The East End was the eastern part of the reservation where my dad grew up. But most of my memories are out in Crow Hill, where my mom was born and raised. My mom and my dad separated when I was a toddler. In Crow Hill, we lived in a two-room frame house; part of it was a frame house; part of it was a log cabin with a porch attached to it. I remember it being warm and cozy. We had a kerosene stove, with three burners, which we cooked on. We always had a lot of dogs. We ran around in the woods, went down to the lake and swam all the time. We explored all the trees and hills within a five-mile radius and played many games to keep us occupied in the evening. I remember my auntie on my dad's side, who stayed with us. We called her Auntie Abu. Abu is a Dakota word that is inserted in a lullaby Dakota mothers used to sing to their babies. "Abu, Abu ...go to sleep... " She used to sleep on the floor behind the kerosene stove; her takoza [grandchild] would sleep with her. Back then the adults would talk nothing but Dakota all the time. It was a good life. I didn't have a care in the world.

I remember the older kids going to school and wondering where they went. One summer day, my cousin Timmy, my sister Becky, and I- I must have been about four years at the time, we went down to the lake to swim. When we arrived at the lake, we saw some smoke coming from where our house was. Becky said, "I want to go see where the fire is coming from." She looked worried when she left. Timmy and I followed her, but we took our time. Becky came running back, and she was crying. She sobbed, "The house is burning down." We went running up the hill, and sure enough, the house was on fire, and there were people around it watching it burn. We lost everything in the house. No one died, but we lost everything.

That was the first significant change in my life. We went from a comfortable house to sleeping in a tent for the rest of the summer. I remember the generosity of people; someone gave Mom a canvas tent, and we put it up in the woods, people brought food, blankets, cooking utensils, and other stuff to replace what we lost in the fire. There were about, six, or seven of us kids, so we all couldn't fit in the tent, so most of us slept outside around the tent. I say six or seven because my oldest brother was very seldom home. I think he stayed most of the time with relatives. We stockpiled everything in the tent and we cooked the food over an open fire outside. When it rained, we all tried to squeeze in the tent in an attempt from getting rained on. Due to this experience, when people talk about how fun it is to go camping, I don't see it as fun. Eventually, another log cabin was built about one hundred yards from where the one that burnt down was. It was a one-room log cabin smaller than the old one. My older sister, three younger brothers, and I slept up in the loft.  Wooden planks extended across the rafters about a third of the way across the ceiling from which we would peer over at night.  There was a ladder nailed on the wall, which we used to climb up to the loft and sleep at bedtime. It was the warmest place to sleep in the wintertime, but it was also the hottest place in the summer. And that's what I remember of my first five years.

I think Mom went up to ninth grade. I don't think my dad went very far past the eighth grade if at all. My mom was a very intelligent person. She read a lot; although English was her second language, she spoke it fluently, but she spoke Dakota most of the time. I know a couple of words [in Dakota], well, I know more than a couple of words, and I can follow a conversation in Dakota if it is spoken slowly and English words are inserted now and then. Mom raised ten children and did an excellent job. I had four older siblings and five younger siblings. My older brother, who was the oldest of the family, died of cancer; two older sisters died of liver failure, due to alcoholism; a third older sister died of a drug overdose; and my younger brother committed suicide, which was due to alcohol, too. 

My auntie Alvina, who was older than my mom almost by twenty years, talked about boarding school at the old fort. She described it as a "bad place to be." She'd speak of students getting beatings, about freezing in the winter, and she mentioned a cellar where they put kids; she said that once or twice. We were very poor. We never had money for anything. We never had toys; we hardly went to town, we never had candy. We raised rabbits and chickens ... we ate a lot of eggs. Every, now and then we would skin a rabbit. However, it was hard to kill a pet, so my stepdad snared wild rabbits, which mom made [into] stew. Always short on food, Mom would jump at the chance to send us to church because the ministers would say, "Send them to church, and we'll feed them sandwiches later." They would also provide transportation. For the most part, learning about Christianity wasn't all that bad, but I hated white people back then, for whatever reason, I just didn't like them, and the ministers were white people.

I finally figured out by the time I was eleven or twelve years old that Christianity, and how the Christians I knew, behaved, was different. I realized there were no true Christians in the world, just people who claimed to be Christians. Christians acted the opposite of what my mom taught me: never lie, to stand up for what is right, help others, and to share what you have with people who don't have anything. By the time I was eleven or twelve years old, I rejected Christianity altogether. I did love listening to Christian hymns though, and I continue to listen to them to this day, a habit I kept hidden from everyone for years. We had neither electricity nor running water, which meant we had a lot of chores to do. My older brother had already left home by the time I was eight, nine years old. The next three oldest were all girls. I had to do all the wood chopping, and my younger brother hauled the water. We would get off the bus, and I would haul wood, saw wood, split wood, and carry it into the house. I made sure we had enough wood for the night and the next day. My younger brother Mark, rest in peace, would haul water. Often, Mom would put the water pails in her trunk and go someplace, come here to Fort Totten or some other place, and fill up the water pails someplace and bring [them] home. I remember when they tried to dig us a well, but they couldn't find any water. They finally struck water, but it was so deep it took two of us to pump it out. They dug us a water line from the pump to our log cabin and connected it to a tank in our house. I don't ever recall the tank getting full; it was so hard to pump the water. In the wintertime, we melted snow, and that was our water, or we caught rainwater in the summer, and that was the water we used to wash clothes.  In the summertime, we swam all the time, so we never had to worry about staying clean. In the wintertime, every now and then, Mom would get out her enormous tub and fill it up with snow, put it on the stove, and when it was full of warm water one of us would get in there and take a bath. I remember we always had a lot of impetigo sores back then, and I think the reason was that there was not enough water to take baths. I've still got scars on my legs from them.

We hauled or pumped water and sawed and split wood until we moved to Fort Totten when I was around fifteen years old. For the most part, I remember my childhood as a happy time. It was tough; we wished for toys, we hoped for better food, new clothes and stuff like that, but it was still a good life. Probably the happiest time was when Mom was [cooking on] Sundays. Mom would always manage to get a chicken for Sunday dinner. We would go to church, and when we would come home, she would have a chicken dinner all ready. The whole family would sit at the table and eat. Those Sunday dinners were probably the happiest times in my young life. But then again, you know, it was a different time; our family was close, and we all loved and respected each other. We had cousins who lived over the hill from us. Together, we ran around Crow Hill all day, went swimming in summer, and sliding on cardboards in winter.  There were tough times, too, when there wasn't enough to eat, the log cabin was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, but mostly, I remember my life during that time as happy. Man! There are times when I miss those days.

I've lived on the rez all my life, except when I went to boarding school when I was in high school and when I served in the Marine Corps. [The boarding school I attended] was called Benson County Agricultural and Training School [BCATS]. I'd stay at BCATS during the week and then come home for the weekend. My experiences with the white man's education began here at the old fort in 1959. I was in the kindergarten class, and I remember it was a terrifying experience. We lived out in the country; we didn't see very many people. We were loners out there. All of a sudden I was thrust into this crowd of strange children and the teacher was a black woman. I couldn't figure out why she was black, because I had never seen a black person before. Everything was so strange, and she was mean. The second-year they closed that place down, they built a new school, but Miss Daggs kept me in kindergarten for a second year. By then, I figured out that Miss Daggs, as mean as she was, favored me, even though she would still beat me with a ruler now and then. Here's why I thought that: one day when I was at home sick on my birthday a little after 12:00, the school bus comes over the hill and pulls up beside the log cabin. I'm wondering what the heck is going on? My entire class got off the bus along with Miss Daggs, who was carrying a birthday cake. They all stood by the window and sang happy birthday to me. Mom went outside and Miss Daggs handed her my birthday cake. She [Miss Daggs] kept me for another year; altogether, I spent three years in her classroom, and then she promoted me straight to third grade, having me skip second grade. They put me with a teacher called Mrs. Reynolds, who was really mean. She slapped me hard once because I wasn't paying attention. She would pull our ears, or grab us by the shirt and jerk us around, or shake us and yell at us. I don't seem to recall it ever bothered us very much because that's kind of how life was back then. We were always fighting with this person or that person. Therefore, physical violence was kind of a way of life for us, especially from the teachers. Although the teachers were mean they really couldn't hurt or scare us. They were not as bad as going out to the schoolyard and getting into a fight with somebody older and getting the crap beat out of you. They became scared of us as we got older; I think they knew we remembered the beatings and wanted to get even. So, they were careful about how they treated us in the upper grades. I remember one teacher would run to the door all the time. He was the seventh-grade teacher, and anytime something would happen in class, he would run to the door and call the principal ... he was so scared of us. I remember there was an eighth-grade teacher, a Miss Stenjen, who was one of the nicer teachers ... bringing me several shirts. I remember she would bring me clothes because my clothes were ragged. Mom never had enough money to buy us new clothes.  By the time I reached eighth-grade life was great. I had complete freedom because Mom by that time had married a white man, but he never really raised us and Mom just let me do whatever I wanted to. I was free to come and go and do whatever I wanted to do, and life was great. After I graduated from grade school, I went to Maddock [BCAT]. 

It's a school thirty miles west of Fort Totten. When our high school closed down in '60 at the old fort, they had to ship the high schoolers someplace. Most went to Indian boarding schools, some went to Maddock. Maddock used the Johnson-O'Malley funds to bus Indian students to their school, where we stayed in dorms during the week and came home on Fridays. That all started in '61- '62, and by the time I started high school in '67 we pretty much knew Maddock was a boarding school. My older brother and two older sisters went there. My older brother dropped out, but two older sisters were really good students. They worked in the cafeteria after school, washing dishes. They would get paid every two weeks or whatever, and they would come back and give Mom money to go to the bingo and drink some beer, and they used that money to buy their clothes. 

When I graduated from eighth grade, I had no idea what to do, so I enrolled in BCATS because my two older sisters had graduated from there. It was a culture shock, to say the least. I'd never seen so many white people in one place at one time. It was strange. Looking back, they saw an opportunity to make some money off Indian students by bussing us over there, keeping us, and then they would get funding through Johnson-O'Malley because they eventually built a new school on the Johnson-O'Malley funds.

Maddock was a good-sized town back then. When I went to school there, we would start out with fifteen to twenty boys, and about thirty, forty girls. The school had a population of about three hundred students. At the end of each year, there were only about five of us boys still in school and about fifteen Indian girls. That's just the way it was. They just dropped out. Back then very few people went to school past eighth grades. The only reason I went to school was because of my mom. It was both a bad time and a good time for school; it was bad in a sense because there was a lot of racism, [and] it was good [because] we kind of ruled the school ... because the white kids were all scared of us. So we kind of did what we wanted. The school divided the students into two groups. In one group would be us Indians and whom I always called the poor, or slow, white students. In the other group, they would put the rest of the white students. Whether it was math, science, or typing, the other group were always a couple of chapters ahead of us. And, they never put an Indian student into algebra; they always put us in general math. I can't remember for whatever reason, but I took algebra in my sophomore year, and I regretted it. I took it with a bunch of freshman white students, and socially, it wasn't bad because I was older, and I was able to do what I wanted to in class. The white students were always laughing at me because I was rebellious, and the teacher couldn't control me. I can't remember, but I think I flunked it. Indian boys were fighters back then. There were two brothers, Jack and Dean, and my goodness they were good fighters. I remember either Jack or Dean would - I wouldn't say they would pick a fight- but they were always ready and willing to fight at the slightest provocation. The white boys would yell at us when they went by in a car, and we would yell back.  If the white boys did stop to fight, Jack or Dean usually beat the shit out of whoever was brave enough to take them on. That often ended the harassment for a while. Throughout the year, there would be one or two fights that the Indian boys usually won. Personally, I never had any problem with any of the white guys, but I was an Indian, and I stuck with my kind. But, I didn't like most of them, and I think they didn't like me, other than I never had any real problem with them.

My sister started reading to us when I was in about the third or fourth grade up in the loft of that log cabin. She would read aloud books like The Wizard of Oz and The Boxcar Children and Alice in Wonderland to us. She was about four years older than me, and since there was no TV or anything, we looked forward to her reading books to us. That's how she kept us in line, too: "If you don't behave"-she used to babysit us-"if you don't behave, I'm not going to read to you guys tonight." It's how we all became readers. Once I started reading, I wouldn't stop. Mom would tell me, "istima," when I would sit at the table using an old kerosene lamp as lighting, and read long past my bedtime. Istima means, "go to sleep" in Dakota. My younger brother read just as much as I did if not more. As time went by, our lives became a little bit better and Mom was able to give us money at times. My brother and I would go to town with Mom and we would each buy a couple of books, maybe five books each, and then we would trade back and forth until we had both read the other's books. Every place I went if somebody had a book, I would ask him or her for it. I didn't care what subject it was, I read it. The worst thing about grade school was they had a library, but they [never] let students read the books in it, much less check them out. I went into that library to get a film projector. I remember seeing rows and rows of books, and I just wanted to read them so bad. When we would line up for dinner, it would be right across from the library. Man! I would stand there wondering what kind of books were in that library. I was dying to get my hands on those books, but they never once opened it up to us students.

Every time I would go visit Auntie Alvina, I always had a book in my pocket, and when I'd take it out to read she'd say, "One of these days you are going to be a great man because you carry a book around with you wherever you go." When I was a teenager, Mom would always tell me, "You're going to make something of your life, you're smarter than these guys, you're not going to be like these worthless Indian men, you're going to make something of your life." She told me that over and over again, and it was was one of the reasons why l didn't drop out of high school. I didn't even try very hard to do the work in high school. l was just there to go because of Mom, and because they served us three square meals every day, which I never had before. When it came right down to it, Mom was the reason why l never dropped out of school.

In the dorm, there were always chores. We had to make sure to make beds, and I think we had to sweep the rooms too, which wasn't much work. The school fed us breakfast and supper in addition to dinner. When my sisters went to school there, they would get up early and help the cooks get ready, and then they would stay after supper and help the cooks clean up, too. They earned enough money so that they had clothes, and they gave Mom enough to play bingo and buy some beer. Mom didn't work at a regular job, but she was always out hustling, trying to get some money one way or the other, and sometimes she would be gone for a couple of days. Those were the bad times because we would get lonesome for Mom, although our older sisters were perfectly capable of taking care of us. Mom would go to the valley and pick potatoes, and she would be gone for a week or so, and that's when I would really miss her. Mom worked in the field a lot, she would haul bales, pick rocks - just like a man - and she would do other stuff to make a few dollars here and there. From my perspective, the dorm was great simply because I had a real bed to sleep in. At home, I didn't have a bed. Instead, I slept on the floor on a mattress I shared with two of my brothers. At BCATS, I had my bed to sleep on, not only a bed, but also, I had blankets to myself, and it was warm. At home, the fire would go out in the wintertime, and it would get frigid in the old log cabin. At BCATS there was a shower, running water, and the dorm master, whatever they called him, would bring a TV out in the hallway, and we would get to watch TV. I went from a primitive log cabin to a dorm that had everything. So, to me, the dorm was a good life. I think there were six rooms with two bunk beds in each of them, about twenty-four beds in all. There might have been more ... I don't remember those rooms [and] beds ever filling up. As I said earlier, at the end of the year, most of those rooms would be empty due to most of the Indian boys dropping out. We had a dresser, which I didn't use because back then I only had five pants and five shirts; that was it. I was there for only five days at a time, so I left my clothes in a suitcase. The room didn't have frills, but I didn't care: it was warm, it was clean, I had a bed all to myself. Maybe that's the other reason why I didn't drop out. Because coming from a one-room log cabin without electricity or running water, all those luxuries were tremendous and the food was great!

We would get up at 7:30, and by eight o'clock we would go down to eat; from there we went to school. We arrived at school early, because back then school didn't start until nine, and then we had to go to our place in the auditorium where we sat in alphabetical order. I think that's how they took attendance. Then we went to our first class at 9: 15. As I said, I never really tried very hard in class. Plus, I needed glasses. I had broken my glasses, and I couldn't see without them. When I became a senior, I needed just three classes to graduate. Even without trying very hard, I managed to earn enough credit to graduate. I think you needed seventeen credits to graduate back then. By the time I finished my junior year I had fourteen credits, I think because I had flunked, I think five courses. I remember this one Indian guy saying, "how come you spend all that time in the library?" The library was also the study hall. When you didn't have class, you would go into the library/study hall and sit at a table until your next class. Well, because I only had three classes, I was always in the library. My senior year was a good time in many ways. I missed thirty-two days during my senior year. By then, I had started to drink hard, and lots of times I would get drunk over the weekend and not make it back to school on Sunday. Many times, I'd miss a whole week at a time. During the summer, before my senior year, my sister had said, "Hobo Joe, you like to have your hair long; here take this," and she gave me a headband. I thought it was pretty cool, so I wore it all summer. At the end of the summers, Mom would always say, "You need a haircut before school starts, Hobo Joe." The [One] time I said, "No Mom, I don't want to cut my hair." "OK," she said, and I went back to school with my hair long. During the week, all the students, especially the white students, kept looking at my long hair. Heck, even some of the Indian students thought my hair was too long. Friday, right before the three o'clock dismissal, the principal called me in the office and said, "Erich, if you want to come back to school next week, you're going to have to get a haircut." When I went home, I told Mom what the principal had told me. She asked me, "Are you going to get a haircut?" "No." "Well, you've got to go to school." I didn't say anything. When the bus came on Sunday, I didn't go to school. When Tuesday came around, she said, "What are you going to do? You can't sit around all day." By then, I was kind of a juvenile delinquent; we had moved from the country into town and I was always getting into trouble. I said, "Well, take me back and I'll find out." When she parked in front of the school, I told her, "Wait here for me. I'll see what happens if they kick me out I' II just go home. If they don't, you can take me to the dorm." I went to the principal's office to get a permit to return to class slip. When I walked into his office, he looks up at me, didn't say anything; I didn't say anything either. I was standing there, standing there, standing there ... pretty soon he reaches over and picks up a "return to class" slip, writes something on it, hands it to me, never saying a word. I took it, I didn't say a word either, and I went and told Mom, "Well, I get to go back to school." She took me back to the dorm. I just let my hair grow all that year, and wore that headband. You know, the old hippie days [laughter]. Several years ago, I met an underclassman from BCATS. He told me that a group of boys wore their hair long the year after I graduated and when told to cut their hair they reminded the administration that I was allowed to wear my hair long the previous year. They were allowed to keep their long hair. I went through the graduation ceremony. I was already an alcoholic by then. I was glad to have finished high school, but at the same time, I wondered what I was going to do. Really, I had no clue what I was going to do. Years later, I realized that everybody has a plan after high school, and I didn't. I think my self-esteem was so low back then I really didn't think I was capable of anything after high school other than just working at manual labor jobs.  I started drinking at fourteen or fifteen. I was probably an alcoholic by the time I was seventeen. 

After I graduated from high school, the BIA sent me to Haskell. I wanted to be a welder. I had learned to weld in the shop class at BCATS. It was the reason I liked the shop class in high school, and I was a pretty good welder. So, I wanted to be a welder. During the summer, I was employed by Sully's Hill National Park. After watching the park manager trying to weld a cow guard meant to go on the front gate, I asked him to let me try. He gladly turned the welder over to me. I welded that cow guard up in no time. It is still in place today. Anyway, back to my story, they had me take a test and told me, "You're not going to be a welder. You can do better than a welder. We are going to enroll you in electronics." I went down to Haskell, and I hated electronics. At Thanksgiving, I was handed five dollars, and a bus ticket, and [they] sent me home. The next year I enrolled in Lake Region Jr. College in their welding program, and nine months later, I had a welding degree. I worked as a welder for Haybusters down in Jamestown after I obtained my welder's degree. I was fired from Haybusters after I broke into the bar, and I started working at Sioux Manufacturing. They fired me there, too, but they would hire me right away because they needed workers. It was after one such firing when a good friend of mine Dan Cavanaugh, who grew up not far from me, said he was going to Fargo to get a physical. He was going to join the Marine Corps. He asked, "You want to ride along?" I had continued to read-even in spite of my drinking, and I had read about time the Marine Corps and boot camp, and how tough it was, so I didn't want to join the marines. I had been thinking about joining the navy, so I said, "OK, I'll go with you." On the way to Fargo, the marine recruiter and Dan talked to me about joining the marines. They finally talked me into taking a physical, and the next thing I knew, I was signing my name on a paper that said I was joining the Marine Corps. So that's how l joined the Marine Corps. I'll never forget the day that I left for Marine Corps boot. I was so hung-over from being drunk for a couple of weeks. When we landed in San Diego, a bus was there to pick us up.  A drill instructor came on and started yelling at us: "You're in the Marine Corps now, and your ass is mine." It was about 3:00 in the morning when we got to the Marine Corps training depot where they lined us all up on footprints painted on the asphalt. They would call us one by one to go into the barbershop, where they would shave our hair. My hair was long, but it took no more than two minutes, and it was all gone. We finally went to bed at 3:30 and we were up at 5:30 for breakfast. The first couple days l kept saying to myself, "What the hell am l doing here?" After several days, my resilience took over. Although it was tough, really tough, l was in good physical shape, had lots of endurance, and I was only twenty-one years old, so the physical training never really bothered me. I just had issues with, you know, with the spit and polish part. My boots were never shined like they should have been, my utilities had Irish pennants, and all this and that.   Other, than that, it wasn't all that bad. There's a lot of laughs about it because things were so crazy.  l learned right away to follow the rules, and I learned another thing too; if they don't notice you, they're not going to holler at you. So I didn't do anything that the DI would notice. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. Forty years after leaving the marines, I am still incredibly proud to say, I'm a United States Marine! My mom suffered a stroke while I was stationed in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, so I caught a plane home. My heart nearly broke when I went to the hospital and seen her. She went from about 190 pounds to just 90 pounds. It was just so heartbreaking to see her. I had been on the wagon prior to Mom's stroke, and I used her stoke as an excuse to start drinking again. I wouldn't quit for other several years.

Who I am today is because of my mom. My mom always told me she said, "Joe, hobo, you're smart, you're really smart. When you grow up, you're going to make something out of yourself. You're not going to be like the rest of these worthless Indian men around here. You're going to do something with your life." She told me that continuously over the years. I was in five car accidents, five rollovers, and two head-on collisions in my life, but I will only tell about the last one rollover, so I can get to the education part. I was married to my son's mother, or I was with her, and we worked in Cando, North Dakota, at a pasta plant.
We worked the swing shift. On paydays, we would rush to the bar, and we would have a couple of beers and go home, which was 10 miles away. On the Friday I'm talking about, as usual, we rushed to the bar, drank several beers, and started going home. It was starting to snow, and the snow was sticking on the ground, going down the highway the car started sliding, and I lost control. We went into the ditch and hit a snowbank and slowly rolled over. Nobody was hurt; we rolled over so slow. It was my fourth time I had been in a rollover. The next one would change my life dramatically. We climbed out and pushed the car back on its wheels. In the meantime, a pickup stopped and pulled us out of the ditch, and we drove home. The next morning my wife's brother and I jumped in a car with two other guys, and we went to Devils Lake, where we proceeded to drink all day. We were drunk all that Saturday, and on Sunday, I asked my sister's boyfriend, "Can you give me a ride back to Cando?" He gave me a ride back home; on the way, we started bragging about our cars. When we arrived at my house, I jumped in my car, and we drove to the highway, and the race was on! It was in the spring of the year when it thaws one day and freezes the next. This particular day was cold, so all [the] snow that had melted the day before was frozen solid. I vividly remember my speedometer going past sixty, and the next thing I knew, I was going sideways. Apparently, I had hit an icy spot, started sliding sideways, and then hit a dry spot, and the car started rolling over and over. I broke my back in two places, broke my ribs, broke my shoulder bone, broke my ankle, tore the entire skin off the side of my face, and numerous other injuries. From what I was told, I was thrown out of the car, but they were not sure if the car rolled over me. They put me into the car and took me home.  However, once home, the pain was too great, and an ambulance was called. Once in the ambulance, I was rushed to Grand Forks ... the doctor said I might not live through the night, and if l lived, I probably would not walk again. I made it through the night. but I couldn't move from the waist down ... paralyzed from the waist down. Eventually, I ended in the rehabilitation wing of the hospital, where I had to do all that physical therapy. One day they pushed me into a room where all the stoves and stuff were at wheelchair level, and they wanted me to fry an egg. I refused. I said, "No." I absolutely refused to fry an egg on that stove, so they sent me back to my room, and they said I was depressed. What they didn't know was I had made up my mind that I was going to walk again no matter what it took. I also knew it would be challenging; therefore, I couldn't have any doubt in my mind. To me, learning how to cope in a wheelchair would only weaken my resolve. Therefore, I refused to learn how to fry an egg in a wheelchair. So, long story short, two years later, I was walking with crutches. Eventually, I walked with a cane and then I was walking without a cane, even though I was partially paralyzed on my left side. However, I kept on drinking. Three years after that, I was lying in bed, drunk in some home, and I was thinking of what my mom said. My mom's words kept coming back to haunt me so to speak. So, I'm lying in that bed thinking, geez, here I am thirty-one years old, and I don't have anything, and my mom always said I was smarter than everybody, and I am smarter than most people but here am nothing but a drunk? That led me to sign up for alcohol treatment for my third time. I went to treatment for the third time, and I haven't taken a drink since. I have always believed in Wakan Tanka. I know I went to church and learned about God, I know that. But, in my earliest memories, I always believed in Wakan Tanka. Where I picked that up, I don't know where, maybe from my auntie, I don't know. I know Mom and her sisters would talk Dakota all the time, and you know, that is where I probably learned it. I always knew that there was a being that was mightier than anything. Years later, I read a book by Luther Standing Bear. He said in Christianity, there's a continuous battle between good and evil, and given time evil could take over, and the whole universe would be filled with evil. He said, "In our belief, there's never a doubt, good will always conquer evil." I didn't know that back then because I didn't read Luther Standing Bear back then. I just knew my belief in Wakan Tanka was powerful, and my belief in Wakan Tanka is what pulled me through those tough times.  And that's the reason why I quit drinking. After breaking my back, I went to school for two years at our tribal college, although I was still drinking at the time. Then when I went to treatment for the third time, I sobered up and came home and was hired at Sioux Manufacturing in July. Right before the fall semester started at the tribal college, my brother-in-law came up to me, and he said, "I need you to enroll in a teacher preparation we have at the college." I asked why. I had just finished two years of college while drinking no less, and now that I was sober and had a job, I didn't feel like going back to college. He persisted. Finally, I looked at him and asked, "Why me, Al?' He replied, "Well, there are only two students at the college that has over a 3.0-grade point average, and you're one of them." I said, "Really?" That was hard to believe because I was drunk the two years that I went there to Little Hoop. I switched to the graveyard shift at Sioux Manufacturing and attended classes during the day. After a year went by, Al told me, "You have to go to UND."  I thought, "Well, I will go and enroll in UND, and after a month or so I'll drop out. I'll come home, and go back to work at Sioux Man." But at UND I realized two things. One, Elementary Education was so easy I didn't even have to study. Two, I began to understand the importance of education. I really began to see how much better my life would be with education. The third thing is that they had a pool hall that I went to every single night, so with those three factors, I stuck it out and graduated with a teaching degree. I came back home and taught third grade for three years. When I was going through my student teaching, my mom passed away, and what was the toughest, hardest thing was not to fall back to the bottle. When I was in treatment, I had to go to different AA meetings, but I think AA does not work for Indians, for most Indians. It didn't work for me, but they have a lot of wisdom in their sayings, and I picked up on a couple of them. One of the sayings was, "life is tough, but it gets tougher if you drink." When Morn died, I know if I drank, my life would probably be worse, so I didn't drink. I was happy teaching because I loved my teaching and kids. People in the community looked up to me as a teacher. When I would go to pow wows - I was a pow-wow-goer back then-I'd run into people, and they'd ask, "What do you do?" and I'd say, "I teach third grade," and they'd say, "Oh, really!" I really liked it. A few years later, I went back again, to [UND], for my Master's program. To be honest, I just did enough to get by. It wasn't the work was that hard; it was just the amount of work was more than I was willing to do, so I did just enough to get by. I eventually enrolled in a doctorate program. Classes were going good, I was finally getting in the swing of the course work, and then my seventeen-year-old son was killed in a car accident. My life came to a complete halt, I was so devastated I took a year off. When I took a year off, I lost all the advantages of being in a cohort. In a cohort, the classes are all lined up for you, and now I was on my own. That was tough, and its why it took me so long to complete my doctorate program. It was hard to take the classes while grieving for my son. We, Dakota, believe in grieving four years. But the advantages [of not being in a cohort] were there were fewer students in my classes, and with fewer students, I was speaking up more. I was getting more involved in the classes, learning more. Overall, I became a better student. When l graduated, it was the proudest moment in my life. I arrived at the commencement and noticed I was last in line. How in the heck did that happen, I wondered? I thought we were to go in alphabetical order. When my name was called, I walked across the stage to receive my degree. Then I walked over to shake the president's hand. He stopped me from walking off the stage. "Wait here, Erich," he said. I stood there on stage. The emcee - he was friendly to Indians all the time, Dr. Robert Boyd- took the mic and said, "You know the commencement speaker talked to me about people making a difference.  What we have here today is the first person from his tribe to earn a doctorate, Dr. Erich Longie." He said more, but I don't remember his words. The audience gave me a standing ovation. Over the loudness of the standing ovation, I could hear my son war-whooping, and it was one of the proudest moments of my life. 

I was diagnosed with cancer about nine years ago. I underwent thirty- seven days of radiation treatment. I was tired all the time, but I came through it OK. On my last day of radiation treatment, I asked if I could have my radiation treatment early in the morning.  When the treatment was over, I drove to Minot, North Dakota, to play in the North Dakota Pool Association State Singles Tournament. I ended up winning the championship in the "B" Division. At my check-up after my radiation treatment, the doctor concluded that I had five years to live. I was devastated; I was in shock for the next month or so.  The months following my radiation treatment, my PSA numbers went so low I was hoping the radiation cured me. Indeed, the doctor told said, "Maybe the radiation did cure you." However, after a couple of years, my PSA numbers started climbing again.  This past summer, my doctor became worried there was a good chance cancer was growing in a different part of my body. He suspected this because the cancer was found in a lymph node before my radiation treatment. I was transferred to a department where they just tried to hold my cancer at bay, to keep me alive as long as possible. It was sort of strange to know all they were going to do is try to keep me alive as long as they could. While I was there, they ran all kinds of tests on me again.  And, lo and behold, they didn't find any cancer. Wakan Tanka was surely watching over me. So, here I was, listed as a Stage Four cancer for nine years and then all of a sudden, I'm right back to Stage I. Talk about a sense of relief. 

Last year I accepted a (Facebook] friend request from a woman I knew in my youth but hadn't seen in close to fifty years. She lives six hundred miles away and was recently widowed. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I was driving down to see her every weekend. The people who know me would know when I want something, or if I'm going to do something, or if I make up my mind about something, nothing gets in the way of getting what I want. I would not have a doctorate, I would never have fought cancer this long, I would never overcome alcoholism, and I would still be in a wheelchair if l gave up that easily. When I want something pretty bad, I put on blinders, and nothing distracts me until I get whatever it is I wanted. Everything is irrelevant except what I want, and in this case, I wanted her. It didn't matter how many miles I drove, how tired I became, those are all irrelevant, and fortunately, she began to feel the same way. We had our problems, but then she said, "The Creator picked this time in our lives to be together," and she was right. So, I proposed to her and we were married - twice. Once through the white man's way and the other through a Dakota ceremony. Best decision I ever made.

I always did believe in what we Dakota call Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. I always knew that there was something there. When we went to church, in my mind the person who talked about God and Jesus was also talking about Wakan Tanka; there was no difference. Around the fourth grade, I started to pray every night. I think I picked that up because at some point, maybe Mom made us say prayers, and I just continued as I grew older. I began to realize that Christians - although Christ did a lot of good things - did not follow Christ's teachings, and so I left the church. I rejected Christianity before I reached my teenage years. I didn't deny Christ's teachings; I rejected Christianity because, in my mind, it was all hypocritical. Christians do not follow Christ's teaching. The other reason was I was becoming a teenager, and I wanted to do certain things that would be frowned on by good Christians. I felt if I wasn't a Christian, I could go out and do these things. So, I rejected Christianity and began to live a life that brought a lot of heartache to myself and a lot of other people. But all through those times I never stopped believing in Wakan Tanka. Eventually, I began to pray for a way out of a life of alcoholism.  I went to treatment three times, the third and last time when I was thirty-one years old. I haven't taken a drink since then. With prayer and determination, I've made it to where I'm at today.

Everything I do, everything I face, all the good things that happen, I pray, and I give thanks. All the challenges I face, all my fears, I'm able to withstand because of prayer. I don't think I'm better than anybody else. I don't think I'm going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell. I believe that Wakan Tanka listens to a person who prays if they are sincere and if they want to change. If they're doing it for a good reason, and like I said, I knew right from wrong . Once I quit drinking, I stopped doing a lot of wrongs...but on the other hand, I am incredibly arrogant. I do and say do what I want; I don't care what people think. That's just the way I am. However, I often try to quit my bad behavior because I know it's wrong.

What makes me happy is I'm able to open my eyes every morning considering all that I went through and all the stupid things I did. Some of the things that I went through ... like when I broke my back, and I wasn't expected to walk again and to go back even further when I was a kid I had a horrible infection in my ear, which they had to operate on. I had another operation below my left shoulder when I was a kid, and I lived through that one. I was in five rollovers and two head-on collisions. So the fact that I am still here makes me feel incredibly grateful, and I'm also thankful and happy for the gifts that Creator gave to me. I know The Creator gave me a lot of gifts, and probably the greatest gift The Creator gave me was a  quick mind.  I'm able to accomplish a lot of things that I want to do; I'm able to obtain many things that I want to have; all because The Creator blessed with a remarkable brain. I feel like the Creator blessed me in many ways also and continues to bless me. One example is, my grandchildren; I love my grandchildren beyond words, and they love me too. I love spending time with them. They bring me so much happiness. 

As far as BSCATS, Fort Totten did not have a high school when I graduated from grade school, so I went to BSCATS. I had two sisters who went to Maddock, and they both graduated from Maddock. When it came time for me to go to high school, I didn't want to go to an [regular] Indian boarding school, so I went to BCATS. I had family and relatives who went to Flandreau, to Marty, and you know all those Indian boarding schools, and even though they told stories about how good those schools were, I didn't want to leave home for a year. I'm glad I went to BCATS; some of the happiest days of my life were there. They were carefree times because we were still in a log cabin when I went to school at Maddock. I would get on the bus from a log cabin that didn't have any electricity, no running water, and thirty minutes later I would be in a dorm that had all that, so . . . and they fed us supper. At home, I can't say we starved at home, but at times we hardly had enough to eat - going to a place that had all the luxuries, and three meals a day, was what made this little Indian boy pretty happy. The school was just a place to raise hell and have fun. I barely graduated; I always had D's and F's and C's. But, that was one of the happiest times of my life. On the other hand, there was a lot of racism there, too, and it negatively impacted me then, and it still impacts me to this day. I learned that people didn't like me because of the color of my skin. I learned that even being nice to people, they still looked at you like you're a piece of shit. So, I began to develop hatred towards white people that I carried with me for a lot of years. And I developed an incredible inferior complex, too, that I struggled with for many years because, you know, the white people, geez, they had nice clothes, and some of the kids had cars, and here I was just a little Indian boy from a log cabin with barely enough clothes to last a week. I never learned anything as far as becoming mature, as far as learning things I should do later on in life. I was just there to have, within the rules, without getting kicked out. But on the other hand, I did make some acquaintances with some white people that are still in place to this day. Some of them are my Facebook friends. So, you know, that, in a sense, BCATS added to my going down the wrong road after, because high school is supposed to get you ready for adulthood, and BCATS did just the opposite; it just didn't help me in any way at all. But it was a good time, I had, my friends were there; there were girls, sports. When I left BCATS, I was lost for many years until I sobered up and got back on the right track. How did I sober up? I began to realize that, I figured myself smarter than most people, so when I saw somebody my age who was dumb as a rock, but yet they had a car, a house and everything, well, I had nothing.  I was smart enough to realize that it was alcohol. I remember one particular morning I woke up with a hangover and Mom's words [about my potential for success] came back to me ... [and] a few days later I got in touch with the veteran's in-service officer, and a few months later I went off to treatment at the VA, and I have not touched a drop of alcohol ever since. I mentioned earlier that Mom taught me right from wrong. Mom taught me all the values that I have today. Everything that I accomplished, everything that I did was because of her. My biggest regret was that I didn't graduate with a college degree before she, unfortunately, passed away. On the other hand, she knew I was going to graduate; she was proud of me, and I knew that I made her happy because I turned my life around. One night I came back from shooting pool, I jumped in the shower, and a dreadful feeling came over me, one of extreme loneliness. I showered, and I just couldn't shake that awful loneliness I felt. I went and checked on my kids, my daughter, and my sons, and they were all doing well. When I went and lay down to sleep, I still couldn't get rid of that lonely feeling. I went to sleep, and at five o'clock in the morning the phone rang, and when it rang, I knew what happened. It was my sister telling me that Mom passed away. As we were talking, she said the time when Mom passed away, and that was the time I was getting in the shower when I started feeling that loneliness, and I felt her spirit leave, or she stopped to say goodbye before she left, and that's what made me so lonely. Her passing was a big blow to me; it devastated me. It was several months before I could "get over it" so to speak. Mom was such a strong woman I never once thought about her dying. So, as I said, everything that I am today is because of her. 

After a life of extreme highs and lows, one adventure after another, overcoming challenges, surviving horrible mistakes and bad decisions, I feel pretty good right now. My mother blessed me with a good sense of right from wrong; I was blessed with an exceptional brain and the ability to think fast when needed, and I was blessed with a strong sense of self-honesty. Due to those qualities, I can accept whatever comes my way. My biggest challenge right now is living with my cancer. Living with cancer doesn't scare me as much as it did when I was first told me I only had five years to live. Probably because I am still alive 11 years after I was first told I had cancer The main reason for the happiness in my life right now is due to my wife.  We met a couple of years, had a whirlwind romance and the wedding of the century. She brings a lot of happiness into my life. She and I were talking about our life together.  I was telling her that being with her changed my way of thinking. You know, I'm no longer scared of my cancer. I'm no longer worried about getting old. There's a lot of things I'm no longer concerned about simply because I'm with her. Ake! (Again)I have a good life: I can shoot pool with the best young ones yet, I do a lot of traveling which I love, many people respect me, I have fantastic grandkids, an awesome wife ... what more could this old Indian ask for?

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Erich Longie published on September 6, 2019 10:47 PM.

The Value of Perseverance: Using Dakota Culture to Teach Mathematics ANNMARIA DE MARS & ERICH LONGIE[1] was the previous entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.