Excerpt: The Dakota Sioux Experience

The following is an excerpt from The Dakota Sioux Experience at Flandreau and Pipestone Indian Schools by Cynthia Leanne Landrum (March 2019). 


From Chapter 1: Missionaries and Education in the Upper Midwest


When artist George Catlin first traveled to Pipestone, Minnesota, in 1836, this was the culmination of many trips that he made west of the Mississippi River beginning in 1831 in order to record the images of First Peoples he encountered. As the first non-Native to document his approach to the Pipestone quarry, he was fully cognizant of the fact that this was a sacred space and that all territorialities were to remain on the outer perimeter as people passed through or mined the red rock for ceremonial purposes (rock he later renamed Catlinite after himself ).1 Referred to as the “Paradise of the Gods,” Pipestone was one of many known quarries and sacred places that once extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the West Coast. As “Keepers of the Upper Midwest,” the Santee Sioux priests within the region performed certain ceremonies tied to the quarry at critical junctures during the calendar year, which were connected to specific rituals that were also performed by “sentinels” who lined the Atlantic Seaboard and the Pacific Rim as the “Keepers of the Eastern and Western Doors”—like the threading of spools on a tightly wound loom. The stone is believed to derive from the blood of the ancestors. One account of the origin of the stones states that during a great flood members of various tribal groups went into higher elevations in an effort to escape the rising water. Unable to survive the deluge, all but one person perished, and the bodies of those who had died, from many tribal groups, turned to stone. The young woman who managed to escape later gave birth to twins, beginning the repopulation of the earth. After the death and subsequent resurrection, this sacred site became a neutral territory where the stone could be quarried in peace.2

When Flandreau and Pipestone Indian Boarding Schools were founded in 1892 and 1893, they symbolized a form of transformation and resurrection for the Dakota people (as well as for other tribal nations living within the region), as the schools became dual arenas that were simultaneously neutral and inter-tribal—serving as community centers, area hospitals, and federal agencies. After the Minnesota Sioux War of 1862, in particular, the deluge of clergy, government officials, military personnel, and immigrants signaled that in order for the tribes living within the region to maintain their long-term ties to the land, they would have to “shape shift” and learn to live in both worlds. For many this was a spiritual holocaust that was exacerbated by the presence of Christian clergy at every diplomatic turn, as they tried to discern if these individuals were “friend or foe.” Fully cognizant of what the Eastern Woodland tribes had endured since the 1600s, the Dakota people had an awareness of the options available to them in reference to the diplomatic balancing act they were engaged in as the nineteenth century continued to unfold.

Myriam Vuckovic suggests that from the time Europeans began to explore and settle the North American continent, the introduction of formal, European-style education became an integral part of their attempt to “civilize” and subdue the continent’s indigenous population. Many colonizing Europeans in positions of power acted upon their conviction that among First Peoples, an education system had not previously existed. To them Natives were heathens and savages, whose souls needed to be saved and whose pagan beliefs and customs had to be destroyed.3 This was the same philosophical premise that had been applied to the Britons (among others) when the Christian missionaries first arrived on their shores from Europe in 597 ad.4


According to English folklorist Eric Maple, magic was the natural philosophy of the indigenous and transplanted peoples of Great Britain who lived in the shadow of the woods and mingled their traditions, which were the vestiges of pagan beliefs inherited from antiquity, with rituals and myths that had always been present in the landscape.5 When the Christian missionaries arrived with the teachings of Jesus Christ, they found a potent realm in which the lore of the forest was fully intact and interwoven with the whispers of heathen gods, which the natives could not easily relinquish in order to embrace another faith with a central messiah figure at the helm.6 Maple further suggests that the wise men of Great Britain belonged to the same universal priesthood that the spiritual leaders living in the Upper Midwest (of what later became the United States) represented, and that their sole purpose was to maintain the realms of both the living and the dead in the land in which they had been placed.7

The assumption that First Peoples neither educated their children nor had anything to teach was devastating to Native Americans, as it had been to peoples indigenous to Britain, who had been systematically assimilated to the Christian education system that, in many ways, ran counter to how their cultures had traditionally functioned. In all preindustrial societies, learning was regarded as a lifelong, holistic process that included oral tradition and the concept of learning by observing and doing, which encompassed the exposure to the words and lessons of tribal elders and priests. Values, moral instructions, traditions, and a sense of history were passed down from one generation to the next through storytelling and the children’s participation in tribal ceremonies. This combination of listening, observing, and hands-on experience did not fit the Christian paradigm of formal education, and as early as the 1600s, French, Spanish, and British missionaries and colonists established formal schools for indigenous children along the Eastern Seaboard and Pacific Rim.

Throughout the colonial era and the first half of the nineteenth century, Indian education was never truly systematized. In some instances it was introduced as a component of long-term mutually beneficial international alliances between nation states, because some tribal leaders desired to attain an intimate knowledge of the Euro-American world that was rapidly unfolding around them. Apart from the education systems among the southeastern tribes, native schooling was administered by churches and missionaries and reached only a limited number of indigenous children. This rapidly changed in the second half of the nineteenth century as the federal government became increasingly involved, as it unilaterally applied an education model and infrastructure under the auspices of the Peace and Quaker Policy, which was orchestrated by Ely S. Parker (Seneca) from 1869 to 1871.It was under this legislation that the schools eventually evolved away from tribally controlled and localized mission facilities to federally funded on-and off-reservation boarding institutions and day schools.



1. “Minnesota.”
2. Hirschfelder and Molin, The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, 220.
3. Vuckovic, Voices from Haskell, 11.
4. Maple, The Dark World of Witches, 23–24.
5. Maple, The Dark World of Witches, 23–24.
6. Maple, The Dark World of Witches, 23–24.
7. Maple, The Dark World of Witches, 23–24.
8. Vuckovic, Voices from Haskell, 11.





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