On this date in 1974, Larry J. Sprunk sat down with Henry Gayton. Larry was working with the Oral History Project. From 1974 to 1977, he and Robert Carlson traversed the state, driving almost 80,000 miles and conducting 1,214 interviews. The goal was to record North Dakota history from those who lived it – to hear stories from all parts of the state and all walks of life.
Henry Gaton was one of the interviewees. Born in 1902, Henry was raised near Selfridge. But at the age of 6 or 7, Henry left home for the Catholic boarding school at Fort Yates. There wasn’t any other option. As he said, “Either you went to the Catholic boarding school or you didn’t go.”
The school at Fort Yates was one of many Indian boarding schools. Some were run by the federal government. Others were mission schools, some of which received federal funding. The goal of these schools was to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American culture. The schools shared similar programs with a focus on the English language, farming and a strict military-type regimen.
Henry remembered the typical schedule. The students would wake up around 5 or 6 in the morning, pray, eat breakfast, do housework, go to church and pray again before bed. Henry recalled, “You don’t have a chance to play. You’re praying all the time. Then the ol’ sister’d be walkin’ around, you know, and she’d be listenin’. You’re not prayin’ and, boy, up goes your ear.”
Students were also punished if they were caught speaking their native language. And they were stuck at school, away from their families, September through June. There was no running away either. As Henry said, “Police were right there, you know.”
However, in the 1930s most of these schools were closed. A report revealed that the students were poorly taught and poorly treated. Unfortunately, the end of the schools didn’t result in equal education for Native Americans. Into the 60s, many teachers still believed their role was to “civilize,” not educate.
But perhaps even a poor education was an education. Henry admitted “I went through high school, but doggone I thought I was too smart. Now I realize I shoulda went on to school, kept on a goin’. It’s too late.”
Dakota Datebook written by Alyssa Boge
ND History Journal of the Northern Plains, volume 43, number 2