HANOVER, N.H. – Attending a highly competitive Ivy League college might be a challenge for anyone else, but for 45-year-old Don Rains it’s more like a reward.
Rains will be the oldest member of Dartmouth College’s incoming freshman class this fall, but the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Sioux man – a self-motivated learner with a boundless appetite for knowledge – is eager to begin. For Rains, the educational challenge is just another step in a life journey of overcoming obstacles.
Photo courtesy Joseph Mehling, Dartmouth College "Helen" by Don Rains, Sisseton Wahepton Oyate.
A self-taught artist who began painting in 2007, Rains has received a full scholarship to the prestigious college where he will major in studio art and minor in literature – his other scholarly love. He hopes to inspire other American Indians and to be an activist and advocate for preventing the tragic loss of teenage lives to drunk driving.
“My mother was a heroin addict and she just spoke like a prophet when she was under the influence, and she told me different things about American Indian spirituality in the short time that I knew her,” Rains said.
“She died when I was nine. And she said, ‘You’re going to discover things later in life. You have a special place,’ and it is sort of coming to fruition. She always said, ‘You’re Indian’ She painted that in my mind, but she just couldn’t get herself to leave San Francisco during the counterculture and get back home and get herself better.”
Surrounded by adults who were not there, even when they were physically present, Rains’ early life was traumatic. His mother did not die of natural causes or even an overdose; she was murdered.
Rains’ father was serving the third year of a 10-year prison sentence for using and selling heroin when his mother was killed.
“My mother had a boyfriend and he was really religious and against her lifestyle. I don’t know all the details because I was a child and it was between adults. But what she would do is she would padlock the door shut. I’d come home from school and it would be padlocked shut and I’d have to find some place to stay, at a friend’s house, typically. Sometimes I spent the night outside.”
One day the boyfriend picked Rains up at school and told him his mother had left.
“He had murdered her in the bathroom and he feigned this whole scenario like she had taken off again. We drove by the house and it was padlocked. At the time I didn’t know she was up there lying in the bathroom, dead. We drove around for 24 hours looking for her, and then the next day he turned himself into the police and shot himself right in front of the chief of police down there.”
With no family, Rains became a ward of the State of California and was sent to a facility with juvenile delinquents and children taken into custody.
Shuffled into the foster care system, Rains ended up with an alcoholic couple. When he turned 18 he joined the Navy, serving from 1982 to 1989, and during that time he began to read voraciously.
“I tried to figure out why my mother did the things she did. To answer that, I read to gather the intellect of others.”
When he got out of the Navy and moved to southeastern Connecticut he met a creative writing teacher and sought her guidance to understanding literature.
“And she said, ‘Well, if you understand Shakespeare, you’ll understand all of literature.”
So he dove into Shakespeare and Shakespearean criticism and read Nobel Prize writers and other literature “and I really absorbed the human condition. It’s just amazing what you can learn about humans from all these writers and the criticism surrounding them.”
His “ultimate favorite” book is “Remembrance of Things Past,” a semi-autobiographical novel in seven volumes by Marcel Proust.
“I got through the first thousand pages, but it’s more like 2,000 because I had to read every page twice,” Rains said, laughing.
Converging with his quest for truth through his exploration of literature was a need to reconnect to his Indian identity and heritage.
“There’s a movie called ‘Immortal Beloved,’ a biography of Beethoven. He has this woman he loves and he sends her a letter, but it gets misplaced for years. That’s what happened to me.
“When I got out of the Navy and wanted to retrace my Indian background, I didn’t even know what tribe I belonged to. I knew I was Sioux, but I didn’t know exactly where to start. So, I sent a letter to the BIA and it got misplaced on someone’s desk for a year and then I got a letter from a family member who works in the BIA. That was 30 years after my mother’s death.”
Rains was welcomed by his family and community on visits to the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota where he participated in the Sweatlodge and received his Indian name and feathers.
“I’m an urban Indian, but I understand the conditions on the reservation. I’m pretty aware of the racism on the reservation. It’s really like in the 1940s with a lot of racial tension between the whites and the Indians there. I stay in touch with my family a lot. They have jobs at the BIA and one of my cousins is an activist so she keeps me abreast of all the events that occur.”
Reconnecting with his Indian heritage also reawakened his love of art and his need to create. Just two years ago, he bought some supplies, stretched a canvas, picked up a brush and began painting.
His painting and a chance encounter with Jon Moscartolo, the owner of the Visions Toward Wellness Gallery in Stony Creek, Conn., led him to Dartmouth.
Moscartolo, who studied art at Dartmouth and graduated in 1963, told Rains about Dartmouth’s commitment to educate Native Americans.
Dartmouth has a proactive program to recruit and graduate American Indian students in the east. Founded in 1769 as a school specifically for American Indian students, the college has the largest Native population – around three percent – among Ivy League colleges.
Rains visited the Hanover, N.H. campus, but there was one more obstacle to overcome before being accepted – his outdated and incomplete academic record. On the advice of an admissions officer, Rains took – and aced – some college-level classes at a community college in New Haven.
But he still had to wait a year until he was accepted.
Now he hopes to be a model to Indian country. His advice?
“Just forget the self pity and the inward focus, because that can blur the vision, and if you look outside of yourself you can do a lot more with the power you have.”