Keeping Victimhood in Perspective

A column by Chuck Trimble about boarding schools and victimhood.

Since we’re in an era in which fact, truth and accuracy are of little importance, let me use conjecture to tell about something that happened at a recent reading by the author of a new book that relates personal stories of suffering in Indian boarding schools and other vehicles of “genocide.” The book is titled Beloved Child, and the author is Diane Wilson.

A person who attended the reading was an 84-year-old woman who had spent most of her youth in Indian boarding schools back in the 1930s. It happens that one of the stories in the book involved her and her two half-sisters, and the teller of the story was the daughter of one of the half-sisters, a grown niece of the 84-year-old woman. The niece provided the story for the book and is there to offer testimony to the program’s Holocaust stories.

As the niece awaits on stage to tell the story she has supplied for the book, she notices in the back of the room her elderly aunt.

“Oh damn! She showed up and will make trouble; I’ve got to warn Diane (the author).”

“My crazy old aunt is here and she could be trouble.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“Well, she’s one of the people my story is about, my mother’s half-sister, one of those who were re-kidnapped from the boarding school by my grandmother after the government kidnapped them from their home to bring them to the school.”

“So, what’s wrong with that? Won’t that add credence to the story?”

“No, she remembers the story differently from the way I tell it. She says they weren’t kidnapped at all, that they were placed in the school by their mother, and that her mother came and took them out of school when things improved at home; no kidnapping.”

“Oh, so she is one of those “D” word people? Denier?”

“Worse than that, she’s a “B” word person.”

“My goodness, you mean she’s brainwashed? We can’t let a crazy old lady ruin our story with her memories. We’ve got to cancel the question-and-answer session or she’ll hog the show with her brainwashed prattle. We’ll skip the question-and –answer session and go right into the book signing where we can just ignore her.”

As I noted at the outset, the above is purely conjecture. I wasn’t there, and I had not heard from anyone who was there that this had actually happened. However, it stands to reason that neither the elderly woman’s niece nor the author would want her to contradict an account given by a child of a “real” victim, a touching story of an alleged kidnapping by evil government agents and a redemptive re-kidnapping by a brave mother.

So, the 84-year-old grandma took recourse via e-mail to the author. Here’s her e-mail:

Dear Ms. Wilson,

After reading the review of your book, Beloved Child, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I decided that I had to attend your book reading on September 9th, to ask an important question. In the review, you were quoted as saying that in trying to pursue healing, you weren't trying to attack the dominant culture, but you were trying to acknowledge the self-loathing that had been hard-wired into our brains. I was flabbergasted when I read those words and I thought "Who in the world is she talking about?" Certainly, not me or anybody I know. Lest you think I am some young person who knows little about growing up as an American Indian, I must tell you that I am 84 years old and I spent most of my school years on the Lower Sioux Indian Community. My father, who died three months before I was born, was a member of that community and my mother was a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota. My early years, before I started school, were spent on the reservation. I believe I am more than qualified to speak about those two areas. So the question I wanted to ask was how did you arrive at the startling statement? Was there some sort of study done?

By the end of your opening remarks and the remarks made by the contributors to your book, I had questions to ask. Unfortunately, there was no question and answer period; even though the program indicated there would be a Q-and-A period. Perhaps the remarks went too long so you went directly to the book-signing. So I will say what I have to say in this e-mail.

If I was flabbergasted with the “self-loathing” remark, imagine my surprise when I heard you say that Gaby, one of your contributors, a well-spoken woman, who also happens to be my niece, told you that three members of her family had been re-kidnapped from an Indian school. I just happen to be one of those three, the oldest, actually. I was almost 12 years old that summer our mother took me and my two younger half-sisters from the Pipestone Indian School. To begin with, there was no kidnapping. Our mother placed us there two years earlier, in1936. I won't go into the whys and wherefores of this story but I'm sure our entry into the school and subsequent departure is well documented in the school and BIA archives.

In your remarks, you stated that you wanted to write an uplifting story about genocide. What did you mean by that? I also heard terms like historical trauma, generational trauma and unrelenting trauma. My grandparents at Lower Sioux, (scene of the Dakota War) and their generation, were the most happiest and well-adjusted people I knew. Subsequent generations, including mine, followed in their footsteps.

Yes, there are problems with the young people today, but it cannot be blamed on what happened in 1862. If only those young people would heed the words of Steve Jobs, whose untimely death this week shocked the world, who said in a commencement speech, "Don't be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voices." This is what we should be teaching our Indian youth today. To do otherwise is to doom them to always seeing themselves as victims. That is a terrible burden for anyone to carry.

—Maxine V. Eidsvig

Since my several columns on victimhood and intergenerational trauma have been published I have received e-mail and phone calls from several people of my own age group and some much older who express much the same attitude that Mrs. Eidsvig tells, and that I write about. These are people who are concerned that their stories are not being told, or are being drowned out by more sensational accounts of rape, brutality and systematic psychological terror in the Indian boarding schools; the kind of sensationalism that sells books and speaking engagements. As I have expressed, and as these other elderly people express, much of what we read about is exaggerated. We feel this way because we have lived through the experience. And we also know some people are lying because we know them personally and were with them in boarding school.

But, increasingly, I’m hearing from people who want to tell their stories, but who are disadvantaged by age, computer illiteracy, and even fear. Here’s another email I received:

I was impressed on your article about boarding school. I spent 5 1/2 years in boarding school and never felt traumatized by the experience. I have three brothers that also spent six years there too. I appreciated the routine, matrons that treated us well and have only fond memories of the time I spent there. Oh, I got into my share of trouble too. Anyway the term intergenerational trauma I see as a way for many to blame for a lot of the problems we now face. How sad!

I am helping the 84 year-old lady with her story by introducing her to a professional oral historian, and I’m hopeful that it would be published. I will also add those accounts to my own book on the subject of Indian boarding school life and about some of those who make a career and an industry out of exaggerated experiences.

No one I know is saying that all traumatic experiences being told and written about are untrue or exaggerated, and much depends on the school and the time of their stories. But I think that there are enough people who are never heard because they cannot in honesty tell about the horrors that people want to hear and to read about, even though they have experienced years of schooling in Indian boarding schools, government and religious.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is