Painful thorns are found in Denise Lajimodiere’s history of Indian boarding school survivors
Mary Annette Pember
“Stringing Rosaries,” is a labor of love. But like most books associated with the Native experience in the U.S. Denise Lajimodiere’s history of Indian boarding school survivors is studded with long-hidden painful thorns.
Although the survivors interviewed for the book ultimately display a fierce spirit of resilience and even humor, “Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors,” is a difficult read especially for former boarding school students and their families. According to Lajimodiere she offers a “trigger warning” during her public presentations about her work in researching the book.
“I had to fight back tears when my editor handed me the finished book. I promised survivors I would tell the world what happened to them at boarding schools,” she said during an interview with Indian Country Today.
Lajimodiere has kept her promise with this sacred oath of a book.
An enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, she is retired professor of educational leadership at North Dakota State University and is a traditional jingle dress dancer as well as poet. Her published poetry includes Dragon Fly Dance, Bitter Tears and Thunderbird.
Lajimodiere also practices the rare art of Mazinibakanige, birch bark biting.
She began researching the history of U.S. Indian boarding schools in 2006 and spent the last 10 years interviewing survivors; she was also on the board of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition from 2011-2018, serving as the organization’s second president.
While attending Canadian Truth and Reconciliation hearings in 2007 about that country’s Indian boarding school history, she was shocked to realize that there was so little information about similar schools in the U.S. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created as part of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
Before Lajimodiere published her findings at the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, there was no information about the total number of Indian boarding schools in the U.S. She found 366; Stringing Rosaries includes a fold out map listing the schools and their locations.
A child of boarding school survivors, Lajimodiere infuses her work with an element of ceremony and personal healing. She sets the scene of each survivor interview by describing her own fears and observations thus giving the reader a sense of the emotional risks involved in hearing these deepest darkest secrets, some told aloud for the first time.
In one excerpt she describes how the research helped forward restorative insights into her own parents behavior. For example she describes her father’s abusive behavior and alcoholism. Poignantly she recalls him saying while intoxicated, “I just want to be a man, not a f##king Indian!”
Realizing that he suffered from untreated PTSD from years of trauma and physical and mental abuse at Chemawa Indian School, she is able to forgive him.
Although Stringing Rosaries describes a common experience of hunger often mixed with loneliness and abuse, the survivors stories include remarkable strategies for maintaining dignity and even humor.
One woman described how a nun would often lock her in the school’s food cellar for 24 hours or more as punishment. After realizing she could stack the large food cans stored there as stairs to a window, she hid a can opener in the cellar. During her incarcerations, she would open cans of food and pass them to fellow students through the window. “When I gave them that food, they were really thankful,” she said.
Lajimodiere shared her hopes for Stringing Rosaries.
“I would like the book to be taken up by both high school and college classes. My goal was for the book to be readable by the general public. I wanted the survivors to tell their story in their own words without intrusion from me of statistics, vignettes, etc.; I wanted the reader to be able to know their lives before boarding school, what happened to them, good or bad, and how their lives were after boarding school as adults,” she said.
“The US needs to deeply explore what healing would look like to boarding school survivors. We need to train all teachers, counselors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers in working with the kind of trauma boarding school survivors continue to face. We also need to look at ‘generationals,’ folks like me who didn’t attend boarding schools but suffer from our parent’s trauma who did not learn parenting skills, only abusive discipline practices,” Lajimodiere added.
Although the book is complete, survivors continue to come to her with their stories. Elders stop her at powwows, the tribal gas station, store and other public places and tell her their experiences. Unsure about the future of these new stories, Lajimodiere patiently continues to listen.
“I feel an urgency to record their stories,” she said.
Publication Date 6.20.19
Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.