Monday, June 05, 2017
What was and what is
Not all the memories are sweet. If you read the fine print, you'll discover there was a boarding school at the agency, with dormitories, several of them. For a long time, those dormitories held the reservation's kids, just about all of them; and held is maybe the right word because the children were held there, often against their will.
No education back then--1920s and 30s--tried to be fun; and teachers, at the Cheyenne River Agency and elsewhere, didn't believe it was their job to entertain kids. It wasn't supposed to be fun because it was work. What's more, boarding schools on the reservation kept kids captive all year long, away from their parents, away from lives at home.
Schools became homes, in a way, so much so, I'm told, that some of the little children didn't even recognize their parents when, at the end of the year, those parents came to retrieve them.
Agency life right there at the agency wasn't always a dream.
There was a hospital there too, and what government existed governed from the Agency. If what's there on that old picture is not a city, it's a village, don't you think? Back then, 1951, what's drawn in on that poster stood straight west of Gettysburg, SD, just over the Missouri River--that's the river up above, the boundary of the Cheyenne River Reservation.
Let's say you worked in the Agency hospital. Let's say, in the course of your time there, you delivered babies and sometimes, surely, watched good people die. Let's say some of your patients were men and women and children you couldn't help but love. Let's say that some of them, sadly, tragically, departed the world altogether too soon. Let's say when you worked in that hospital, you saw before your eyes the full spectrum of life amid the circle of your people, much to bring joy to your heart, much to prompt sadness.
Let's say your memories of boarding school, mid-Depression, included moments that, if you could choose, you would just as soon not remember. At the same time, let's say you would just as soon not forget some of the relationships that formed in those dormitories--that big girl, you remember, that big girl who swung you and your friends around and around and around, that big girl who loved you.
Let's say you spent significant years of your life at the Agency, for better and for worse. Let's say that, for sure, not all the memories are wonderful either, but that something of you was there, something you really will never forget.
Today, it's all gone.
Just a few nights ago, in Pierre, SD, I stayed in a motel full of walleye fisherman who filled up the parking lot with their pick-ups and boats and hefty Mercury motors. It had been windy on Lake Oahe that day. Faces looked scarred when the men came in talking about getting a ton of little ones but no lunkers. Tourism is booming these days. Cash registers no longer ring, but they still register bucks, just more of them. The Oahe Dam, like the others up and down the Missouri, have been, it seems, a godsend.
There's water now--water, water everywhere. On the long haul into what became the new Cheyenne River Agency in Eagle Butte, construction crews are laying pipe all the way back to the river to bring clean water forty miles or more into country that looks like toast by mid-August. There'll be water to drink, more of it, water for cattle, water for crops. Those dams are a blessing.
If you'd grab your scuba gear and swim out into the lake right here, you'd find some of what little remains of the old Cheyenne River Agency, what's there in the drawing above. What's left of the place is under water. Maybe there's walleyes down there, but the people are long gone--as is the boarding school, the hospital, and the government.
Progress, it's called--and it is.
But if you left some of your life down there under the water, and if your people had already been victimized by worthless treaties for most of the century before, how might you feel when you stand there? how might you act? how would that life have shaped you?
I don't know the answers to such questions, but when I stand there today and try to imagine what once was, I can't help but ask them.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:01 AM