Indian Classroom

a short story by Darlene P. Campos

students in the choir at Flandreau Indian school. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

I avoided going to Flandreau Indian Boarding School for a long time because I was great at faking sickness and death. If Ate ever said, “Son, you throw up right here,” I could. And if Ina ever said, “Son, you play dead right now,” I could. My older brother Gray Mountain was sent to Flandreau when I was 10 and never came back. He died of tuberculosis and we didn’t know until two months after his burial. He was 17.

The bus stopped in front of our house and I watched through the window, seeing the school officials shout they were here for students. Isabella Little Elk lived next door to me with her grandparents. Her ina worked in Rapid City and her ate ran away, so she was almost an orphan. I saw Isabella step out of her house with her hands up, saying she was ready. If the beautiful Isabella was going, I was too.

“James Eagle, you’re supposed to have typhoid,” Ina said when she saw me get out of bed. She tried to put me back down, but I shoved her out of the way and ran outside. I told the school officials I was ready too.

“Son, you’re going to that place over my dead body,” Ate said when I went in the house to grab some clothes. I told him I’d kill him if he wanted me to and he slapped me.

“I’m going,” I said. I swung my bag on my back, said goodbye to my parents, and went out to the bus.

When I got to Flandreau, my hair was cut short, my clothes were taken away, and I was told to speak nothing but English. My family only knew Lakota, but they knew a few English words like ‘Mother,’ ‘Father,’ ‘and of course, ‘Beer.’ My English wasn’t perfect, but it was better than theirs.

“James Eagle Red Wolf?” the administrator said. “That’s no name for a boy.”

“Yes, I am a boy,” I said, not really knowing what to say. He tossed a uniform at me and showed me my room. There was one other boy around my age in there – Byron Thunderclap from Rosebud Reservation. I greeted him in Lakota and then the administrator grabbed me by my hair and threw me against the wall.

“English only,” he reminded me and left.

“If they want to swing us, it’d be easier on them if we had our long hair,” I said to Byron and he laughed. There was one bed in the room, but he said it was his, so I had the floor. Back home, I had only been sleeping in a bed for a year, so the floor was nothing new.

At six in the morning, the hall monitors woke us up for breakfast – a piece of bread with a cup of water, or so they claimed it was. One of the monitors grabbed my arm and took me to an office where other students were putting a newspaper together.

“You work here now,” he said and left. I looked ahead and there she was, Isabella Little Elk, at a typewriter. She was literate because her ina went to Haskell Indian Boarding School and taught her. Isabella loved writing more than anything else. I always wanted to get a love note from her, even if I wouldn’t be able to read it that well.

“Good morning, beautiful,” I said.

“Go away,” she told me, as usual, and got up from her chair. She’d always stomp her feet whenever I was around her, but to me, her footsteps sounded like they were calling my name. James, Eagle, James, Eagle, James, Eagle.

end of excerpt

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About the author: Darlene P. Campos is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Creative Writing Program. In 2013, her story “The Fork” won the Glass Mountain magazine contest for prose and her story “The Bullet” was awarded the Sylvan N. Karchmer Fiction Prize. She is from Guayaquil, Ecuador but has lived in Houston all her life. Her website is www.darlenepcampos.com.

About the image: Flandreau Indian School choir, photographed between 1909 and 1932, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photographer unknown. View details here.

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