Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)
One of the things we missed the most when we were small boys institutionalized at the Holy Rosary Mission Boarding School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was pets.
We spent nine months of every year at the mission and three short summer months at our homes on the various Indian reservations in South Dakota and beyond. In the summer we had cats and dogs, even horses and cows. The cats were probably a necessity because of the mice and rats that lived with us in some of the old houses on the reservation. But we loved our cats.
When we lived at Kyle we had a little part-bulldog named “Butch.” He was a little guy who loved to chase us when we left the house to go anywhere in my dad’s Model A Pickup Truck. My brother and sisters were piled in the bed of the truck so Butch could see us clearly and chased the pickup until he could no longer keep up. I’ll tell you what happened to Butch at the end of this story.
Anyhow, at the mission school we had no pets. One day a small, grey kitten wandered on to the mission grounds and the boys immediately adopted him. We hid him in the two-seater outhouse located on the playgrounds of the little boys. Even though we didn’t have a lot to eat ourselves we managed to gather small scraps of food and we fed the cat every day. Someone stole a bowl from the dining hall and we filled it with fresh water every day.
How we managed to keep that kitten hidden for a couple of weeks was a miracle, but it wouldn’t last. The principal of the school was an ex-army chaplain named Father Edwards. To us he was a giant of a man with a permanent scowl on his face. He wore a black cassock like most priests, but he also wore army combat boots. He must have known something was going on at the outhouse. One day he headed to the outhouse, opened the door and grabbed the little kitten.
He blew the whistle he always wore around his neck and ordered all of us to form company ranks. He stood in front of a huge walnut tree in front of the outhouse and held the kitten by its neck in front of us. “You know you boys are not supposed to have any animals on the mission grounds,” he boomed. And then he took the kitten by the tail, spun it over his head and smashed its head into the tree killing it instantly.
We were just small boys and we stood there with our mouths open in total shock. We had been debating a name for the kitten and we were about to Christen him that very day. The name we chose was “Snooky.” Well, Snooky died a terrible death that day and Father Edwards just stood there holding his lifeless body and grinning. But that was not the end of it.
We had given Father Edwards the nickname of “Eddie Boy” that we whispered behind his back. One day a small brown and white dog came running on to the mission grounds. The dog had porcupine quills sticking in his cheeks so we caught him and held him down while some of the older boys pulled the quills. We saw “Eddie Boy” approaching so we let the dog go and it ran into a culvert to hide. The end of the culvert was covered with chicken wire to keep us boys from climbing through it. Father Edwards walked to his office and came back with his favorite hunting rifle, a German Mauser.
By that time the little dog had reached the end of the culvert and we could see him clearly just behind the chicken wire. Father Edward slid the bolt of his rifle and cranked a round into the chamber. He took aim and shot the little dog between the eyes. The report of the rifle and the terrible squeal of the dog as the bullet smashed into his head was heart wrenching to all of us boys.
Year later I think those two actions against helpless animals stuck with all of us. As we grew older we supposed that perhaps this was Father Edward’s way to instill fear in us and show us what a big, tough man he was. None of us ever forgot that cruelty to animals.
As for our little bull dog “Butch” he was just a rez dog born and raised. He was sort of lost when we moved from the reservation to Rapid City. We had been living in Rapid for just a few months when I found Butch behind a shed in our backyard dead. He had a piece of what looked like cake still in his mouth and we could only assume that he had been poisoned.
I have a cat named Pod that my daughters gave me 12 years ago and he is the king of the roost. He is treated so well that he thinks he owns the neighborhood and I suppose I treat him so well because the memories of that little brown and white dog and the little grey kitten we named Snooky are still with me and will always be.
(Contact Tim Giago at firstname.lastname@example.org. Giago was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991 and he was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame and the Native American Journalists Hall of Fame)