Gripping my father’s hand, I stopped in my tracks when I read the imposing motto painted on the maroon gate of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School: kill the native, save the man. Although I was horrified when first told about my mandatory enrollment, my fears had gradually been assuaged by the constant, reassuring words of my caring father.
“Chaska, attending boarding school doesn’t mean we’ll never see each other again,” he would tell me in Sioux, our native language.
“Mr. Scott told me the teachers there are supportive and will teach you a lot.”
“Are you sure? I heard from Ahanu that the white teachers there hit you though,” I once responded.
“I’m sure your cousin was exaggerating. Everything will be fine, son.”
As I trudged the two-mile path to the area’s “white man’s school,” I continued to convince myself that all would be fine. Noticing the eerie sign above us, however, I was aghast; I tried to grab my father’s attention, but biting his lip in resignation, he avoided eye contact and kept advancing forward as if he had seen nothing. It was too late to escape anyway. A stern-looking woman noticed our arrival and gestured at me to follow her inside. I tugged on my father’s arm again in panic, but finally facing toward me, his eyes pleaded for me to do as she instructed. Letting go of my trembling hand, my father hesitantly turned around and headed back in the direction of the village as a tear streamed down his face. Before I could scream at him to come back, I felt the white woman’s hand pat me on the shoulder, rendering me speechless.
As we headed inside, she explained, “Starting from today, your name is not Caska or Chaka or Chaska. It’s Logan. Do you understand me?”
I nodded in response; the English words I had learned from Mr. Scott during his occasional visits to our village were barely enough to understand what she was saying. Continuing to stare at the floor as we entered a musty room, I immediately noticed long locks of black hair covering the ground. After a brief moment of confusion, I became motionless when I learned of what was going to happen: my long, black hair was to be cut off with advanced cutting devices that Mr. Scott called “scissors.” While the nonchalant white woman didn’t mind stepping on the thick locks of hair, each time I stepped on them, I felt as if I was crushing the culture and childhood memories of my fellow Native American brothers and sisters. As I stroked my long hair during the last moments I had with it, a white man seated me in a tall, black chair and swatted my hands from my head, only to commit the same egregious crime he had committed to others before me. Appalled, I allowed gravity to push me down from the chair. I glanced at my unclear reflection in the window and swallowed a harsh truth down my throat: I was no longer Chaska of the Sioux tribe. Chaska had died with my hair, and Logan of the Carlisle Indian School was born.
Given a collared shirt, tight pants, and a black school bag shortly afterward, I was then taken to classroom B, where I would get my first taste of a formal education. The teacher, whose name I later learned was Mr. Williams, designated me to the back of the classroom. I took a seat in an uncomfortable wooden chair and prepared myself for this new experience.
“We have a new student joining us. Logan, let me make one thing clear,” he explained, shaking his head. “I don’t want to deal with your Indian bull****, so don’t be a nuisance. Anyways, let’s start with reciting our school’s motto. Repeat after me: kill the native, save the man.”
I searched the room for anyone who dared to repeat after him, but to my surprise, the others immediately recited the phrase back—some even shouting in cheerful bliss. I realized then that my classmates were not Native Americans anymore but “white” children without the proper skin tone.
As the lesson progressed, listening to him babble on about our “savage-like” tribes was bearable. However, what made me most uncomfortable was being forced to remain silent and seated for hours on end. After a mere 10 minutes since the lesson began, my back was already aching, and my feet were getting restless. Out of pure discomfort, I instinctively decided to stand up to stretch—no big deal. Unfortunately, to Mr. Williams, it turned out to be a huge deal. Realizing that I was being a “nuisance,” his voice boomed in irritation, startling all 31 of us.
He screamed, “What do you think you’re doing? Why are you out of your seat?”
I locked my two hands together in front of me and just looked down to avoid his intimidating countenance.
“Why are you out of your seat?” he repeated—this time, even more loudly.
I remained silent, lifting my head ever so slightly to see his feet stomping toward me. He lifted my chin up with his right hand and looked me straight in the eyes, seeming to want to kill me on the spot. My heart began to pound explosively, and I could feel a drop of sweat trickling down my forehead. I could sense the apprehensive stares of my fellow Native Americans around me, curious to see how far Mr. Williams would go this time. Before I could apologize with the phrases of English I could remember, he smacked my face with a dictionary—over and over again. My right cheek began to grow numb, and I could feel heat emitting from the area of impact. The whole class gasped each time he hit me, and I rubbed my face to alleviate the pain.
Once his violent tantrum seemed to be over, I subtly looked around and observed the worried expressions of my classmates; their eyes seemed to suggest, “Stay down, Logan. You’ll be better off that way,” but my heart and mind told me to act. I didn’t want to resign to this teacher’s racist explosions of hatred, nor did I want to remain silent about such an injustice. I was not going to be a “Logan,” but a “Chaska”—free and proud of who I was.
With enough resolve to defy him, I slammed my hands down on the table in front of me; flustered and panting in indignation, I looked up and stared straight back at his wide, blue eyes. As soon as he opened his mouth to scream at the class about my obtrusive disobedience, I marched toward the classroom door with the confidence of a lion in a jungle.
“The moment you open that door and leave, you know what’s going to happen, don’t you?” he warned. “We’ll find you and bring you back. You’re only putting yourself in danger. Oh, let me put that in simple words for your stupid head. You go? We kill you.”
For a brief moment, I hesitated. His words had hit a soft spot, and my hands grew cold as it tightly gripped the door handle. Never again did I want to witness members of my tribe kneeling to the ground and pleading for forgiveness from armed white men. Never again did I want to listen to my father sob at night because of the shame he felt for not being a role model for his son. As such, his words allowed me to fully comprehend the predicament I was in. I couldn’t escape them. My fate was in their hands; there was a reason my wise, all-knowing father listened to them.
All of the sudden, my grave sense of doom dissipated, and I smirked, for I discovered an important truth: my father was weak and lacked conviction, but that didn’t mean what he was doing was right; I can do what he couldn’t. I busted the door open with all of my might, breaking the handle as a result, and marched out of hell and into the open. Embracing the beautiful weather, I bolted along the same dirt path back to the village, where my father was on his horse, hunting for buffalo.
Upon arrival, his expression turned from surprise to delight and to panic in a matter of seconds.
“What are you doing here? You can’t be here!” he exclaimed in Sioux, grabbing the attention of the rest of our tribe. “Go back, now!”
I took a deep breath, reached for his hand, and replied, “I don’t care. We are not savages. I’m staying here with you.”
He stared at me for a long while, as if I had gone mental. Had my father been whitewashed like my classmates too? Suddenly, he pulled me closer to him and hugged me as hard as he could.
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right,” he whispered into my ear.