In the 1880s, the Lakota chief Red Cloud turned away from the buffalo hunt. He turned his back on the militant resistance of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull that would lead both warrior chiefs to violent deaths. He settled on the arid, harsh Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands of western South Dakota and began the painful process of assimilation.
One of the first decisions Red Cloud made was to invite Jesuit “Black Robes” to set up a boarding school to teach Lakota children and their families how to farm. The school would be a bridge to a new way of life, a refuge from the radical change that was destroying traditional Lakota culture and diet.
The idea that the gumbo-soil grasslands that sustained small migratory herds of elk, deer, and buffalo could be transformed into prosperous family farms now seems absurd. But on the narrow floodplain of little White Clay Creek, in the shadow of native corn patches and thickets of chokecherries and wild plums, the Jesuits built a school and, for more than a century, nurtured a self-sustaining community. As the decades rolled by and the reservation sank into the nation’s worst poverty, Red Cloud Indian School survived as a sanctuary for the best and brightest college-bound Lakota students. At the center of its identity was its ability to feed its people.
Cecelia Fire Thunder is the former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. She enrolled at Red Cloud in 1952 and stayed there until 1963. “We would go back to school in September,” she says, “and the boys would immediately start with the harvest of potatoes and cabbage. They made enough sauerkraut to last for years. The girls would can and cook. I became a good cook at Red Cloud. Some of the priests were dairy farmers, and the boys milked the cows every day. We always had fresh milk, and we would skim the cream right off the top. I remember wringing the necks of chickens and dipping them in boiling water to make it easier to pick the feathers. The main thing was three square meals a day. No junk food. And nobody went hungry.”
Henrietta Cross Dog started at Red Cloud in 1953. I ask her what she remembers most about the school farm. She thinks for a while, and then laughs quietly to herself. “Nobody ever got sick.”
The history of American Indian boarding schools is extremely conflicted, and horror stories about the abuse of the children are legendary. Schools like Red Cloud that have survived into the 21st century have been forced to undergo painful soul-searching and reconciliation. But as today’s students and faculty struggle with the related epidemics of obesity and diabetes, there are aspects of the troubled past that hold positive lessons for the future.
Brother Mike Zimmerman stands on a concrete landing outside the cafeteria and points. “All that land where the football field is now used to be the garden.” “Ten acres, twenty?” I ask. He chuckles. “Oh, no. Much bigger.” He turns, indicating an area behind the machine shop. “Over there was a huge potato field and a chicken coop. We kept hundreds of chickens. We also had a cattle ranch.”
Students took classes in home economics, farming, carpentry, and outdoor survival. They also worked hard in the fields, the bakery, and the kitchen. The ovens and dough mixers, bread slicers, ten-gallon milk cans, even coffee grinders gather cobwebs in the basement of the 19th-century brick building. Grappling hooks still hang from the iron rails of the meat locker. Brother Mike crabwalks under the new heating ducts suspended from the low ceiling and gestures to the wide, cool floors where apples were stored. Fifty years ago, this basement was a busy place.
There was never a final decision to dispense with Red Cloud’s commitment to self-sufficiency. It just fell victim to a hundred small decisions and a cascade of unintended consequences. In 1910, for example, when the Great Sioux Nation was broken up and the best fields were sold to white farmers, parts of the Red Cloud farm were dispersed. When the worst stories of abuse at boarding schools surfaced, many liberal supporters of the school found the idea of children working to grow food an offensive echo of forced child labor. In the 1960s, when the school stopped boarding students, there was a natural expectation that they would eat at home. As farm bill after farm bill promoted formalized school lunch programs, regulatory standards became stricter and the rhythms of the school’s food system broke down. As sanitary regulations were tightened, students could no longer wash the dishes. Perhaps most importantly, knowledge slipped away. The Jesuit farmer-priests retired and died. No one replaced them. Idealistic young teachers arrived, but they taught history and chemistry, English composition and physics. No one was a farmer.
Then, in the 1990s, the Lakota Nation woke up to the fact that diabetes was sweeping through every family. (Today, the Indian Health Service reports that nearly a quarter of the adults on the reservation are diabetic.) Great numbers of children were obese and suffering from symptoms of diabetes. Red Cloud students were eating meals at the Pizza Hut in Pine Ridge or at Big Bat’s gas station and convenience store, which features deep-fried fast food and 44-ounce soda pop “specials.”
A few enterprising teachers at Red Cloud asked their students to keep diaries tracking their daily eating habits. The results were shocking. Not only were students eating unhealthy food at home, many were not eating any food at all other than what they were served at school.
Red Cloud officials resolved to begin a Healthy Meals program. The cafeteria staff started to serve breakfast for all the younger students—kindergarten through eighth grade—and a hot lunch for the entire student body. Throughout the day, even as they lined up for their buses after school, the pupils were offered fresh fruit snacks.
Then, three years ago, Red Cloud administrators made the difficult decision to eliminate soda pop, candy, and processed snacks in campus vending machines, and that had expensive repercussions. “Our high school students used to hang out in their lounge eating chips and soda for lunch,” explains school superintendent Robert Brave Heart Sr. “When we took out the machines, those students starting showing up in the cafeteria, and that increased the number of lunches we had to provide every day.”
It is a testament to the depth of lost knowledge that as the school struggled to fight its way out of poor eating habits, no one considered returning to farming or the tradition of self-sufficiency. Instead, the school developed its program within the parameters of existing federal policy, which relies on institutional commodity food suppliers to ship food to places such as Red Cloud.