LITR 4332: American Minority Literature

Sample Student Poetry Presentation 2002

Reader: Laura Moran
Respondent: Dan Negrotto
Recorder: Jerry Underwood

"Indian Boarding School: The Runaways"

Louise Erdrich

Unsettling America, pp. 26-27

Biographical info:

 Susie went over Erdrich’s biolographical information last week when she read, “Dear John Wayne”, but I’d like to read something that Erdrich said in an interview about why she writes.“I think that if you believe in any sort of race memory, I am getting a triple whammy from my background – in regard to place and home and space. The connection that is Chippewa is a connection to a place and to a background, and to the comfort of knowing, somehow, that you are connected here before and before the first settler.  Add into that that the German part of my family is most probably converted Jews and the Jewish search for place, and you have this ‘awful’ mix. A person can only end up writing – in order to resolve it. You can even throw in the French part of the background – the wanderers, the voyagers, which my people also come from. There is just no way to get away from all this, and the only way to resolve it, without going totally crazy looking for a home, is to write about it. Someone said, ‘I don’t know how the average person feels the pain of death and the pain of longing and the joy – these great extremes- without art.’ I feel that I am very fortunate to have some place to put these longings because otherwise they would become very destructive.

 I used this quote because it shows us the survival part of Obj. 3b(loss and survival) - the fact that she uses writing as a survival technique. Keeps the past alive, but keeps the anger that might become destructive in her life as an art form.

Course objectives:

5e - how all speakers and writers may use common devices of human language to make poetry, including narrative, poetic devices and figures of speech.( rails are lacerations, scars.

3b - loss and survival. The loss of the Indian culture by sending the children away to boarding schools- I did some research on these schools and found that ‘kill the Indian, save the man,’ was a common attitude among the founders of the schools and also that the schools were a form of genocide. The survival of the culture- the Indian kids keep running away to what they know, yet each time they go back and forth they lose a little of what they feel is their safety , while growing in the white man’s culture. This was referred to as Assimilation through education.

2c - what is the group’s relation to the law? I wanted to mention this because of the fifth line, second stanza, that my first question will have to do with after I read the poem. (We know the sheriff’s…)

Interpretation of poem:

The poem is pretty straight forward, but the use of obj.  5e makes it more than just a story about Indian Boarding Schools. They run away because they long for home and what is familiar, knowing they will get caught and the attempts at shame that will be their punishment. They run anyway, because the tug of home is strong.

The fact that Erdrich is writing about this just goes to show the survival part of objective 3b.  She is able to write about this part of history and people can discuss it and analyze it. The poem seems to show us a ‘ one step forward, two steps back’ type of progress…the Indian children run back to their own culture, which is familiar and feels safe, but keep getting returned to the schools, where they are learning not only what the white man wants them to learn, but ways to express themselves and become literate as well, whether they realize this or not.

This poem accomplishes what a prose narrative cannot by using obj. is more colorful than a narrative. It brings to life the risk of escape by putting us in the boxcar and describes what goes through the children’s minds while they are carrying out their punishment.

Read the poem…

Questions for the class.  Stanza 2, line 6, “his car is dumb and warm”. What do you think about the comparison to the boxcar they escape in and the way they are brought back to school? (2c and how they don’t think very highly of the law enforcers.)

The last paragraph of the poem. It is beautifully written, but what does it mean?

 Erdrich’s quote from an interview in A Voice of One’s Own - Conversations with America’s Writing Women.

Colonel Pratt was a leading proponent of the assimilation through education policy. Believing that Indian ways were inferior to those of whites, he subscribed to the principle, "kill the Indian and save the man."


Response to 'Indian Boarding School: The Runaways' by Louise Erdrich

Question: Why is the sheriff’s car 'dumb and warm'?

Dan: Perhaps its their relationship to the law. They feel the car is dumb and warm, because they get no mutual respect from the authorities.

Dr. White: Maybe the box cars are preferable.

Laura: The line 'The highway does not rock' could be eluding to the thrill of running away tempered by the 'ho-hum' of being caught.

Question: What does the line 'Our brushes cut the stone' mean?

Dr. White: Its like wet concrete when you write your names in it or when leaves make imprints than the concrete hardens.

Gerri: It could be books, too, like names on the spines of history books, and the leaves are the pages.

Adelaide: I think the names are essential to them, things they are not supposed to say so they write them in the stone.

Dr. White: That’s fascinating about the merger of books and nature. It’s suggestive but not resolvable. It never gets old, because we never stop wondering about the meaning. The rhymes are also carefully put together. Lines 2, 3, and 4 have the 'u' sound of stumbling, run, and love. Also in the last line, lost and cross give a special meaning because of the first impression

Laura: I had to go back and put in the punctuation to get the meaning.

Dr. White: That kind of gives it a feeling of loss and survival, doesn’t it?

Gerri: You can see the loss in the last stanza, but it has a double meaning. The water makes the stone dark when it’s wet but when it dries, it disappears or fades. That compares to the 'dark face before it hardened, pale' where the Indian faces slowly disappear and the dark skin is fleeting.

Adelaide: I see the last few lines as survival as they press a part of themselves into something permanent. The pressed leaves is what survives of their 'legacy.'

Laura: I think the loss makes them stronger and actually enables survival.