The Indians as I Knew Them by Grace Stenberg Parsons – Memories of the Genoa Indian School

This manuscript was written by Grace Stenberg Parsons. As the daughter of the blacksmithing instructor at the Genoa Indian School in Genoa, Nebraska, Parsons observed the young Native American children who attended the school on a daily basis from 1907-1911. This short memoir of her experiences gives details about her childhood growing up on the Crow Reservation in Montana and living at the Genoa Indian School in Nebraska. The original manuscript can be found in the NSHS collections, RG1298.

The Indians as I Knew Them

When I was a small girl, my father and mother, my brother and I moved to the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. We were sent to Prior first, a sub-agency of Crow. We were to wait there until the appointment for Crow came through.

Both agencies are just across the Wyoming line in the south central part of Montana. When it came, the four of us and our trunks were sent to Crow by way of a spring wagon, two scrawny Indian ponies and two Indian drivers.

I remember going down the steep hills, the wagon pushing the ponies, the Indians yelling and putting on the screeching brakes. We stopped every so often to rest the ponies, one time to pick up a dead owl, which they put in the spring wagon. Another time the Indians sighted a dead horse in the distance. They stopped, gestured and talked. They looked at us, our trunks and the dead horse. My mother was concerned; she thought the dead horse might make more of an appeal than the money they were to receive for taking us to Crow. They finally decided in our favor but no doubt the dead horse was picked up on the way back.

After reaching Crow Agency we found there were no employee’s living quarters for us, so we had to live in the Indian section of the agency between the irrigation ditch and the Little Big Horn River.

The government had built some small cottages for the Indians, they pitched their tepees near the cottages so it was possible to use both. We had to live in one of these small cottages and were completely surrounded by Indians and tepees. Until we found out how we would be received, my brother and I had to stay on our own door step.

One of the squaws who lived next door to us kneeded [sic] her bread on the floor in the doorway. It being speckled with dirt didn’t bother her in the least.

The thing we really enjoyed was watching them cut up and dry their meat. They took a large piece, started in the center and cut it into long strips. They stretched all sorts of lines from their tepees to a pole or a tree. The strips of meat were draped over the lines to sun dry. Along would come the Magpies, they are a large black and white bird with a very long tail. They would grab a beakful and start off, the meat would fall to the ground, then the dogs – and the Indians love dogs for they had dozens of them – would grab a mouthful. There was so much commotion that Indians came running waiving [six] their arms and shouting. They picked up the meat, draped it over the lines again and went back to whatever they were doing. This happened several times a day until the meat was cured. It was then put in bags, tramped with the feet and stored for the winter.

According to our standards, the Indians are far from clean. They did at times wash their clothes and bathe. In the meantime when a dress became dirty another one was put over it. One day my mother counted thirteen dresses on a squaw. Each one was a bit shorter than the other.

By the time we moved to the employee’s section of the agency, my brother and I were well steeped in Indian ways and had a good sized vocabulary. We pitched tepees, made war bonnets, but we could not make a Tom-Tom so we had to use a tin can.

After watching a three day and night Indian dance, we put on our war bonnets, got our tin can Tom-Tom and started to dance. Our shrill wailing and the noise of our tin can Tom-Tom brought the agency Indians on the run. After it was over they examined our war bonnets, took the best feathers, they gave us two quirts in exchange.

We overheard our parents talking one day about visiting Big Fox in his tepee and how clean it was. Off we wnt [sic] into the Indian section of the agency and hunted until we found Big Fox. We asked if we could see inside his tepee. There must have been things inside but I was so impressed with the freshly sprinkled earth floor, to this day I have no idea what was inside.

My mother made many friends among the Indians. One of her special friends was a young mother Katy-Round-Face and her baby girl. She made the baby a bright calico dress and feather stitched it in some gay colored thread. Katy was so proud of it she showed it to the other mothers. From then on my mother spent most of her time making bright colored calico dresses for the papooses.

Her sewing machine was in front of a window, at times there were so many Indian mothers watching her they shut out the sunlight.

Runs-Through-the Tepee was not one of our friends. By Indian standards he was a rich man. His appearance gave no indication of it for he was a revolting creature with dirty matted hair, long finger nails that curled at the ends. His clothes were filthy and tattered. Fortunately he did not come to the agency often, but when he did come my mother would say emphatically, “I am not going to feed him this time.” He would sit on the edge of the porch, he would sniff, hitch himself, look in the window, sniff, hitch again, when he was about half way down, my mother would say, “I can’t stand it any longer, take this bread and butter to him.” Whoever was feeling brave at that particular moment would give the bread to him. It was always a relief when he grunted and left.

Fort Custer was abandoned because of the drinking water. Our water was not much better. It was taken from the Little Big Horn River. It had to be settled and boiled before using. In spite of these precautions, my mother developed a bad case of dysentery. There was a doctor at the agency but he was never sober long enough for any of us to find out if he could cure a patient.

In no time the Indians found out my mother was ill. One whole day they trooped into her bedroom, stood, looked, shook their heads, turned and walked out past the kitchen cupboards taking whatever appealed to them. The next day back they came, each carring [sic] a branch loaded with buffalo berries. Buffalo berries are a bright red, very pucker berry. They used them to cure meat and for medicinal reasons. Perhaps they would have cured her – the trouble was the berries were wormy.

During the summer months my father rented two Indian ponies and a spring wagon. We went for a long drive every Sunday. Often we drove to Custer Battlefield. It was three miles south of us. The battlefield is on low rolling hills. To get there we had to ford the Little Big Horn River as there were no bridges. The horses had to walk or swim the river depending on the depth of the water.

At that time there were markers for the soldiers and a wooden cross for General Custer. Today it is a National Cemetary [sic].

Some times we went to Old Fort Custer. The buildings were still standing. The first time we went there my father asked one of the employees for directions. He said, “Start northwest, follow the empty whiskey bottles and you’ll get there.”

The look-out was especially interesting to us for we could see all the surrounding country. Other times we would ride over the hills to the Indian burying grounds. At that time they buried their dead above the gound [sic]. The grave was placed on four posts as the Indians’ most valued possessions were buried with him, for he would not them in the Happy Hunting Ground. If he had killed someone, the scalps were tacked on top of a tall pole which was placed near the grave.

The Indians sometimes put their dead in a death tepee. We were told that these graves were watched at all times and it would be dangerous to molest them.

The Indians had not acquired many of the white man’s ways. Their living habits were almost the same as they had been for centuries. Both the men and the women parted their hair in the middle and wore it in braids. They wore beaded moccasins on their feet, blankets over their heads and around their bodies. They used buffalo robes in their tepees for bedding. No one knows when the Indians first started using beads. It is thought that white man must have traded beads for valuable furs.

The Indians love bright things, so they put beads on their moccasins, vests, dresses, belts, and pouches. Some tribes used porcupine quills to make designs on birch bark baskets. Sweet grass was woven into baskets and corn husks into bags. Clay is still used to make pottery. Silver and turquoise is made into jewelry. Wool from their sheep is woven into blankets. The roots and berries of plants are made into dyes. These dyes are used to color their wool, the hides of animals and even themselves when they their dances or for any special occasion.

The tribes still specialize in some handicraft. In the very early days they made their own tools and weapons. They were skillful with the bow and arrow, later with our guns. Every year they take on more and more of white man’s ways.

My parents were reluctant to leave the Indian bureau but my brother and I were past school age.

White children were not permitted to attend Indian Schools. Our Indian vocabulary was growing at an alarming rate. Billings, our nearest town, was sixty miles away. It was a wild frontier town where they shot up the town every night.

Only one thing remained, return to Nebraska where we could go to school.

At a later date we were re-instated and went to the Genoa Indian School.

Had we been in Nebraska during the 1930’s I think I might have been another Cary Nation going from town to town with a tomahawk urging Nebraskans to make it known in Washington that they objected strongly to the closing of the Genoa Indian School.

Countless times I have been told the Indians are a dirty, thieving, shiftless lot. I have pointed out repeatedly the so-called lazy buck was a hunter and a warrior and had been for centuries. Almost overnight he was forbidden to do either. The government tucked them away on some no good land called a reservation and told them to be peaceful and farm.

The Indian had no interest in farming and had no desire to learn.

It is evident the Department of Indian affairs at that time did not have the word “adjust” in their vocabulary. The squaws were better able to cope with their problems as there was little change in their mode of living. Caring for their children, cooking and making amp were the duties they were accustomed to doing.

The warrior objected to plowing the hard ground, never-the-less he did because he was forced to. He lived in mean surroundings and he became mean and rebellious.

The Indians were starving so the government started issuing rations to them. The rations were in payment for the land which was taken from them, but it wasn’t long before the rations were galled “gifts”.

The Indians were forbidden to have tribal dances, for they used their rations as food for their guests, the neighboring tribes. As a result where we were they took to the hills out of sight and sound and had their dances anyway.

This rebellious trait is noted in our early history. The early settlers tried without success to make the Indian a servant but they soon gave up the idea.

The government finally came to the realization there was little that could be done with the older Indians. They would have to begin with the children and educate them.

Schools were started here and there. The pay was small and it offered little attraction to the really good instructors. Fortunately there were some employees sincerely interested. They made known to Washington the needs of the Indians. Eventually a program was worked out. The children would be placed for three years in non-reservation schools away from the influence of their parents.

The need was for both an academic and an industrial education. The result was half a day in the class room and half a day in a shop.

The pupils worked in all the shops to get an idea of the various trades. When the time came their aptitudes and desires were considered. They then specialized in a particular trade. When they were graduated they were ready to accept a job but our white world as not ready to accept them as workers. They had not kept pace with the Indians and his education so they refused to hire them.

The heart-break came when the young people, not accepted in the white world, returned to the reservation to be met with rejection and ridicule. Only one thing remained – they were back in blankets and shawls – a disillusioned lot.

I would like to tell you about a non-reservation school. At one time the Genoa Industrial School for Indians ranked fifth in the United States. It was opened by the Federal Government in March 1884 and operated for fifty years. It was abandoned in 1933.

Indian boys and girls came from reservations from Canada to Mexico. Later the distract was limited to Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, Michigan, and Maine

At its peak the school had 600 pupils. Besides the million dollar buildings there were 320 acres of land.

The original school building housed boys, girls, and all employees. It was made of sun dried brick and cottonwood lumber.

Cannons stood near the building not for looks but for protection. That building was still in use in 1906 when we moved to the school. It was called the boy’s building and it housed all the boys.

With the increase in enrollment it was necessary to raze the old building and two buildings took its place. A big boys dormitory a small boys dormitory.

The school was a village in itself. I’ll list the buildings to give you some idea of the school.

The first building was the office building, next the big boys’ dormitory, small boys’ dormitory, small girls’ dormitory, employee’s mess hall, school building with its large auditorium, the superintendent’s home, three buildings for the single employees. These buildings were in the front row. The power house, water tanks, hospital, laundry, bakery, commissary, horse and cattle barns, the shop building with the general mechanics shop, the carpentry, the harness and the tailor shop. Then the long row of cottages for the employees with families.

The band stand and parade grounds were in front of the main buildings. The baseball diamond and bleachers were south of the parade grounds and across the railroad tracks.

Because the school was located in a farming community farming and its related subjects were stressed. Boys who specialized in farming were expected to be able to shoe a horse, mend and make harness, and all ordinary mechanical repairs.

The carpenters learned their trade, the tailor shop mended and made all the uniforms both work and dress. All dress uniforms were tailored to fit the individual.

The power house had its apprentices, a detail of boys worked in the bakery and the boys in the print shop set type and published the school paper, “The Indian News”.

The girls worked in the laundry, kitchen, dining room, and mending room. They were taught domestic science – how to cook and serve a meal in the home.

During the summer they picked and canned fruit. They were trained as nurses in the hospital. The girls were taught to sew on sewing machines. The advanced classes made all the uniforms for the girls.

Both boys and girls had to clean their rooms and the corridors. The buildings were given rigid inspection. This was the practical part of their education.

There were two bands, first and second for the boys, an orchestra for both boys and girls, also singing groups. So many people are amazed when I tell them that many Indians have a striking gift of voice and a general love of music.

There were baseball, basketball, and track teams. There were dances, plays, skating parties and walks.

Saturday was shopping day downtown for the girls. They always went in a group with a chaperon. Sunday mornings both boys and girls were escorted to the church of their choice. In the afternoon there were band concerts, skating parties and long walks. In the spring there were dress parades which attracted people far and near. Then came chapel and Sunday was over.

The school was run under military discipline. The regiment was divided into companies. Each company had its captain, first and second lieutenants. The captains were responsible for the conduct of their companies. The boys and girls marched to and from the dining hall, to and from school.

There was constant drilling either on the parade grounds or the gymnasium in preparation for the spring dress parades. The result was precision marching.

This is a typical day in an Indian boarding school.

Six o’clock rising bugle, 6:30 bugle roll call and breakfast. Between 6 and 7:30, besides dressing and eating, the beds had to be made. Seven thirty whistle for all shop classes. School room classes started at 8:30 or 9. The 11:30 whistle dismissed the shops and classes. Back to the dormitories to get ready for 12 o’clock dinner.

Bugle for company fall in and roll call then march to dinner. One o’clock whistle, shops and classes again. Class rooms dismissed at 4, the 5 o’clock whistle dismissed the shops.

Three times a day the hospital took care of drops in the eyes, cuts, burns, and bruises besides the bed patients.

A detail was sent with an employee to the commissary sometime during the day to get supplies. Loads of incoming coal had to be weighed, a detail of boys collected garbage from the employee’s cottages and the kitchen, ice was delivered to the employees and the kitchen. The lawns were rolled and mowed in the spring and summer. Walks were kept clear in winter, ice was cut and stored in the ice house. These had to be sandwiched in sometime during the day.

The 5:30 bugle was for company fall in, roll call and supper. During the evening – band, orchestra and singing practice, gymnastics and track practice.

Nine o’clock taps – all Indians in bed and lights out in the dormitories. Ten o’clock lights out for employees – power house closed down until morning.

Of all the bugles we had I shall always hear taps. On a calm, mellow night the bugler would sound taps low and long, on a cold night it came quick and sharp, on a gusty night it came in snatches. However it came, to us it meant good night and lights out.

Graduation week was our gala affair. The boys and girls were graduated from classrooms and the shops. There was open house that week. One full day was given to the shop displays and demonstrations. There were orchestra and band concerts, and dress parades. Dress parades like all military parades were spectacular and thrilling. The boys’ uniforms, form fitting, were made of government issue (blue flannel). The band uniforms had wide gold braid. The boys had white braid. The girls’ uniforms had red braid. However the braid on the boys and girls uniforms were alternated.

One year when it was the girls turn to wear white braid, the dresses were made with very deep round yokes and stand up collars. The white braid started in circles about the middle of the blouse and continued until it reached the ears. When they marched into chapel on Sunday nights all you were conscious of was a blur of white braid.

Getting back to the dress parade – First came the drum major and the band dripping gold braid, then the 600 boys and girls in companies with their officers marching past the reviewers stand.

The final commands were given just before they reached the judges’ stand, faces ahead, eyes to the left and watch the marcher next to you. Company E, the little tots, always received the greatest applause but never the flag. That was given to the company whose marching was flawless.

Victoria Tyndall, captain of Company C won the flag time after time. Vickie and I grew up together – we were inseparable. She is now a teacher in the Indian Service.

Formal graduation was, of course, the last night in the week.

Then came the dreadful let down, train loads of children who had been at the school for three years were taken home. The summers were long and quiet, with only a handful of pupils and many of the employees on vacation.

We looked forward to early autumn when the employees brought in the children. Children five years of age and up from our district were eligible to attend the Genoa School. The little folks came in scared, dirty, and buggy.

The clippers were waiting, all heads were shingled, they were bathed with carbolic soap from head to toe. At night they were dressed in long white night shirts and lined up. The matron watched while the captain called the roll, to each boy he would say, “Your name is Joe, your name Dan,” and so on until all had been accounted for. They repeated a short prayer in a monotone, said goodnight to their matron, then off to bed, some to sleep others to sob themselves to exhaustion. The little girls fared better than the little boys for the older girls mothered them. The little boys had only their matron and she was a busy person for she had many boys and many duties.

Nine o’clock taps and the wailing cry of the little boys as they stood under the sleeping porches with faces to the brick walls are two sounds that have always stayed with me.

There are very few non-reservation schools left. Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas, the one at Santa Fe and one near Riverside, California. There may be others. I grant the Indian will have to be assimilated the same as other minority groups, but we feel as do many others that the training they received at these schools was far too valuable to have been discontinued. Public schools in the states cannot afford to give them the education they received at the government schools. They also need the restraining and guiding hand the Indian Schools gave them.

According to newspaper articles delinquency and disease are on the increase.

Some effort is being made in the larger cities to help the Indians find jobs and help them get adjusted. So far it is a mere drop in the bucket. Most of the Indians who seek jobs are now classified as unskilled labor. This classification would not have been necessary has the government schools continued.

The Indians are deliberate people; that probably goes back to when they sat around a camp fire and discussed their problems.

Their decisions are not made in a hurry.

It was as late as the 1930’s that the Indian parents no longer hid their children from the employees who came for them. They were not concerned so much about their education as they were about food and shelter.

Good minds have emerged and been developed. The Indians will listen to the advice of a good Indian leader.

I cannot verify this statement, although it was given to me by an Indian, but I do know it is not far wrong. No treaty the white man made with the Indians has ever been kept.

The Navahoes [sic] have been slow to accept our education and our mode of living. Yet it was the Navaho tribe who decided they must educate some of their leaders to be lawyers so they will be able to cope with white lawyers when matters of importance come up. According to accounts I have read they now have some well educated leaders. There was an article in the Reader’s Digest not long ago about the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He is from New Mexico and has a better understanding of the Indian and his problems than previous commissioners. It is hoped he will have sufficient co-operation and funds from the Government so he can be a real service to them.

He is a firm believer in education for the Indian. Instead of having the children on the Navaho Reservation go  to schools, he has the schools go to them. They are trailer schools. Perhaps some of you read the article.

In closing, there is one trait in particular in the Indian make up that is still a great stumbling block. To the white man it is maddening. This incident illustrates the point.

Some man wanted to help the Indians improve their strain of cattle, so he gave them a blooded bull and several cows. Some member of the tribe who had been away for some time had returned. To welcome him they killed and the blooded bull and prepared a feast for him.

Such incidents make us realize how far apart we are in our thinking even today. The Indian is still a red man, in the clothing of the whites.

Until white man interfered with them, they were both clean of body and physically fit.

Today beneath their poverty, disease and despair, the race is there – a wonderful race.

Grace Stenberg Parson

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