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“I Just Loved that School”: Henrietta Chief Recalls an Indian Boarding School in the Early 20th century

In this 1970 interview with University of South Dakota historian Herbert Hoover, Henrietta Chief, A Winnebago, talks of her religious conversion at the Tomah School in the first decade of the 20th century. The Tomah school was one of the federal government’s off-reservation boarding schools, the linchpin of federal policy after 1887 to Americanize and assimilate Indian youth by removing them from their home environment and culture. Henrietta Chief’s conversion made her a fervent apostle of Christianity for the rest of her life.

Listen to Audio:

Herbert Hoover: You were raised in a government school?

Henrietta Chief: Yes. I didn’t know there was another language beside our language then. [LAUGHS] I couldn’t speak a word of English and I was very small. I must have been about seven or eight years old, I think. And they took us. My father and mother had parted, and I guess my mom couldn’t take care of us all and three of us. And it was the government, you know, come and they took us to the Tomah Indian School, and that’s where we were raised. I was there for about nine years . . . and about thirteen, fourteen, right in there—fifteen — I don’t know which it was, how old I was then, but we were . . . right before then—and that’s when I first was converted.

The superintendent showed slides; that’s before moving pictures. He showed slides and he, and he showed Jesus on the cross, with his arms outstretched, you know, like that. And right then and there I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. That’s been over sixty years and I’m . . . and I’m happy, just as I was when I was converted.

Hoover: What do you remember about the school in Tomah, in Wisconsin? Do you think . . .

Chief: Oh, I just loved that school, because that’s where I was converted. I loved . . . And the minister, he was just like a minister . . . our superintendent. I heard he passed away. Mr. Compton, Allen Compton, his name was. And I have no regrets. I had three square meals a day. The government helped me there again. They just helped all the time. And they had cattle there and they had, they had a lot of cattle head. They had a herd of cattle there, and we had all the milk we wanted and chickens. They raised chickens there and . . . I didn’t, I was . . . I just went as far as the eighth grade, and we came down here. But, but I always think . . . that was where I was converted and I really am glad that I heard the Gospel. And, and years afterwards when we came back and, and I got married the old Bible way . . .

Source: Oral history courtesy of Institute of American Indian Studies, South Dakota Oral History Center, University of South Dakota.