By Wick Fisher
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

And the days go by

Wick's World


March 15, 2018

The year was 1951 and baby boomers were about to take over the world. It seems surreal to me now as we are almost two decades into the 21st century that I could possibly remember that era. What I remember is this: My mother worked at the retail store at St. Joseph Indian School. It’s still located on the outskirts of the South Dakota river town called Chamberlain. I spent my days as a four-year old sitting on a workroom floor with my toys and books. My books were only for coloring.

I am going to digress for a moment to steal a line from my youngest son who offered this precious quote when he was about three or four. He had made a book for me and offered a bunch of scribbled and colored pages that his mother had stapled together for him.

“Daddy, I made this book for you,” he said.

“Why, thank you, Nate. What is the book about?” I asked.

Nate replied, “How do I know? I can’t read and I can’t write."

That story will be passed down through our family for generations to come, but let’s return to 1951.

Daycare didn’t exist and babysitters were hard to find. One day the nun in charge of the store told Mom that she had arranged for me to be placed in first grade. I was only four years old and kindergarten didn’t yet exist.

A new decade had finally left behind the scars from WWII. The war and Hitler had everything to do with white privilege. That is when my white privilege memories became embedded. You see, I was the only white kid in my first grade class. I learned about white privilege at the young age of four.

My white privilege came from the nuns who gave me freshly baked bread after school. Like other Indian Schools around the country, it was a policy to feed Indian students stale bread for lunch. The priests would play ball with me as I hung around waiting for Mom to get off work. The Indian students went to back to the dormitories. I guess the students spent their time learning how to be white.

A lot of rules came with being a first-grader. Rule number one didn’t apply to me. All speaking had to be in English. As I hadn’t yet learned street Spanish, (that came 20 years later), English was my only language. For my Lakota speaking Sioux, Brule and Crow Creek classmates, fluent English was an unavailable commodity. They often were punished for speaking the only language they knew.

It needs to be said that I am not dredging up this history from events that occurred almost 70 years ago to discredit the St. Joseph’s Indian School of today. It’s just the way things were back then. To this day, I love St. Joe’s as they helped support my family. They gave my mother a job for 38 years. I still return there to visit the few people left who knew my mother.

By the time Mom left the back room of the retail store where she sorted out donated clothes, to the day she retired, she had advanced to the position of a counselor that required a college degree. She was granted one with her work experience counting as credits. The Fisher Building carries her name and portrait to this day. That was something she was really proud of as she never even had an opportunity to go to high school.

Mom grew up in Lyman, South Dakota, which to me was the smallest town in the world. When she graduated from eighth grade in 1938, the Great Depression was still ravishing hard-hit Lyman County. Mom had to go to work for the neighboring farmers just to bring home the dollar or so a day she received for shocking wheat and tossing hay bales. The Hoffer girls were well known for their hard work.

As soon as she was old enough, Mom left the farm for Chamberlain where she worked as a waitress at Bill and Pearl’s. One day this good-looking guy came in. They spoke and he returned the next day and the next day after that. He became the guy I called Dad.

Times must have been really hard back then because throughout Mom’s life, I recognized that farm work throughout the Depression years left a lifelong mark on her. I’m certain she held St. Joe’s in such high esteem because it forever got her off the farm. And it gave her the ability to fulfill her lifelong dream of being a teacher. She taught sewing, beading and cooking skills to her students. Later in life, I remember the times when Mom would read her mail only to have a tear trickle down her face. I knew she had received another letter from a former student; some simply thanking her for teaching them life skills. Many of the letters came with a photo enclosed. It would be a wedding photo.

The letter would state, “Because of you, Fish, I made my own wedding gown.”

And the days go by.


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