If I don’t break down some barriers, if I don’t tread some new paths...

Dr. Lawrence talks about his experiences growing up.

Audio Chapters

I lived in a lot of places during my lifetime, but I was born and raised right around the Peever area. I started school there, the township school, and we walked to school – a country school they called it. There was no welfare or anything, my father would go to the town of Watertown, which was about fifty miles away. That’s the only place where he could find any kind of work, and he worked putting up ice during the days when people didn’t have refrigerators; they had ice boxes. And he worked there all winter, putting up ice, which was very cold, hard work. But he could work there and so he would move there and started working there and then he’d send for us. Then we’d have to leave and go to Watertown and he’d have a little place there for us.We’d have to start school there in the public school, which was really a traumatic experience for me, because I’d never been to a school that size. They had more kids in one grade than I had in the whole school where I went. And it was very different, very structured; my first taste of public schooling as such, and very different and very difficult. And what made it even more difficult, by the time you were getting used to that system, then the spring work- about this time of year the farmers would start getting in the fields, and at that time farming was labor-intensive, so they always needed a lot of help, a lot of seasonal work. My father would move back to the reservation and he’d go to work for the farmers. And then we’d all have to move back before the school year was up. So that moving back and forth was very tough on us, because about the time I got used to it and didn’t want to move back, then we would have to move back again. And it went that way several years during that time, until I finally decided I would go to a boarding school and finish up. I think most of the Indian boys at that time, their intention was not to go into Education as a field, a career field or anything; nobody ever thought about that. It was an obligation, you know, you either finish the 8th grade, or turn 16. And then we were done; nobody ever thought about education because we were coming off the heels of a time when education was used as a weapon against us, against our culture, against our language, and so we didn’t have any very good experiences, or really good ideas about education. And our parents didn’t reinforce us about education because they had gone through boarding schools when it was really bad, and so they never insisted that we go, because they knew what kind of experience they had. And so a lot of the Indian boys my age, that’s one of the reasons why they never went to school and completed an education, because they weren’t encouraged to and they weren’t made to believe that there was anything in it for them; it’s just another thing you had to do, and so you went to school to get it over with.

The way we were raised, the way we were brought up, the way we were programmed I guess you could say, we didn’t identify with anything in the future. You know, it was not our world. And in order for us to succeed in doing anything we were going to have to go into a whole new world and forget about our own world, and most of us didn’t want that. And so there was no identifying with anything that was in that mainstream world that really attracted us; at least with me. I was used to freedom of walking and moving around, hunting, fishing and working out in the fields in the garden and all those kinds of things. And those are day-to-day and season-to-season things and you never thought beyond the next season about what you were going to be doing. If someone asked you even what are you going to be doing five months from now, we wouldn’t have been able to say. “What do you want to be doing five months from now?” We wouldn’t have been able to tell them because we didn’t have a so-called future to look forward to.Like most of the kids nowadays that we knew, the older kids grew up and went off to college with the idea of someday they were going to be business men and own businesses and do all kinds of things. Well, that was never a part of our thinking, it just wasn’t our world. And so in our world it was very limited and we didn’t have anything really to look forward to, so why study, why prepare yourself for something that isn’t there, or isn’t going to be there. And so consequently we just went from day to day, kind of more or less surviving and trying to make the best out of what we had, and above all, not to starve to death somewhere because you couldn’t find work or something. But there was no future like there is, and most people think about as far as a career—I want to be a doctor some day, or I want to be a teacher or something—those kinds of thoughts never came to us.

I left home when I was 13, and went up north to Fargo, Dilworth, where they had large potato farms, and I’d walk in there and hire on to work in the onion fields and the potato fields, and just stay there all summer. My folks, my mother and father, they never seemed to be very concerned about that, because they knew I was working somewhere, and so they never thought about – where’s he at, he’s out getting in trouble or this or that, and not coming home, and I haven’t seen him for weeks, and all that stuff. That didn’t seem to bother them because they knew that I was somewhere, probably working. At that time, the only time I really came home was in the fall when it was time to go back to school. But work was part of my life and there was no real future in it, but it did mean that I would survive for a while, as long as the job lasted.

Well, I didn’t have what you would call a normal bonding relationship with my kin, with my brothers. We grew up in kind of a broken home situation and we were never very bonded together. We knew we were brothers and all that, and we did things together, but there was never that oneness that should be there, including my older brother. My older brother left when I was a younger kid; he went into the service and he never came back. He just stayed in the service and retired from the service. I saw him a few times; he came back, but he’d never stay and then he’d leave. And in the later years I became more bonded with him because we got acquainted, or reacquainted, however you look at it, and I did have a closer relationship with him at the end before he died. In fact, he asked me just before he died, to come and see him, he had some things he wanted to talk about. Normally in our culture, in our society, it’s usually the uncle on your mother’s side who takes you in. Because we never had the typical, what you call the teen years, the teenage years. You went from being an adolescent to a young adult, and you did that through a mentoring system, you know; you would go and stay with your uncle on your mother’s side usually. I suppose because there were so many of us it never would have worked out. But my oldest brother went to stay with my uncle, my mother’s brother, and he built a relationship; they look at him as a son, he was like a son to them. And he looked at them like parents because he always went to see them and he spent time with them; probably more time with them than they did with my mother and dad, because they were kind of his family. On my part, I was close with my uncle; for some reason he took an interest in me, and I was kind of glad he did, because if not for him I think a lot of things might not have happened; the course of my life might have been a little different. But he’s the one that took me under his wing and showed me how to work at those jobs, and then he would check with me to see if I was doing it right, or having any problems, and he was always there.

DL: Who taught you the most about being Dakota?

EL: You know, that didn’t really happen until later, in fact, until I was married and had a family and began to study history. Becausemy parents never would teach us, never would tell us anything, and I think that it’s because of the boarding school days where they were punished for speaking their language and acknowledging anything about their culture or any cultural practices. And I think that they thought, that by not telling us, they would spare us that kind of treatment. In fact, they wouldn’t talk Indian in front of us. They could speak both English and Dakota, and they would to each other, but when we walked in the room, then they would start talking English. What they were looking at as something that is compassionate or helpful to us, actually worked the opposite, especially with me. Because I thought if they don’t want to talk about Indianness, they don’t want to talk the language in front of me, and then everyone around the reservation, the non-Indians, were treating us like second class citizens, discrimination and the whole thing, it reinforced this idea that there is something wrong with being Indian. In fact, up until I was about 32 years old, I thought I was born with a curse because I was born Indian. And so I lived that way and there was a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy at the time; you’re just an Indian, you’re not going to do anything, you’re never going to amount to anything. The only time you felt good about yourself in my days as a young man especially, was when you were drinking alcohol, when you were drinking. Because somehow that alcohol was a deceiver and it makes you feel good about yourself and about everybody else and your whole situation, and most of all, you could put off tomorrow and just live for the day. And so that’s one of the reasons why Indian alcoholism is what it is. I always say Indians drink for a different reason than non-Indians. And I went through all that, so I know what I’m talking about. But this feeling of lack of self-esteem, lack of self-worth, that you’re never going to amount to anything and that you’re not needed, nobody needs you; all of those things you grow up with. And so what’s to make you feel like you need to do anything, except to get by and maybe try to stay out of trouble, and after while that doesn’t matter. But when I started to study history, actually what I did, what really motivated me was my family, after I got married. And I had no business in that condition that I was in, to get married, because I couldn’t even take care of myself. But we did. And it was when I saw my two kids growing up that I realized that they really don’t have any future if I don’t do something, if I don’t break down some barriers, if I don’t tread some new paths, they won’t have anywhere to go.

...... when I went in the military service, I spent six years altogether, it was the first time I’d ever been on the so-called, proverbial level playing field. It was the first time I had an equal chance with everybody else, in the military service. I was treated just like anybody else; no better and no worse. And I could excel. I found out I could do better than most people on that level playing field, because I didn’t have to overcome any obstacles just to prove myself. And so I was sent up for Soldier of the Month three times, and all three times I made it. And then I was sent up as Noncommissioned Officer of the Month and then I made that. And in a way that tells you, you’re the best soldier on this post; that’s the way you should look at it. But I would look at that and I would feel terrible, and I would say to myself: anybody on this post is better than I am. The lowest private on this post is better than I am. And why are they doing this to me? And I didn’t want that kind of recognition because I didn’t feel like I deserved it. And it all comes from that background of growing up a Dakota, growing up feeling you are inferior, you’re never going to be anything and you are never are going to be anything, and you’re just an Indian, you’ll always be an Indian.

DL: You’ve brought up religion several times now. Were you raised with the Dakota religion or the Christian religion? What’s your background? What did you choose?

EL:Well, we didn’t have any traditional religion during my early years that I can remember. I know there were powwows going on here and there, and I never went to them. And as far as religious ceremonies, I don’t remember them having any; at least not to my knowledge. They were outlawed to begin with. But I was born a Presbyterian, and I guess I’ll die a Presbyterian because that’s the way it was in those days. Your family, like the Lawrence family, you’re Presbyterians. Other families you’re Episcopal. And during that time those religions were having a fight over who was going to get who, and so they kind of made an agreement among themselves with the Bureau’s sanction I guess, that we’re going to take these people – these people here are going to become Catholics and these people here will be Presbyterian and Episcopals, and so forth. And that’s the way I was raised up

DL: Back to Dakota history. What did you learn about Dakota history when you were growing up, and who taught you?

EL: I knew very little about the history and I was told very little about the culture, but I guess the most tragic of it was that I was never told anything about my ancestors. And that about cuts you off from everything, because Dakota culture consists of two main ingredients: your ancestry and your traditional values—those four values I spoke about. They are what put meaning, purpose and strength into your culture. Your ancestry is the thing that solidifies everything. I’ve got ancestors; I go back throughout known history. And so those were the two things that were never told us.

Oral History- Interview | Narrator Elden Lawrence Interviewer Deborah Locke made in New Ulm, MN | Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Citation: Minnesota Historical Society. U.S. - Dakota War of 1862. If I don’t break down some barriers, if I don’t tread some new paths... May 29, 2024. http://www.usdakotawar.org/node/1288

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