Maintaining Tribal Identity at the Santee Normal Training School

“As long as [the Santee Normal Training School students] are confined to their own language, they will be Indians.” - Asa Janney, Santee reservation agent, 1871

Alfred Riggs sought to assimilate Native American children, but his advocacy for the Dakota language ironically gave his students opportunities to maintain aspects of their culture.

Outside of the classroom, Santee students interacted with their native language through the school's printing press. Having a printing press was not uncommon. Many schools required their students to learn industrial skills and perform manual labor, such as operating presses—often to print propaganda. 

While this was true for Riggs's students, they also actively maintained Dakota culture. Students working at the press printed a variety of texts in Dakota to be distributed throughout the missionary and Dakota communities.

The printing press at Santee.

Credit: Presbyterian Historical Society

Credit: The Newberry Library

This continued even after Commissioner Atkins’ 1887 ruling. When schools across the nation were required to teach in English, the Santee students defied federal orders and kept printing works in Dakota.

Santee students, circa 1900. Student names unknown.

Credit: Nebraska Historical Society

The students actively engaged with and maintained their culture, but they were nevertheless marginalized. Much of what is known about Santee is from the perspective of the teachers, such as one who mused about her female students:

I think them as…truly, proud Indian girls. There is nothing servile about an Indian. They do not see the distinction between an Indian and a white man.

However, there were times when the voices of students were heard. Running from 1884 to 1939, The Word Carrier provided news on Santee to white supporters out East. While spreading Riggs’s assimilist agenda, the monthly newspaper gave students a platform to share creative work and speak on current issues.

The Word Carrier under Alfred Riggs

Credit: Minnesota Historical Society

Students understood to some extent the implications of Dakota literacy. They recognized that the ability to read and write in their Native language could further cultural traditions for the benefit of their people.

Through the school’s printing press and newspaper, the students at the Santee Normal Training school strategically used Dakota literacy to maintain a central aspect of their tribal identities. While other Native American children were being beaten and forced to eat soap for speaking in their Native languages, the students at Santee were actively maintaining theirs.

IThe Word Carrier is one of the few places where Santee students spoke on their role in maintaining Dakota culture. In the August 1895 issue, students were asked to reflect on classes in which they had to translate works from English to Dakota. 


While many wrote about the challenges of translating, others acknowledged its potential advantages:

I am taking a study called Translation and find it slow and difficult and discouraging, but I know it will be a benefit to my own people and to me if I could read and write in my own language, because my people are not so far advance [sic] as to have their written language.

Santee students working the printing presses. Student names unknown.

Credit: Presbyterian Historical Society

Background Image: A timesheet of the Santee pupils who worked at the printing press in 1889.

Credit: Minnesota Historical Society