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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

Santee students

Santee students. Names and date unknown.

Credit: Presbyterian Historical Society

There can be no doubt that Alfred Riggs sought to assimilate his students at Santee. 


From day one, Riggs subjected them to the type of cultural erasure that occurred in most boarding schools. Former student Ohiyesa Charles Eastman recalled student Alfred Mandan looking "as if he were about come before the judge to receive his sentence" when arriving at Santee.

And indeed it was a sentencea sentence of cultural erasure. The students were given English names and were stripped of their traditional clothing and forced to dress in Western attire. Those that were male had their hair cut short—an experience Eastman likened to "a wild goose with its wings clipped." 

List of Santee students

A partial list of Santee pupils, showing both their English and Dakota names, from an 1885 newsletter sent to the American Missionary Association.

Credit: The University of Nebraska Omaha

Santee students in classroom

Students and their teacher in a classroom at Santee. Student and teacher names are unknown, date unknown. 

Credit: Presbyterian Historical Society

Ironically, Riggs's advocacy for the Dakota language  created an environment for his students to maintain aspects of their culture. He wanted his students to conform to Western society, but he remained adamant about the value of the Dakota language and required his faculty to teach in Dakota—all while the U.S. government was passing mandates banning the use of Native American languages in the classroom

By continuing to interact with their native language in the classroom, the students at Santee were resisting forces of assimilation that both the U.S. government and their own school were trying to impose upon them.

The significance of this resistance was not lost on the students. They recognized the ability to read and write in their native language could further cultural traditions for the benefit of their people. 


We know this through "Santee Letters," a recurring student-written column in the school's newspaper The Word CarrierIn the August 1895 issue, students reflected on classes in which they had to translate works from English to Dakota. Many wrote about the challenges of translating, but one student identified as "P.R.S." 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.

The Word Carrier

The Word Carrier under Alfred Riggs. It and its Dakota sister newspaper Iapi Oaye ran from 1871-1939.

Credit: Minnesota Historical Society

Santee printing press

The printing press at Santee.

Credit: Presbyterian Historical Society

Santee student printing

Most of what was published included a recognition of the students' work on the back of the title pages. 

Credit: The Newberry Library

Outside of the classroom, the 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. However, the printing press at Santee represented an opportunity for Riggs's students to actively maintain Dakota culture.


Students working at the press printed a variety of texts in Dakota to be distributed throughout the missionary and Dakota communities. What began as cultural maintenance  became acts of resistance. In 1887, the U.S. government banned the use of Native American languages in schools. However, the students at Santee defied federal orders and kept printing, proofreading, and distributing Dakota literature.

While Native American children at other boarding schools across the nation were beaten and forced to eat soap for speaking in their Native languages, the students at the Santee Normal Training School were actively engaging in theirs. Whether they were in the classroom or in the print shop, the students strategically used their Dakota literacy to maintain a central aspect of their tribal identities. 

Santee students, 1900
Santee students at printing press

Santee students working the printing presses. Student names unknown.

Credit: Presbyterian Historical Society

Santee students, circa 1900. Student names unknown.

Credit: Nebraska Historical Society

The Santee Normal Training School's legacy is complicated. Even though Riggs allowed his students to speak Dakota, he ran a Native American boarding school that sought to assimilate those who attended.


As such, it weakened tribal nation structures, contributed to the loss of tribal traditions and ceremonies, and stripped children of their identities, self esteem, and sense of community. Scholars and psychologists alike argue that this has led Native communities to experience the type of post-traumatic stress disorder prevalent and historical trauma found among Holocaust survivors and their families.

The student experience at the Santee Normal Training School was nevertheless distinctive because Alfred Riggs's controversial approach to teaching  enabled his students to maintain an aspect of their culture. In doing so, those who attended Santee defied a government that sought to fully assimilate them, a defiance that did not go unnoticed by one Santee teacher: 

I think them as truly, proud Indian girls. There is nothing servile about an Indian.

Santee Normal Training School students

Santee students, names and date unknown.

Credit: Presbyterian Historical Society

Questions to Consider

Some former students have acted as apologists for Alfred Riggs and the Santee Normal Training School. In 1896, a student known as "S.K." wrote in The Word Carrier that Santee's benefits to their people can be seen in the "many [alumni] who are well known among the Dakotas." Another was Ho-Chunk activist and educator Henry Roe Cloud, who worked at the school's printing press and graduated from Santee in 1903. When Cloud got word of Riggs's death in 1916, he wrote that the reverend "left the world far better than he found it, and the memory of his good works is enshrined in the hearts of thousands of red men and women who are better and happier because of him."

At Santee, Alfred Riggs stripped his students of much of their cultural identity, but his advocacy for the Dakota language was unheard of at the time. 

Why would Cloud and others defend Santee and Riggs?


Did Riggs adhere to an early form of allyship, or was he just as prejudiced as his contemporaries? 

Henry Roe Cloud

Henry Roe Cloud (1884-1950) was the first Native American to graduate from Yale University. He played a pivotal role in the passing of the groundbreaking Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

Credit: Library of Congress

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

Credit: Minnesota Historical Society

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