This piece was written in 1981 and included in Jacklight, published three years later. Erdrich is also an acclaimed novelist and part Native American, Ojibway, or Chippewa tribe. The poem uses incredibly vivid examples of imagery to paint a picture of the boarding school children and the dream-like escape from their school. Readers will likely find themselves struck by the powerfully juxtaposed images in ‘Indian Boarding School: The Runaways’ was well.
Explore Indian Boarding School: The Runaways
The poem is part dream and part reality. The young speaker describes a failed effort to escape from the boarding school. It starts with the children jumping on a train and briefly riding it. They look outside and admire the landscape, noting how scarred and changed it is. When they get to a stopping point, the sheriff picks them up and returns them. This is something, the speaker alludes, that has happened before and will likely happen again. Back at the school, they do “shameful” work and consider their ancestors. Despite what they’ve suffered, there is still hope in their hearts, keeping them strong.
You can read the full poem here.
Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams
don’t wait for us. We catch them on the run.
you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross.
In the first stanza of ‘Indian Boarding School: The Runaways,’ the speaker begins by describing the process of going on “in our sleep.” With the title taken into consideration, it quickly becomes clear that Erdrich is channeling the life and experience of someone whose been enrolled, against their will and likely against their family’s, in an “Indian boarding school.” They’re dreaming about returning home, running away, as the title again suggests.
These schools, also known as Indian Residential Schools, were used in the United States throughout the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries. They were created with the objective of making Native American children more European. Children at these schools were stripped of their identities, separated from their families (sometimes permanently), and often abused by their teachers.
The beautiful imagery in these lines is a clear juxtaposition with the reality of the children’s everyday lives. In their dreams, they’re able to travel home, riding the trains along the “old lacerations,” or railroad tracks, in the ground. “Home,” the speaker states, is “the place where they cross.” The land is scarred and permanently transformed, just as the children are trying to be transformed by the boarding schools.
The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark
less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards
as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts
like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts
of ancient punishments lead back and forth.
The second stanza describes what happens in the train car. The guard strikes a match, the darkness lifts, and the children can look through the “cracks in boards” to see the land rolling by. “Rolling till it hurts / to be here” is a powerful line that suggests the children are well aware of what’s being taken away from them and what they’re longing to return to.
The runaways are picked up at “midrun” to be taken back to the school. They’re used to this procession and the “ancient punishments” that they’re subjected to. When describing the return home, the speaker says that the “highway doesn’t rock” as the train did. Instead, it “hums / like a wing of long insults.” This allusion to the broader history of the mistreatment of Native American men, women, and children is embodied in the sound and movement.
All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
the color you would think shame was. We scrub
the sidewalks down because it’s shameful work.
delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.
In the third and final stanza of the poem, the speaker describes the runaways, zooming back to a broader perspective. The speaker says that they wear “dresses, long green ones,” a color, the speaker says, that might seem shameful. They’re given clothes that are supposed to shame them and jobs that should be “shameful work.”
As the children work, they think about their ancestors. The brushes cut into stone in “watered arcs,” and they can see clearly for just a moment. The final five lines are one long sentence. They suggest that despite the vast amounts of pain that these children and their ancestors have endured, there is still a spine of hope. It provides them with much-needed strength.
Structure and Form
‘Indian Boarding School: The Runaways’ by Louise Erdrich is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains seven, the second: nine, and the third: eight. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but they are fairly similar in length, ranging from around seven to eleven syllables per line. Despite the fact that this poem is written in free verse, Erdrich does make use of numerous literary devices that help to give the poem structure.
Throughout this poem, Erdrich makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars” and “to take us back. His car is dumb and warm.” This can be done either through punctuation, as in these examples, or through the poet’s use of meter.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines three and four of the second stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly vibrant imagery. These descriptions should trigger the reader’s senses and their imagination. For example, “in the soak frail outlines shiver clear / a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark.”
Throughout this piece, the tone varies from hopeful to resigned. This is an important contrast that defines the children’s experience. The collective “we” speaker is desperately trying to get home and sees faint glimpses of hope and sorrow along the way.
The purpose is to explore the experience of children at a Native American boarding school. Erdrich said that this piece is “one of the first poems that came out of letting go and just letting my own background or dreams surface on the page.”
The themes are memory and history, as well as culture and identity. The collective speaker addresses the future Native American children have to face as well as what they’ve lost of their pasts.
The mood is solemn and considerate. Readers are likely to walk away feeling as though they’ve learned something about Native American boarding schools. They might also feel a new appreciation for their connection to their own history and family.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Indian Boarding School: The Runaways’ should also consider reading other Louise Erdrich poems. For example:
- ‘Windigo’ – a disturbing poem. In it, the poet depicts a menacing interaction between the mythical windigo and a child.
Other interesting poems include:
- ‘How to Write the Great American Indian Novel’ by Sherman Alexie – discusses the necessary physical, mental, and emotional traits the characters in a great American Indian novel must possess.
- ‘An Introduction’ by Kamala Das – describes the poet’s own mental and emotional state as she aged and pushed back against patriarchal society.