Reader Response

St. Marie: An Echo of Boarding School Assimilation

By Lindsey Weaver

The short story “St. Marie” by Louise Erdrich is a recalling of boarding school assimilation of Native American children. Native children were ripped away from their homes and forced to abandon their culture in favor of Christian beliefs. The child, Marie, is a great example of generational trauma and how the mindset of an entire culture can be forced to change how they see themselves.

Right in the first paragraph, we see that Marie is Native. She states, “No reservation girl had ever prayed so hard” (1). In that same paragraph, we see Marie degrade herself by saying she was just as good as the nuns “because I don’t have that much Indian blood” (1). It sounds contradictory to say she was degrading herself when she states she’s just as good as the nuns, but by looking down at her own people she believes herself superior over the nuns and the other reservation members. Marie claims that “None were any lighter than me” (1) and by claiming this the reader can assume that Marie is paler than others; this is confirmed with her talking about her blood as well. This gives her a sense of entitlement that Native children like her use to this day and call “white-passing.” By pushing aside her culture and embracing the culture of the nuns Marie denies an integral part of herself that Native children have been told to repress since colonization began. Marie’s attitude comes directly from assimilation culture. According to Ursula Running Bear “The American Indian (AI) Boarding School Era began in the late 1880s, and the purpose was to hasten the assimilation of AIs by altering their identities through instruction in the English language, Christianity, and Euro-centric cultural values, norms, styles of dress, and manner” (153). This is directly reflected in Marie as she makes her way to the convent for schooling.

Marie describes the people of the reservation as bush people, in a place where the map ends. She describes her own soul as “the mail-order Catholic soul” (2) implying that she doesn’t quite believe in the teachings, but she’ll use them to get out of her situation. The church is just giving her and the others something to do when there appeared to be nothing else to do but drink. Marie also sees the stereotype of the “drunken Indian” in the adults around her. The adults drink to lessen the burdens of their life, and in many cases, drinking is used as a coping mechanism for trauma. “Boarding school attendance is widely acknowledged as one of the major historical traumas that contribute to current-day AI [American Indian] health disparities” (Running Bear 154).

Sister Leopolda’s attitude toward Marie is a reflection of how the boarding school teachers saw their students. She is a woman who teaches children, and she uses that authority to rule over them using fear and intimidation. Marie describes that Leopolda has a hook that she uses to catch the devil, and that at one point she became violent with Marie and that was the first time Marie became afraid. This is just the beginning of the traumatic events that take place at the convent. “There seems to be an acute hatred toward the human body on the part of the perpetrators of violence in the boarding school, i.e. the nuns and the priests, across Christian denominations, which made them think that the education of children could be performed utilizing the instruments of violence in the most arbitrary form. By the word “arbitrary,” I mean the most painful and degrading treatments that boarding school children had to undergo…” (Kristianto 42). Native cultures see their bodies as sacred, and as such, they take great care of themselves. When colonizers began to force European views on the Native people, they were prude about their own bodies and disgusted by the Native practices. To the colonizers, it looked like devil worship, when in fact it was a spiritual practice that made them more aware of themselves and everything around them, and how to respect the things Great Creator gave them. Sister Leopolda is simply echoing the ideals of the colonizers and claims that it is love that she strives for and the salvation of Marie’s soul. Sister Leopolda uses this love as an excuse to further harm Marie.

I would like to argue that because the practices of Natives were seen as “devil” worship Natives and their culture, in general, is represented as the “Dark One” in Marie’s world. “Before sleep sometimes he came and whispered conversation in the old language of the bush. I listened. He told me things he never told anyone but Indians” (3). This line indicates that the Dark One only speaks to the Natives, implying that it’s because of a cultural connection that only they have. Assimilation was a brutal process that denied the “Indian” parts but tried to save the man. “In school, Indians were to acquire at least a basic knowledge of how to manage a small farm— from caring for livestock and equipment to knowing when to plant and harvest” (Wellington 104). When the settlers came, wasn’t it the Natives who taught them how to survive? Why was this a necessary part of their schooling when it was taught through Native cultural practices? This erasure of a culture made Natives dependent on the colonizers for everything, including housing and food. Through Sister Leopolda, Marie is seeing the direct erasure of her cultural identity, and every time Marie tried to access it, she was punished.

Marie is at a stage where she wants to make her own way through life, but because of what she is seeing she thinks the only way out is at the convent as a saint. If she is a saint no one can look down at her, no one can tell her she’s wrong, no one can tell her she doesn’t belong. When she is making bread with Leopolda, Marie begins to realize that the woman she idolizes as a woman of God may be more consumed by the devil than she is. Marie does not see the devil as Sister Leopolda does. Marie does not see her culture as the devil, she sees the devil as the evil he is described as. In Marie’s eyes, anything like drinking and not praying are evil acts. This is why she puts so much trust in Leopolda. Marie believes that Leopolda will lift her up and away from all the trauma the adults on the reservation are facing. Marie doesn’t know that Leopolda has a prejudice against her. Leopolda wants obedience from Marie, and when she is met with defiance and ego she lashes out by pouring boiling water in Marie’s ear. “I heard the water as, it came, tipped from the spout, cooling as it fell but still scalding as it struck” (8). In the end, Marie gets what she wants, to be a saint, but was that true ending or the ending Marie prayed so hard for? After all, in the end, Marie is dust and her final thoughts are “Rise up! I thought. Rise up and walk! There is no limit to this dust!” (15).

The generational trauma of boarding schools still haunts Natives to this day. Marie was not ripped away from her home like so many, but she still experienced the pain of being assimilated. Marie chose to ascend the hill to better how she sees herself. She may not have gone for righteous reasons, but her experiences show a small fraction of what Native children experienced when forced to assimilate. Sister Leopolda is the compilation of every horrible Catholic nun who lashed out at her students. Marie is the embodiment of every Native child who suffered through a program designed to destroy them.

Works Cited

Kristianto, Bayu. “The Notion of the Body and the Path to Healing.” International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society, vol. 2, no. 3, Mar. 2013, pp. 41–53. EBSCOhost,

Running Bear, Ursula, et al. “The Relationship of Five Boarding School Experiences and Physical Health Status among Northern Plains Tribes.” Quality of Life Research, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 153–157. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11136-017-1742-y.

Wellington, Rebecca. “Girls Breaking Boundaries: Acculturation and Self-Advocacy at Chemawa Indian School, 1900-1930s.” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 1, Winter 2019, pp. 101–132. EBSCOhost, doi:10.5250/amerindiquar.43.1.0101.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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