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Growing Up on an Indian Reservation
Presentation to the Annandale History Club
October 3, 2011
Mary Larson

Mary greeted the Annandale History Club with “How!” which it turns out really is “Hello” in the Lakota language.

Mary (Acker) Larson is one-fourth Sioux Indian, French and German on her father’s side and Scotch, Irish and English on her mother’s side.  She was born and raised on the Cheyenne River Reservation, half way between Rapid City and Aberdeen and half way between Pierre and Mobridge, South Dakota.  Cheyenne River is one of several reservations in South Dakota.  Others are Rosebud, Yankton, Sisseton-Wahpeton, Flandreau-Santee, Pine Ridge, Standing Rock, Crow Creek, and Lower Brule.  The Cheyenne River Indian Reservation was created by the U.S. government in 1889 and is the fourth largest reservation in land area in the United States. 

Mary said that when she was growing up, “You couldn’t be Indian.”  When she graduated from Eagle Butte High School in 1942, her father took her 100 miles to the nearest train.  Mary had been invited to live with a cousin in Minneapolis.  Mary’s father said, “Mary, don’t tell anyone you’re Indian.  You’ll never get a job.” 

From 1942 until 1976 Mary never told anyone except her husband, a Norwegian/Swede, and his family that she had Indian heritage.  Mary met her husband at a Union Victory Girls party (similar to USO).  He was a Navy Seabee.  When they married in 1944, Mary’s husband’s family was more bothered that she was Catholic than that she was Indian.

In 1976 Mary was a member of the National Civic Garden Club of America.  She told of her Indian heritage and everyone wanted to know more.  Mary gave a program for the garden club, demonstrated an Indian dance, and cooked Indian food.  Since then, Mary has given dozens of presentations.

Mary’s Mother’s Family

Mary’s maternal grandmother was from Illinois and her maternal grandfather was from Maine.  They moved to South Dakota, and her grandfather had the first ferry across the Missouri River.  They moved to Eagle Butte, S.D. where her grandfather claimed a homestead of 160 acres.  The land was poor and most people had to have another job, so her grandfather also had a meat market.  They lived on the Cheyenne River Reservation and her grandfather said they had to get along with the Indians.  However, they could not accept that Mary’s mother fell in love with a “half breed.”  Mary’s parents married despite her family’s opposition.  It was five years before Mary’s mother’s parents accepted the marriage. 

Mary’s parents were first married by a justice of the peace.  Mary’s father’s family, the Indians, accepted the marriage after they were married by the Catholic Church.  Missionaries in South Dakota, mostly Catholic and Episcopalian, had brought their religion to the “heathens.”

Later when Mary’s grandmother was an invalid and in a wheelchair and her grandfather was very old, it was Mary’s parents who took care of them.  Mary’s mother nursed the entire family, including Mary, through a flu epidemic.  Later Mary’s mother got tuberculosis and spent time in a sanitarium in the Black Hills.

Mary’s Sioux Indian Grandmother

Mary’s paternal grandmother was full blooded Indian.   The Indian word for grandmother is “Unci.”    Mary’s great-grandmother’s entire family was killed by men traveling with a wagon train.  She was a baby and the only one spared.  She was raised by her grandparents, the Swift Clouds.  Mary’s great-grandmother (1840-1942) lived at the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn (June 26, 1876), when the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho defeated Custer and the 7th Cavalry, and the Massacre at Wounded Knee (December 29, 1890) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. At Wounded Knee 150 (some estimates say 300) Lakota Sioux men, women and children were indiscriminately killed and 51 wounded.  (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe website:  Not until the 1924 Indian Citizens Act did Indians become citizens of the United States.      

For the presentation today Mary wore the dress her grandmother made over 100 years ago of the same dark 100% wool fabric used for uniforms the Cavalry wore when they fought the Indians.  Mary said, “The fabric isn’t hot and it doesn’t itch.”  The fabric was given to the Indians, as well as calico, because   deer and buffalo were scarce for hides to make clothes. 

The front of the dress has a panel of polished deer bones and cowry shells are sewn around the shoulders, sleeves and hem.  There is a buffalo horn on the belt.  Her leather moccasins have porcupine quill decorations.  Mary wore a beaded headband made by her grandmother. 

Mary said the dress was worn to many powwows.  Mary said that the Sun Dance and the Ghost Shirt Dance were for a time outlawed by the government.  Another of Mary’s presentations to groups tells about the Sun Dance, a religious ceremony, and the Ghost Shirt Dance, a circle dance associated with war and believed to have contributed to Lakota resistance.  Some Lakota Sioux believed that the shirt painted with sacred symbols would protect them from bullets of the white man and bring back the buffalo.

The white men traded glass beads for buffalo hides, etc.  The beads 100 years ago were much smaller than now.  Mary’s grandmother did beautiful bead work.  Mary displayed beaded items made by her grandmother over 100 years ago, including beaded baby moccasins that were worn by her father.

Mary’s Father

Mary’s paternal grandfather came from Madison, Wisconsin, to run cattle and sheep on the reservation.  Mary’s father was born in Promise, S.D.  He went to a one-room school where English as well as European-American cultural practices were taught to the Indian children. Native American culture and language were forbidden. He left school in third grade, and that ended his formal education.  His two sisters and two brothers were sent to boarding school.  Note:  It was prohibited to teach the Lakota language until 1978.  Until the 1940s Indian children were taken from homes and put in schools to be westernized.      

Reservation land was given to the Indians, but when it was discovered that wheat, oats, and barley could be grown, the government took part of the land and gave it to the white man.  The United States government broke a Lakota Treaty by adjusting the Great Sioux Reservation, which formerly encompassed most of South Dakota, into smaller reservations.  This was done to accommodate white homesteaders and lessen cohesiveness of the tribes.  There were few trees in South Dakota, so the settlers had to make sod houses until lumber was brought in by wagons.  The Indian tepees were very warm because of the circle shape lined with buffalo hides.  Later the government decided to give 160 acres to individual Indians.  They ran out of land, so the younger people didn’t get any.  Mary received 160 acres.  Her sister sold her 160 acres for $2,000.   Sometimes Indians rented their land to whites to run livestock.  

Mary was part of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.  She attended a one-room school with a pot belly stove and two outdoor toilets.  It was a school for white children with the government paying tuition for the Indian children to go to school.  One doctor took care of the Indians on the reservation.  Mary remembers lining up for shots.  They were given a bottle of cod liver oil to be used up by spring.  Mary belonged to both an Indian and White 4-H Club.   These experiences are also common to the white child, but there was name calling and discrimination against the Indian children.  Attempts were made to exclude Mary and her sister Peggy from the the white school.        

Mary remembers the Depression years, the CCC and WPA, and the “Dirty Thirties” when nothing grew except cactus and weeds.   The seed that was planted didn’t grow.  They ate Russian thistles, pig weed,  dandelions, etc. The wind blew from Canada and North Dakota and then would switch and blow dust and dirt from Texas.  They had to ship cattle, or the cattle would die.  Drinking water had to be brought in for people.  She had no telephone or electricity until she was a sophomore in high school and never any running water in their homes.  Mary had a job in high school ironing all day for $1 and lunch.

Mary and Martin Larson

In 1948 Mary and Martin Larson purchased around 1,000 feet of lakeshore property on the south side of Lake Union from Henry Nelson.  This lakeshore property extended to the Wright/Meeker County line and included 18 acres with land both north and south of County Road 2.  Originally there was a large sand and gravel hill on the property, which the Larsons lowered by having the sand and gravel pushed to the southwest to fill the swampy lowland around the creek inlet to Lake Union.

Over the next four years, the Larsons built three summer cabins and a boat house (platted as Secluded Beach).  Two cabins and a half dozen row boats were rented out to summer vacationers and weekend fishermen, along with sales of fresh-caught minnows and hand-dug worms.  The first cabin on the lot furthest east was the first recreational cabin on Lake Union.  The first two cabins were sold in 1959.  The lot on the west side of the creek was sold in 1961.  This property was resold to the Department of Natural Resources in 1980, and in 1982 the DNR Parks and Trails Division developed the Lake Union public access.

The third cabin was built in 1952 and has remained the home of Mary and Martin Larson.  Originally a basic 24x32 ft. cabin with a galley kitchen, it has had two additions.  Improvements included indoor plumbing, new windows, insulation, split log siding, and indoor and outdoor fieldstone fireplaces.  The property was terraced with fieldstone walls.

When the Larsons purchased the Lake Union property in 1948, they and their two daughters and two sons lived in Minneapolis where Martin worked for Minneapolis Moline.  In 1956 they purchased a bowling alley in Kenyon, Minnesota.  In 1969 they moved to Freeport, Illinois, where Martin was a safety inspector for three counties.  For five years before retiring the Larsons owned a wholesale liquor, bar and restaurant supply company.  They were able to come to Lake Union Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekends until retirement in 1980.  Until the Larsons retired in 1980 they had no running water or bathroom in their cabin.  They carried water from a well pump and had an outhouse. 

The Larsons two daughters are nurses. One son owns a construction business and the other son has been a poker dealer in Las Vegas for 30 years. The Larson family has enjoyed the cabin at Lake Union for 63 years.

Notes by Annandale History Club Secretary