Paradise Lost Built from Chalk: The Story of the Rising Hail Colony
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A scattering of crumbling chalk rock cabins on the Missouri River bottoms near Marty, South Dakota — on land owned by the Ihanktowan Nation — are all that’s left of a stillborn utopia dreamed up in the early days of the New Deal.
Eventually this graveyard for a scheme hatched by FDR’s Bureau of Indian Affairs chief, John Collier, will be ground to dust.
The bricks, cut from riverbank chalk rock, are weathering slowly away as roofs cave inward or slope gently to the prairie floor like the spine of one of the brawny bison bull that must have lounged here and grazed in the old days. Driving west from Marty, the Chalk Rock Road takes a sharp southward turn and suddenly a wide, lush river valley opens up around the confluence of Seven Mile Creek and the Missouri where it broadens around a large river island.
John Collier’s Missouri river bottom kibbutzim here, at the old agency town of Greenwood just up the river, and elsewhere, never really took. As empathic as Collier strived to be, his dreams never quite aligned with those of the people who might have brought them to harvest.
But in this picturesque setting, where Dakota men hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) quarried the chalk rock, cut the blocks and built the cabins, schoolhouse, cannery and barns that formed the Rising Hail Colony — known to those who lived there as the Chalk Rock — it’s hard not to feel a pang of New Deal idealism. When the work was done, those gleaming white facades must have looked like hope, especially if you were hungry, which many people were in those times. The glow faded fast for all but a few, but through the fog of what feels like distant time, it’s hard not to conjure up constructivist daydreams of lithesome farmworkers, rigid chins held high, marching rakes in hand ever forward toward the future.
The Cournoyer family see something else. Home. This is where Stephen Cournoyer, of the Ihanktowan Nation, and Pearl Cournoyer, originally of Pine Ridge, raised their 14 children. Among the rubble of Collier’s scheme, the Cournoyers built their own little utopia, farming the irrigated river bottom, gathering its harvests, exporting the fruits of the Chalk Rock Colony to America via the Gedney Pickle company of Minnesota.
“It was a good life,” recalls Robert Cournoyer — son of Stephen and Pearl, “the kind of life I would go back to. Sometimes it was a struggle and hard at times but things were a lot simpler and you enjoyed life and enjoyed family because that’s all you had.”
John Collier was the son of a wealthy banker and Atlanta mayor, and a classic sufferer of upper middle class ennui. After college at Columbia University and the College de France in Paris, he returned to a turn-of-the-century New York, where the tenements of the Lower East Side swelled past fire capacity with destitute immigrants. In the progressive settlement house movement he found a way to reclaim a unity of purpose he felt was lost. The settlement house movement was first launched by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr at their Hull House in Chicago. The objective of the settlement houses, according to Collier biographer Lawrence Kelly, “was to bring about the assimilation of immigrants with the least amount of cultural shock, and to ameliorate the worst aspects of the urban environment,” while also “recognizing that the acceptance of new ideas and customs from abroad would enrich American culture by increasing its diversity.”
Collier wanted to expand the vision of the settlement houses to a more citywide approach to urban problems and found his calling as what might be called a community organizer with the People’s Institute, an organization dedicated to solving problems of social unrest through enlightening lectures and town halls, municipal ownership of utilities and parks, and film censorship to prevent waywardness spawned by entertainments. Under his direction, the People’s Institute launched neighborhood social centers at city parks and public schools. These centers often became spaces where immigrant enclaves could carry on the traditions of their home countries, a development Collier saw as a brake on the corrosive effects of a creeping corporate monoculture.
In Greenwich Village, Collier met Mabel Dodge, an artist and bohemian, and another ennui-afflicted child of privilege with a penchant for radical chic, who introduced him to friends like International Workers of the World (I.W.W. or “Wobblies”) leader Big Bill Haywood and chronicler of the Russian Revolution John Reed. He attended the 1913 Paterson Strike Pageant — a staged production at Madison Square Garden — funded by Dodge, and organized by Haywood and Reed, that dramatically told the story of the often violent Paterson, New Jersey silk workers strike from the strikers’ perspective.
Partly inspired by the Paterson Strike Pageant, Collier organized a massive festival of immigrant folk culture on New York’s Lower East Side dubbed the East Side Pageant of Nations that drew thens of thousands of spectators to see diverse immigrant groups — Germans, Bohemians, Austrians, Slovaks, Croatians, Ukranians, Russians, Italians and “Spanish-Rumanian-Turkish Jews” — perform song and dance from their home countries in traditional dress. The pageant became a model for other community center pageants around the city.
As the community centers started by the People’s Institute and other organizations grew into a national movement, Collier’s ideas about community centers as strongholds of cultural autonomy, as well as laboratories for experimentation in greater civic engagement, gained national prominence. But just as the centers reached peak popularity a series of schisms within the movement and New York City politics (Collier went all-in on an effort to defeat the mayoral candidacy of John Hylan and lost) led to the defunding of the centers. Collier turned to the Council of National Defense, shifting the centers’ focus toward the business of “war work.” The war-fueled lease on life proved to be a pyrrhic victory though. Defeating the Kaiser became the new collective purpose of the centers. After Armistice, objective achieved, the community center movement quickly collapsed.
In 1920, as his life’s work-to-date began to fade into oblivion, Collier’s old friend Mabel Dodge invited him to visit her at Taos, New Mexico, ancient home of the Pueblo people as well as a burgeoning European and Euro-American artists colony. At Taos Pueblo, Collier discovered his “Red Atlantis.”
In the Pueblo people, Collier believed he had found an antidote to modern detachment. A full century before Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and fifty years or so before the golden age of league bowling — or before that many people really started bowling together, let alone bowling alone — Collier had sensed a vast psychic vacuum at the core of American life. The individual, alienated from community and family by the machinery of modern existence, every aspect of life compartmentalized like shift work, was relentlessly reduced to cipher beneath the relentless persona-eroding acid rain of top-down consumer culture. And forget YouTube, this was before talkies.
Echoing German philosophers Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber in his autopsy of the community center movement and its doomed effort to “counteract this isolating of the self within the crowd,” he wrote that “the Gemeinschaft mode of life (the sufficing brotherhood, within innumerable local communities which are moved by shared purposes),” had withered before “the scorching onset of the Gesellschaft mode of life — before the shattering, aggressive drive toward utility.” Weber’s Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft dichotomy juxtaposed the more traditional “community” — in which the collective are unified by psychic bonds like kinship, shared space and belief systems — with the modern “society” in which individual needs supersede the collective and social relations are impersonalized in the forms of bureaucracy or corporations. Yankton Dakota writer, musician and reformer Zitkala-Sa (1876–1938) may have summed up the Gemeinschaft ideal with the assertion that “our tribe is one large family, where every person is related to all the others.”
Contemporary literary theorist Frederic Jameson posits that “dominant white middle class groups” perceive within minority groups “the image of some older collective ghetto or ethnic neighborhood solidarity; they feel the envy and ressentiment of the Gesellschaft for the older Gemeinschaft which it is simultaneously exploiting and liquidating.”
In his “Red Atlantis,” Collier thought he’d discovered something worth envying, a hermetic desert sanctum for the Gemeinschaft, where people had become “communists and individualists at one and the same time.” He wrote in his memoir, From Every Zenith, that his experiences in the community center movement, though disappointing, had “‘lived me through’ the gradual, but at last the final, realization: that until economic and social revolutions, even today, had changed America and Western Europe to their foundations, deep community as a general possession could never be born. They prepared me for the discovery that deep community yet lived on in the embattled Red Indians, and then in the embattled ‘non-Western’ hundreds of millions of Africa, Asia and the many islands.”
This deep community, or Gemeinschaftian unity that Collier thought of as lost to his own milieu he identified as thriving at Taos Pueblo, and in Native America as a whole. He resolved to dedicate his life to helping Native America preserve its traditions. In doing so he was motivated by a sincere admiration for indigenous cultures, but also because he saw in Native America the potential for a kind of salvation, the idea that Native preservationists of deep community might hold the key to lead the Gesellschaft out of their social estrangement.
Perhaps due to this concept of Native America as a potential portal to a common — if distinctly envisioned within individual polities — communitarian past, and conversely the failure of the community center movement to provide such a link, he invested his mission to shield Native America from assimilation with a sense of urgency.
On the ultimate futility of his time spent in the community center movement, he wrote that those years had led him "to say within myself, with absolute finality about the Indians: This [emphasis Collier’s] effort toward community must not fail; there can be no excuse or pardon if it fails.”
US policy toward Native America in the years between Wounded Knee and Collier’s appointment, in 1933, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, consisted of forced cultural assimilation. Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887 — redistributing ownership of tribally held lands as private allotments — as a means of both opening reservation lands to non-Indians and eroding the tribe as a cohesive social unit.
As on many reservations after passage of Dawes, allotment combined with poverty led many people on the Yankton Sioux Reservation to sell their holdings. Of the original nearly half million acres ceded to the Yankton Sioux by the 1858 Treaty of Washington, less than 40,000 acres remain in tribal hands. On the Yankton Sioux Reservation, historian Herbert Hoover wrote, “Federal policy was to undermine all institutions of cultural tradition,” though “only the Sun Dance was made illegal by formal order. Agency workers offered alternate activities and exerted social pressure to weaken traditional practices or drive them underground. Officials worked steadily to undermine the religion of the Sacred Pipe, to eliminate traditional dancing, and to prevent giveaways.”
Families were pressured to send children away to missionary or government boarding schools where indigenous culture and language were forbidden. In remembering upper class support for Indian boarding schools, Zitkala-Sa recalled that “many specimens of civilized peoples visited the Indian school… afterward to boast of their charity,” but “few there are who have paused to question whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.”
In the 1920’s, as John Collier shifted the focus of his activism to Indian issues, Congress made school attendance compulsory for all Native American children under federal jurisdiction, which meant that thousands more children would receive a classroom education, but also that many of them would be indoctrinated, whether in mission or government schools, to reject their traditional cultures.
Throughout the 20’s, Collier deployed his American Indian Defense Association (AIDA) to win support for educational alternatives for Native children, and in defense of indigenous dances and religious practices, at the Pueblos of New Mexico and elsewhere, as they came under attack by BIA. The AIDA was instrumental in helping Native people win some fights — like defeating the Leavitt Bill or “Dance Order” that aimed to ban certain traditional Pueblo dances — which helped win Collier some support among the tribes.
When FDR appointed him as the head of the bureaucracy he had often made an enemy of, Collier ushered in what was called the Indian New Deal, in which the Dawes Act was overturned, self-governance was encouraged and indigenous heritage encouraged, though the respite from assimilationist programs he promised was unevenly experienced among tribes, and never complete.
“Under Indian New Deal policies,” Hoover wrote, “traditional practices came into the open for the first time in two generations. To the surprise of no one on this reservation, Yanktons were ready. They had not lost the old ways, but only taken them underground for protection.”
In Depression-era South Dakota, federally administered agricultural communes weren’t uniquely the province of Collier’s BIA. In the 1930’s, a New Deal program called the Resettlement Administration attempted to provide relief for impoverished rural whites and Natives through “Subsistence Homesteads,” in which applicants could buy into a homestead tied in to a communally operated farm. One of these projects, the Sioux Falls Farm Project, occupied the site that is now the Empire Mall. Today you can order a Bahama Mama at an Applebee’s on the very same ground where The People’s agriculture gave it a go.
Four Resettlement Administration communes were attempted on the Yankton Sioux Reservation — the Greenwood, White Swan, Choteau Creek and Rising Hail (or Chalk Rock) colonies. Chalk Rock was originally named Rising Hail, after an elder who lived near the colony in the 1930s. The name is a slightly off English-interpretation according to Allen Hare, who lives adjacent to the old colony property. “There’s no such word as ‘rising’ in our language,” says Hare. “Wasú Napé [literally the words for ‘hail’ and ‘his/her hand’], He Raises the Hail, is his Indian name.” When Hare and some fellow musicians founded a drum group, they named themselves the Rising Hail Singers in honor of the elder.
The Rising Hail Colony became known as the Chalk Rock to the people who lived there because of the signature local stone the buildings were built from. Though not a large complex, Chalk Rock was the largest of the colonies on the reservation. When it opened in 1938, it consisted of eight cabins, two pre-existing frame houses, a schoolhouse, cannery and barn. Families who wished to join the commune were required to surrender what personal property they might have, then share in the fruits of colony members’ collective labors according to their needs.
From the start, not everybody on the reservation supported the commune, or Collier’s efforts in general. To understand why, it helps to examine differences between how Collier’s BIA and many Yankton Dakota perceived the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, the commissioner’s signature piece of legislation. Collier thought of the IRA as a means of restoring cultural and political autonomy to Native Americans on reservations, as well as reversing the loss of tribal lands through allotment as dictated by the Dawes Act.
On the latter goal, the loss of land was slowed if not stopped, and the federal government even managed to purchase a couple million acres of lost land to return to tribal trust on various reservations. However, an often-permanent effect of Dawes was the “checkerboard” effect that parceled reservations into a crazy quilt of ownership schemes. The bill also purported to grant autonomy to tribal governments, but still required BIA approval of decisions made by tribal governments. Majorities of some tribes responded to the IRA enthusiastically, while others did not.
Both opposition to and support for the IRA, as well as other Collier reforms, were very complex. While some Native Americans welcomed the return to tribal ownership, others had grown accustomed to allotment. Some Native people who had embraced Catholicism resented Collier for reducing federal funding to mission boarding schools. Another controversial aspect of the IRA was the requirement that participating reservations adopt charter constitutions, drawn up by the BIA, that were modeled after the US Constitution rather than indigenous customs.
The Yankton Sioux voted to retain their original constitution, rejecting the IRA in a vote held at Greenwood. The late Yankton Dakota activist Evelyn Blackmoon told a University of South Dakota Institute of American Indian Studies interviewer — recorded in 2002, and archived at the South Dakota Oral History Center — that she recalled “people from Washington would come, a delegation of them… and they would make all these good promises to us. They were going to get machinery and they were going to get cattle and they had great ideas.”
But her father and many others didn’t want the IRA. “Our constitution was already in place when this come about. So our constitution allows we the people to have the final say-so on anything that our tribal committee presents. We have nine elected people… that do our business. But any major legislation has to go to the general council of the people which is us.”
The Yankton Sioux rejected the IRA, making the tribe the only initial holdout among the South Dakota reservations. (The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe voted to organize within the framework of the IRA but never adopted an IRA constitution).
The majority of tribal governments throughout the US accepted the IRA, but overall satisfaction with implementation — and with Collier — was mixed, varying greatly between tribes. While Collier had established a reputation as an effective advocate for Native American civil rights as an activist outside halls of power, as BIA Commissioner he was known to exercise a heavy hand.
Collier didn’t harbor negative views of Native people. He was one of many influential, economically privileged people who felt spiritually deprived by modern society — an intellectual and socioeconomic tradition not uncommon today. American and European literature and films have posed many antihero alternatives to what writers and artists have depicted as the soul-deadening grind of a life lived safely within the system, from Godard’s chain-smoking Michel, to Easy Rider’s Captain America or Fight Club’s Tyler Durden (they’re usually dudes). The antihero stance is fairly common in hip hop.
The nihilist antihero alternative is superficially attractive as packaged, but not very practical for most real people. These figures step outside society. Rather than solve the modern dilemma of social isolation, they opt to embrace it, and even further isolate themselves from the square world by rejecting generally accepted restraints on self-advancement.
Courtesy: Cournoyer family.
Collier wasn’t that kind of rebel. In fact, he had been one of the early proponents of censorship in entertainment. Society wouldn’t find its way back to deep community by emulating chain-smoking ne'er-do-wells with pistols on their hips. For him, Native America represented cultural authenticity’s last stand on the continent, and as such it had to be preserved. “The Indian folk life has not shredded away,” he wrote, “as have the other folk cultures of our country, in the face of a commercialism ruthless alike toward man and the wild creatures and toward the land, the earth. Yet increasingly, the Indian is encountering the competition and disturbances of the white race and the acquisitive society.”
Collier’s troubles in Indian country stemmed, not from a dumb belief in the popular stereotypes of his day, but from a tendency to force his Indian ideal onto real Indians who had their own ideas about who they were or wanted to be, or how they envisioned participating (or not) in the broader economy. He may have done well to remember his own axiom from his years in the community center movement: “No set of persons can successfully self-constitute themselves as arbiters of the public weal, to dictate gratuitously what form of government, good or bad, the people shall have.”
His first major troubles in Indian country started in his second year as commissioner when he launched the Navajo Livestock Reduction program. Collier believed that drastic reductions of Navajo goat and sheep herds, and horses, were necessary to prevent soil erosion, but the way the reductions were implemented left some families destitute and ignored the cultural importance in owning livestock for the Nabvajo, leading to widespread anger against the Collier and the BIA.
Just as there was a wide range of responses, among and within diverse indigenous nations, to the IRA, there were also a wide range of responses to other Indian New Deal programs. What was thought of as benevolence in Washington didn’t always appear that way on the reservations. Evelyn Blackmoon recalled the Chalk Rock experiment as “another thing the government did that [was] against our wishes.”
Not everybody was against it. Frank and Florence Cournoyer and family were among the first Yankton Dakota farmers to join the Rising Hail Cooperative Development Association. Stephen Cournoyer, in a 1974 interview with Hoover, described his father Frank as “quite a progressive man,” who “tried to make the place gel, to bring the people together” when he joined, “probably in mid-1940.”
“It was the kind of thing where individual people who had an interest in the Association took whatever livestock and equipment and whatnot that they owned, and they propose to the board of the membership… that they be given membership in the association, and their contribution would be so many horses, so many cows and hogs and chickens or whatever. We all thought he was making quite a mistake, but nonetheless he went ahead and threw in. He was quite a hog man. This was way back in the days when hogs were probably six cents a pound… And that’s how he bought his membership.”
By the time Frank Cournoyer joined though, the cooperative already had systemic problems. “They were all a part of a very progressive agricultural community in the fact that they had irrigation,” said Stephen. “They had a pretty number one dairy project going through assistance from the BIA. They had a rather extensive beef cattle, cow-calf operation going too… They had a tremendous canning operation going there… But there just wasn’t anyone there who understood the real complexities of putting all of these things together, and who was actually responsible for what. This contributed a whole lot to the deteriorating of the concept, which I think was good, the basic concept.”
Stephen Cournoyer suggested that the time constraints demanded by life in an agricultural commune might have been too foreign to most of the participants. “Any time you go in and start to try and forcibly change people’s existence, their accepted existence, you’re sort of asking for trouble. And these people have always felt free; the Indian people. The Indian community today feels free too. If there’s a pow wow in Fort Thompson, everything else be damned, they’re gonna go.”
“The government tried to force people to be something that they weren’t,” says Robert Cournoyer. “Farming was a foreign thing to a lot of people.”
Nobody was physically coerced into joining the Rising Hail Cooperative. Membership was voluntary. But on the Yankton Reservation during the Depression, cooperating with federal programs may have been less a choice than a survival strategy. By the 1920s, due to the Dawes Act, many Yankton Dakota had sold their allotments to get by. Then came drought and a nationwide economic crisis. In 1933, the old Greenwood Agency was shut down and moved hundreds of miles away to Rosebud. “Now Yanktons received even less consideration than before,” wrote Hoover. “The Yankton came close to starvation. Father Sylvester opened a soup kitchen at the Marty Mission to keep his parishioners alive. The subagent at Greenwood warned of a general disaster unless federal help came soon.”
When federal help arrived in the form of WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps programs, people may have been ready to sign up for anything, regardless whether they were suited for it.
The late August “Gus” Nylander, a white BIA farm agent who supervised the Chalk Rock project, thought it was afflicted with “unusual losses” from the start. In his book, of the somewhat antiquated title Survival of a Noble Race, he remembered that: “The barn burned with loss of harness, some machinery and their dairy equipment. Some of the beef cattle were stolen from the pasture, some lost due to anthrax.” After American entry in WWII, members, including Stephen Cournoyer, joined the armed services, or went off to war jobs.
Whatever the cause of Chalk Rock’s demise as a commune, the fact that it didn't last long was hardly unusual. Idealist tendencies from Fourierists to hippies have tried their hands at American agricultural communitarianism. Outside of the Amish, Hutterite and Mennonite traditions median longevity rates trend low. In South Dakota, none of the federal government’s attempts at seeding successful communes, on or off the reservation, survived long after WWII. For an attempted actualization of an idea formed in an office a world away from the Yankton Sioux Reservation, the Chalk Rock outlived many attempts by true believers.
But the Colony’s end wasn’t the end of Chalk Rock.
“After the war the farming became more than a subsistence effort,” wrote Nylander. “It expanded into larger operations and more progressive methods. The number of members in the Rising Hail Cooperative Association dropped from the original twelve to three, to two and then finally to one operator. It became a one-family sized operation.”
The catalyst behind this convergence of expanded production/reduction in work force was the Cournoyers. After his military service, Stephen returned to the family farm. Pearl had come from Pine Ridge to perform clerical work in the offices of the Marty Mission. Stephen and Pearl met, married, and they and the kids made eventually made it a one-family operation.
“About 1950 I became a member of the association,” Stephen recalled. “It was a family type of group by that time. Because of what they [his brothers] thought was their need to fulfill their own priorities and objective in life, they began dropping out and would sell part of the assets to pay this one, sell another and pay that one. Until I finally wound up in 1953 or 1954 as the sort of know-nothing boss of this whole operation.”
“The first big irrigation project in the area was due to their efforts,” Nylander wrote, “producing big crops of corn, cucumbers, etc.”
Courtesy: Cournoyer family.
The Cournoyers operation began selling their cucumbers to a buying station for the Gedney Pickling Company of Minnesota, in addition to growing corn and raising cattle.
“We’d haul cucumbers to Tripp, every day after they started growing,” said Pearl Cournoyer. “They grow fast. Hundreds of baskets.”
“We had a small one-ton truck,” says Robert, “and that was full every night. If my mom didn’t drive then one of us would and they’d give us the check right there. We were the largest producers of pickles in the area. Sometimes we would take 80 bushels in a day. I don’t know of anybody who does that kind of stuff any more. People are too soft now.”
With the large family spread out across several of the chalk rock cabins, they had wood stoves for heat, an artesian well for water, a propane stove and refrigerator, but no electricity, which didn’t bother Pearl Cournoyer. “When I was young,” she recalls, “we were about the same way. We didn’t have electricity or that sort of stuff. We had to haul our water.”
Courtesy: Cournoyer family.
Ray has fond memories of summers spent wandering the river bottoms.
“One of my favorite things we used to do is roam the hills and explore. We’d swim and fish and ride horseback, all those types of things. I thought it was one of the greatest places to ever grow up, even though back then we burned wood and coal and had kerosene lamps. Times were tough. We did a lot of hunting and ate a lot of wild game like rabbit, squirrel, fish, deer. My folks were good hardworking people and I thought they raised us right.”
When the kids were old enough, they spent most of the year in boarding school at St. Paul’s. By the time the kids went to school, the Collier years were long over. After the War, the federal government abandoned Collier’s ideas about preserving Native culture. The new Indian policy was known as Termination — which was made official with the 1953 passage of House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 108, but effectively began with the presidency of Harry Truman and Collier’s replacement by William A. Brophy. The Termination policy sought to absorb and assimilate Native Americans into society, ending wherever possible the federal government’s relationship with the tribes — in effect “terminating” the tribes as cultural distinct entities. More than 100 tribes lost recognition as sovereign under the Termination regime. Where tribes couldn’t be terminated altogether, federal supports were reduced and often replaced with state programs.
“On the Yankton Reservation,” wrote Hoover, “numerous government facilities were abandoned or offered for sale, and Greenwood went into decline as a center of activity. The colony facilities, and some buildings in Greenwood were turned over to the tribe. The most dramatic change of all though, was the move to terminate federal responsibility for tribes through relocation. By means of the Voluntary Relocation Program of the 1950s and an Employment Assistance Program of the 1960s, special officers of the Indian bureau enticed Indians to leave reservations for industrial centers with token payments and glowing descriptions of job opportunities. Thus, lured by the relocation officer at Rosebud, Yanktons became prominent among Sioux fleeing reservations.”
Despite Collier’s support for Indian education that affirmed Native heritage, mission and government boarding schools that pushed assimilation had never gone away. The Chalk Rock schoolhouse was gone by the time Stephen and Pearl’s children were school age. Like their parents before them, the Cournoyer kids spent much of the year away at boarding school, even though in their case their parents only lived a couple miles away.
“I was born in 1959,” recalls Gregory Cournoyer, “so in 1964 I was sent off to boarding school [St. Paul’s Indian Mission School in Marty], which was something very foreign to me. I didn’t understand why. It was a huge adjustment. It was a tough going for a long time till we got the routine down.”
In 1970, the leadership of the St. Paul’s mission announced its intent to transfer complete control over the school to the tribe. Administration was gradually handed over to a tribal school board, led by Stephen Cournoyer, who also worked on the mission farms to supplement his income. The Yankton Reservation didn’t have a BIA school. Kids either went to the mission school or one of two off-reservation public schools.
A product of mission schools himself, Stephen told Hoover that “from the time that the letter of intent came to us, we spent literally thousands of hours discussing and trying to promote a real atmosphere where it was possible for the Indian community to take the reins and assume the ownership, and to teach identities, cultures, and languages for those who felt that there is a need of that in their lives.” Even though he said, “I see no great value myself, because I wasn't brought up that way. I’m from a different era.”
Nonetheless he strove to make Marty a “go between, the thing that we can fall back to as we need it… for those who find the prejudice too much” at the public schools.
“There's a barrier there,” he said. “I think it is a social barrier. They can start out with 30 kids in kindergarten and first grade, and by the time they get to the seventh and eighth grade, that has been lopped in half, and it just is decimated from there on into nothing, because of the social pressure. And the children trying to find identity — they wear long hair, they wear braids, they wear certain Indian regalia, and people tend to look down on them. And they can't always cut it because they are so few in numbers. Rather than doing that, they quit. We don't like to consider them dropouts. We feel that they are pushed out of that system.”
“We would like to think that prejudice, discrimination can be whipped, that it's a matter of time. And we've been at it for long time already. Congress has enacted laws whereby it's absolutely illegal to be prejudiced or discriminatory. You know, but those are just words on the paper. And what we cannot predict, and what we probably will not see for many generations, is a change of heart — for people to progress. But I just don't see it.”
“I see a need for another fifty years for an institution like Marty… giving our children the opportunity to become individuals that can see the need to go out, to work, to adhere to all the things that are required in the white culture. And yet, understanding enough that they can come back home and without any effort be accepted back here. We're just gonna be here, always filling that void.”
In 1975, St. Paul’s handed total control over Marty Indian School to the tribe.
As Stephen became more involved with the school, Stephen Cournoyer Jr. took over the farming operations on the river bottom. The family finally sold the land in the 1980s, almost 50 years after the Chalk Rock Colony was formed.
If the primary goal of the commune experiments on the Yankton Sioux Reservation were to nudge the Yankton Dakota toward a communal ownership scheme by selling them on the joys of communal agriculture, then there’s no question that the experiments failed — just as others did elsewhere in South Dakota. There are fewer Native-owned farms on the reservation now than there were pre-colony. “It doesn’t even play a part in the economy, or anything, with the tribe,” says Robert. “The Cournoyers and the Archambeaus were the last families to farm and ranch. By 1985 there were no Native American farmers.”
Courtesy: Cournoyer family.
But where Collier failed, the Cournoyers succeeded by salvaging what they could out of a forgotten line item on Washington’s capricious Indian agenda. Throughout his life, Stephen Cournoyer (who passed away in 2004) had interacted with the full spectrum of establishment interference in the lives of the Yankton Dakota — from the assimilationist boarding schools to one of Collier’s re-Indianization schemes to the hand over of the Marty Mission. From each experience, he took what he needed to propel himself, his family and finally his community, forward.
He had taken the detritus left behind by a (some would say dubious) enterprise spawned by the long-since abandoned Indian New Deal, and transformed it into an all-Cournoyer, powerhouse of a pickle supplier from the Yankton Sioux Reservation to the Midwest — outlasting the Collier years, Termination, the tumultuous South Dakota 70s and the end of the boarding school era. After he’d repurposed the Chalk Rock to feed and clothe his clan, he refocused his efforts toward the tower on the hill just above the river bottoms, and led the effort to convert an essentially assimilationist institution into a school where, he hoped, Yankton kids could “develop a pride in their culture, their heritage, their identity as the first Americans” — a place he hoped would prepare his community’s children to go out into the world if they wished, “and still be able to come back and be accepted by our own.”
The chalk rock cabins where the Cournoyer kids grew up are slowly turning to dust. In another fifty years, there won’t be any visible remnant of the Indian New Deal left in the valley.
The Rising Hail Cooperative Association never became a beacon of federally administered communal agriculture, or a model for preserving Native American culture as envisioned by John Collier. But there is a group dedicated to the preservation and proliferation of Yankton Dakota culture who go by the name of Rising Hail.
Formed on the river bottoms Wasú Napé walked, the Rising Hail Singers drum group has brought that name, and Yankton Dakota culture around the world — from the Yankton Sioux Reservation to New York, Washington D.C. and Paris. “Our songs were dying,” says Allen Hare. “Before the Rising Hail Singers started [in 1975], it must have been about twenty years since the Yankton Sioux people had a drum. Then we started singing, and more and more people joined us. We had so many singers at our drum that they started forming their own drum groups.”