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Indian Boarding School: The Runaways by Louise Erdrich

“Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” appears in Louise Erdrich’s 2003 poetry collection, Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. Erdrich’s most works feature the issues related to Native American culture. In this poem, she alludes to the Native American boarding schools established with the objective of “civilizing” native American kids into mainstream Euro-American culture. The main idea of this piece centers on a group of Indian children, described as “runaways”, who painfully remember their past and the tribulations their community endured.

Analysis of Indian Boarding School The Runaways by Louise Erdrich


“Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” begins with a reference to the dream of Indian children who were admitted into the school of rectifying their identity. Those children dream of their homeland where railroads have been built. They think of the old scars caused to their community and badly want to return to the comfort of their homes.

In the second stanza, the speaker briefly talks about their school life. The child talks about a lame guard striking a match and refers to the sheriff who waits for the children after school. Then they are taken back to their boarding.

In the last stanza, the poet describes how the children scrub the sidewalks as it is a shameful task for those administering them. They apply something on their faces that would brighten their dark skin. When the thing gets hardened on their skin, it reminds them of their “old injuries” as well as their past.


Louise Erdrich’s poem centers on a native Indian child who talks about life in boarding schools. It is a heart-to-heart monologue of a speaker whose hopelessness is reflected in words. This persona represents all those who were made to learn European etiquette in order to get accepted in the mainstream. Life in boarding school was so pathetic for the native kids who were born and brought up in their traditional lifestyle. It seems the speaker is lost in thoughts and looking back at her past, recapitulating the pains caused to their community. The overall poem represents the stream of thoughts expressing the speaker’s sadness.

Structure, Form, & Speaker

“Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” is written in free verse. It consists of three stanzas with irregular line count. Each section contains 7, 9, and 8 lines respectively. Being a poem in free verse, it does not have a specific rhyme scheme or meter. However, Erdrich uses internal rhymings to create a lyrical effect within the text. This piece contains several end-stopped lines reflecting how the speaker’s thought process halts in the middle. Apart from that, the poem is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker, making this piece a lyric.

Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Erdrich uses the following literary devices in “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”:

  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. Erdrich uses this device to internally connect the lines. For example, this device is used in lines 2-3 and lines 4-7.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in the following examples: “dreams/ don’t”, “match and makes”, “worn-down welts”, etc.
  • Metaphor: The poet uses several metaphors in this poem. For example, in the first stanza, the “rails” are compared to “old lacerations.” In the second stanza, the “worn-down welts/ of ancient punishments” contains a metaphor.
  • Simile: It is present in “The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums/ like a wing of long insults”. The “wing of long insults” contains a metaphor as well.
  • Repetition: In the first stanza, the poet uses the repetition of the word “Home” for the sake of emphasis. The line “as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts” contains a repetition meant for creating an internal rhyming.
  • Onomatopoeia: It occurs in “it only hums”. Here, the poet refers to the humming sound of bees.
  • Irony: Erdrich uses this device in the lines “All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,/ the color you would think shame was.”

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-7

Home’s the place we head …

… Home is the place they cross.

The poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” begins directly with a statement that ends with a full stop. This line contains a gateway to get access to the speaker’s heart. The speaker read in an Indian boarding school along with others of her community. All she wants is to get back to her home. She can only visit there in her sleep. Besides, it is important to note the narrative scheme of the poem. The speaker expresses her concern from the perspective of other children in first-person plural “we”.

She imagines the boxcars (a North American term for an enclosed railroad freight car) stumbling north in her dream. They don’t wait for the children. In order to get back to their home, they chase after the boxcars.

She describes the “rails” as “old lacerations” or old deep cuts in the following line. The building of railroads displaced several Native Americans from their native habitations. She alludes to this fact here. The speaker and other children love these paradoxical “lacerations” of their community.

She imagines how the boxcars shoot across the face and halt just beneath Turtle Mountains, the traditional territory of Ojibwe and Métis tribes. When she remembers the old scars leading to her ancestry, she does not get lost in her dream. At last, she ironically remarks that the boxcars cross by her homeland.

Lines 8-16

The lame guard strikes a match …  

… lead back and forth.

In the second stanza, the poet portrays the life of students admitted to Indian boarding schools. The dream sequence is portrayed using the stream-of-consciousness technique that continues here. She describes how the lame guard strikes a match. A sudden light in the darkness disturbs the children sleeping in the boarding.

In their dream, they try to watch through the cracks while riding the boxcars. The rolling of the wheels hurt them. It reminds them of their sufferings in the boarding school. The speaker provides one such instance of their suffering. During winter, they have to wear regulation clothes, unable to keep their body warm.

Then suddenly the image of a sheriff waiting at the “midrun” to take the children back to their boarding rooms appears in front of readers. In the following line “His car is dumb and warm”, the poet personifies the “car” as being speechless. She uses this device to refer to the sound a vehicle makes while moving on the road. As the car runs on the highway, it does “rock”. For this reason, it is described as “dumb”.

It only makes a humming sound like bees. This sound also reminds the speaker of “a wing of long insults”. The sound a bee makes while flying is comparable to the buzzing sound insulting terms. Erdrich uses a metaphor in “worn-down welts of ancient punishments”. It is a reference to the “long insults” and punishments meant for non-conforming children reading in boarding schools. These insults keep ringing in their mind.

Lines 17-24

All runaways wear dresses, …

… the spines of names and leaves.

The last stanza begins with an ironic statement. Here, the poet symbolizes the green color of their regulation clothes as a mark of shame. Those who wear such dresses felt the dress as a form of insult.

In the boarding school, the children were given tasks that were shameful for those heading the institution. They have to scrub the sidewalks. Their brushes cut the stone in watered arcs. In the “soak frail outlines”, the speaker finds something interesting. The kids apply it on their dark faces before it hardens. When they do so, it again reminds them of their “delicate old injuries”.

In the following section, the poet uses a metaphor in “the spines of names and leaves”. It is an implicit reference to the names of the members of their tribes. Whereas the names of leaves stand for the North American terms. In the school, the students were taught European terms for everything they knew before. The incident described in the last stanza reminds them of those old terms.


Louise Erdrich’s poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” explores the themes of dream and reality, life in Native American boarding schools, and the clash of indigenous and western cultures. The main theme of this piece centers on the life of indigenous children admitted to boarding schools in order to make them fit into the dominant culture. This piece dives deeper into the mind of a child’s life. In the first stanza, its thought revolves around the concept of “Home”. The next two stanzas focus more on its life and that of others. The idea of displacement and pain is present throughout the piece.


In the first stanza, the tone is sad and nostalgic. Here, the speaker talks about how she misses her home as well as traditions. She can only visit there in her dream. It makes her mood more depressed when he thinks about the freedom they enjoyed in their earlier times. The tone hardens a bit in the second stanza. It is filled with the deepest pain and the chain of long insults inflicted on their community. The first few lines of the last stanza are written in an ironic tone. In the following lines, the tone is nostalgic and grief-stricken.


Erdrich uses the following types of imagery in “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”:

  • Visual Imagery: In the first stanza, the poet uses visual imagery in “Boxcars stumbling north in dreams” and “shoot parallel across the face and break/ just under Turtle Mountains.” It is also used in the following stanzas.
  • Auditory Imagery: This type of imagery is present in the second stanza. For example, “as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts” and “The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums/ like a wing of long insults.”
  • Tactile Imagery: The phrase “worn-down welts” contains tactile imagery. It is also present in the lines “things us kids pressed on the dark/ face before it hardened, pale, remembering”.
  • Organic Imagery: It is used throughout the poem in order to convey the feelings and emotions of the speaker to readers. For instance, the line “Riding scars/ you can’t get lost” refers to the mental pain of the speaker. Readers can feel the same after reading the overall poem.

Historical Background

Louise Erdrich’s poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” was first published in her poetry collection Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. It was published in 2003. Erdrich’s major poetry collections are Jacklight (1984) and Baptism of Desire (1989). She is mostly famous for her novels and children’s books. Her works feature Native American heritage. Besides, she is part of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. In this particular poem, Erdrich alludes to life in Native boarding schools. These institutions were established in the United States during the early 19th and mid 20th centuries. The primary objective was to “civilize” Native American children and youth into Euro-American culture.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” about?

Louise Erdrich’s poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” is all about the life of children and youth admitted to Native American boarding schools. This poem describes how they felt inside the alien environment of such institutions and how the Euro-American lifestyle impacted their minds.

What boarding school did Louise Erdrich go to?

The poet Louise Erdrich was not admitted to any boarding schools as such. Her parents taught at a boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota. When she was attending Dartmouth College, she met Michael Dorris. He influenced her to look into her own ancestry which inspired her to draw materials for her literary works such as the poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”.

Who is the speaker of “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways”?

The speaker of this poem is a Native American child who talks about their life in boarding schools. Erdrich uses the first-person narrative scheme in this poem.

How many Indian boarding schools were there?

There were 106 Indian schools that had been established by the U.S. federal government by 1885.

Do Native American boarding schools still exist?

Native American boarding schools still exist today. There are about two dozen off-reservation schools but funding for them has declined.

Similar Poems about Cultural Clash

  • Crow Testament” by Sherman Alexie – It presents the suffering of Native Indians through the story of a symbolic “Crow.”
  • The animals in that country” by Margaret Atwood – This poem sheds light on the history of Canada from the perspective of a native inhabitant.
  • The Powwow at the End of the World” by Sherman Alexie – It presents an enraged Native American speaker who thinks of avenging the attack on their traditional way of life.
  • Crossing the Border” by Joy Harjo – It’s about some Indians who are crossing the Detroit-Windsor border to enter Canada at midnight.

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