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This Is Who We Were: 1880–1899

New Teacher for the Dakota Sioux in 1888

Although at first Corabelle Fellows did not know the language or customs of the Sioux peoples, she trekked from Washington, District of Columbia, to the Dakotas to teach Sioux children nearly everything from arithmetic and reading to sewing and geography.

Life at Home

  • When Corabelle Fellows began her journey to the Dakotas in 1884, she had never met a Native American, taught in a school, or gleaned any understanding of the Sioux peoples she intended to help.

  • The headstrong, well-educated teen was determined to punish her Washington society parents for breaking up her potential love affair with an older man.

  • Going to a place she had never seen to teach people she didn't know seemed to be a good idea, despite everyone's concerns for her safety.

  • Only eight years earlier, the nation had been shocked to learn of “Custer's Last Stand” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

  • That day in late June, the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army lost 278 soldiers in the most famous action of the Great Sioux War of 1876.

  • It was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, who were led by several major war leaders-including Crazy Horse and Gall-inspired by the visions of Sitting Bull (Th?ath?á ka Íyotake).

  • The “massacre,” as it was immediately labeled, resurrected latent fears of random and unprovoked Indian attacks, even though Little Big Horn was neither.

  • When Europeans arrived in the New World, more than two hundred distinctly different Native American cultures existed on the North American continent.

  • The various tribal groups spoke mutually unintelligible languages, and their hunting, housing, and living customs varied widely.

  • Despite their distinctiveness, they were habitually lumped together in popular culture and by the Eastern press.

    With little experience, Corabelle Fellows moved West to teach Sioux children.


  • Despite receiving a good education, Corabelle had formed only hazy notions about Native American cultures, for the most part acquiring these ideas from the popular press.

  • Since the 1860s a flood of dime novels from the presses of New York City and Boston had presented stereotyped or highly romanticized depictions of Indian cultures; almost always, the Indian characters were simply foils for the white heroes.

  • Growing up in Glens Falls, New York; several Missouri communities; and Washington, District of Columbia, Corabelle loved playing with her dolls, dressing the family cat in the latest fashions, and watching her father, a photographer, employ his craft.

  • As a child in Washington, she played on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building when Congress was in session and her father served as doorman.

  • She fell in love with the Corcoran Art Gallery and borrowed books from the Congressional library.

    Corabelle married Samuel Campbell.


  • Her mother had been educated in music, French, needlework, and fine cookery; when no schools were available for Corabelle and her sister Marian, their mother taught them herself-six days a week-in the finer points of writing, reading, arithmetic, geography, physiology and sewing.

  • “Always when we least expected it, mother would call us to her and demand the spelling of words, the boundaries of a state, the multiplication tables, or the poem she had set us to learn, or ask us to write a paragraph on the circulation of the blood,” Corabelle later recalled in a memoir.

  • The two girls sewed an hour each day and also routinely learned their catechism for Sunday.

  • When her mother finally accepted Corabelle's decision to move West to teach Indians, she gave her a flatiron in the hope that “even in that outlandish place, you will remember to keep your clothes pressed.”

  • Her mother staged an elaborate going-away party and arranged for Corabelle to attend the inaugural ball of President James A. Garfield-to remind her of what she would be missing.

  • Corabelle made the journey westward in late November 1884, traveling to take up her post at a school affiliated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which had begun among the Dakota people in 1834.

  • Corabelle found herself crying frightened tears throughout most of the train ride from Washington to Springfield, Dakota Territory; “As we neared the end of the journey, I gradually achieved a calmer mind and a less swollen face,” she later admitted.

  • The trip featured bruising bumps, sleepless nights, and swollen rivers that defied crossing; Corabelle was miserable.

  • When she arrived at the Santee Reservation on the day before Thanksgiving, she stepped into the “most penetrating cold I had ever experienced.”

    Corabelle's first assignment was teaching Indian girls to sew.


  • After years of work, the reservation's Normal School consisted of 18 buildings on 480 acres and accommodated 206 students.

  • The boarding school was at the heart of the mission-emphasizing religious instruction and industrial vocational training.

  • School courses included farming, carpentry, printing, and blacksmithing for boys, and sewing, cooking, and housekeeping for girls.

  • The school provided training in the reading and writing of the Dakota language, a path developed by white missionaries focused on Bible reading; at other times of the day, only English was permitted to be spoken.

  • When the federal government insisted that only English be taught, the Missionary Society balked, saying the rules were “illegal, unscientific, and irreligious.”

Life at Work

  • Shortly after the five-foot-one, 100-pound Corabelle Fellows arrived at the Dakota reservation, she was given a new, Indian name.

  • Even though “Corabelle” meant “beautiful girl,” the Indian girls looked into her eyes and rendered a separate verdict: in Lakota, her name would be Wichipitowan, or Blue Star.

  • Everyone, it seemed, pronounced the rechristening appropriate; “You want a name of good meaning,” she was told.

  • Her first class among the Sioux comprised 15 Indian girls aged five to seven; Corabelle's assignment was to teach them how to sew.

  • “They knew but little English. I knew no Sioux. But I could show them how. ... I took each docile brown hand in mine and guided it to set fine hemming stitches in the squares of purple, orange, blue, and scarlet calico which they held. They sat on the circle upon little chairs and turned their large, bright black eyes on me unblinkingly. There was not a sound.”

  • Soon she was introduced to more students and taught classes in a variety of subjects: arithmetic, reading, etiquette.

  • At night at her home, she received visitors, always in twos and threes; the Sioux, she learned, rarely went anywhere alone.

  • “Blame and praise are thus equally divided, especially blame.”

  • The girls came for help with their lessons; the boys usually wanted to play dominoes.

  • The girls also loved to finger her clothing-particularly silk or cotton dresses-drink coffee, and listen to stories about what a city was like.

  • The boys were fascinated by geography and quite readily grasped the relationship of one area to another; when she displayed several maps of the United States as they related to a world map, she was pronounced most knowledgeable and clearly had earned the admiration of the boys.

  • Corabelle had assumed that the wisdom of replacing the culture of the Indian students with her own was self-evident.

  • She gave children English first names and used their fathers' names as their last names, ignoring indigenous naming practices.

  • She came to learn that her pupils were incorrigible gum chewers-in and out of the classroom.

  • Gum was manufactured from the juice of the purple coneflower, which they sliced and dripped into a pottery bowl.

  • When the liquid was boiled down, the residue was a fine, rubberlike substance that could be chewed constantly.

  • The boys chewed with much noise and swagger; the girls were experts at snapping.

  • After seven months of successful teaching, Corabelle was asked to take on a new assignment-among the “rougher Indians, who spoke a different dialect of Sioux.”

  • Six other teachers-unable to endure the cold, the food, the language, or the odors-had failed to make a success of this assignment.

  • At the next reservation school site in Oahe, on the Missouri River near Fort Sully, Corabelle learned the rhythms and customs of Native American life: why each tepee was set up exactly the same way, the process making of pottery, how to properly scrape an animal skin, the art of lassoing an animal.

  • One day she was invited to go hunting for beans with the women of the village.

  • The children showed her how to find among the grasses handfuls of beans carefully stored by the prairie mice.

  • When they returned, each woman carried approximately three pounds of purloined beans.

  • After two years among the Indians, Corabelle was invited to a new Indian Center at the Cheyenne River Reservation in Nebraska.

  • By this time her parents were proud of the path she had taken and repeatedly said so during a round of Washington parties given in her honor.

    Corabelle's mother accepted her decision reluctantly.


  • Language continued to be a major issue: instruction was in English only at the government schools, while the vernacular was permitted at the schools in which Corabelle taught.

  • But the tide had firmly turned: Indians would only be successful in American society when they abandoned their old ways.

  • When she arrived in Nebraska, Corabelle was met by a platform filled with cowboys and Indians eager to get a glimpse of “the new schoolmarm.”

  • “The fellow bowed with his hand over his heart and offered me an elbow. As I reached to take it, thinking he had been sent to meet me, he fired a pistol above my head. At this signal, the mob swirled about the end of the coach, pistols popping, war whoops ringing.”

  • The Indians were reluctant to attend school because scalp locks and painted faces were not permitted, so Corabelle taught three teens-Dog Bear, Gray Bear, and White Owl-at night when others were not around.

  • They were asked not to wear frightful paint because Corabelle thought it was ugly.

  • In addition she had to fight off a marriage proposal-and virtual kidnapping-which she accidently encouraged because she didn't understand the traditional rituals.

  • "The white blanket is worn by the Cheyenne man who seeks a mate. I had spoken to him; therefore, I approved of him. I left my house alone, and after sunset-final proof of my approval and interest-and he'd been in his own right to attempt to carry me off. I retraced his trail the next day. He had carried me to within possibly 200 feet of his tepee.

  • “Had he once entered it with me, by the law of the Cheyenne, I would have been his lawful squaw property from that hour forward.”

  • Corabelle's time as a teacher drew to a close after she worked briefly at a boarding school at Fort Benning, Georgia, where she met Samuel Campbell, the son of a trader and a Sioux woman who was raised by an Episcopal priest.

  • On March 15, 1888, Corabelle Fellows married Samuel Campbell, ending her teaching career-but not her time in the West.

Life in the Community: The Dakotas

  • Prior to Corabelle Fellows's arrival, the Lakota people had lost most of their land in Minnesota through treaties signed in 1837, 1851, and 1858.

  • The terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 granted the Lakota a single large reservation that covered parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, and four other states.

  • After the conclusion of the Indian Wars in the 1870s, the U.S. government confiscated about one-half of this reservation; the Great Sioux Reservation was reduced from 60 million acres to less than 22 million acres.

  • Reservation treaties sometimes included food and supply stipend agreements, in which the federal government would grant a certain amount of goods to a tribe yearly.

  • The implementation of the policy was erratic, however, and in many cases the stipend goods were not delivered.

  • These treaties were often established by executive order and rarely pleased anyone.

  • All the while, missionaries were urging the Indians to abandon traditional ways and adopt the white culture.

  • Progress among the Dakota peoples was defined as “interest in speaking the English language, monogamy replacing polygamy, houses that incorporated windows and doors, and an interest in agriculture.”

    White missionaries urged Indians to abandon their traditional ways.


  • The creation of American Indian reservations began in earnest during the administration (1845-1849) of President James K. Polk, who believed in the establishment of “colonies” for the Native Americans in the region beyond the Mississippi River.

  • The establishment of reservations, or “permanent” Indian frontiers, was also indelibly tied to the policy of Indian removal from lands east of the Mississippi now desired by white settlers.

  • In most cases the West's reservation policy either reduced the homeland of the native people or required that they move to a new location where they would have less land that needed to be protected from white immigrants flooding the area.

  • In 1851 Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act, which authorized the creation of Indian reservations in modern-day Oklahoma.

  • Relations between settlers and natives continued to deteriorate as the settlers encroached on Indian territory and consumed the natural resources in the West.

  • By the late 1860s, President Ulysses S. Grant pursued a stated “peace policy” as a possible solution to the conflict.

  • The policy included a reorganization of the Indian Service, with the goal of relocating various tribes from their ancestral homes to parcels of land established specifically for their habitation.

  • The policy called for the replacement of government officials by religious men, nominated by churches, to oversee the Indian agencies on reservations, in order to teach Christianity to the native tribes.

  • The Quakers were especially active in this philosophy for reservations; their “civilization” policy was aimed at eventually preparing the tribes for citizenship.

  • White settlers objected to the size of land parcels; various reports submitted to Congress found widespread corruption among the federal Native American agencies, and many tribes who ignored the relocation orders were then forced onto their limited land parcels.

  • Enforcement of the policy required the U.S. Army to restrict the movements of various tribes by force, leading to a number of Native American massacres and some wars.

  • The most well-known conflict was the Sioux War on the northern Great Plains, between 1876 and 1881, which included the Battle of Little Bighorn.

  • By the 1880s government officials, military officers, and congressional leaders were unanimous in their agreement that allowing tribal landholdings and promoting tribal culture should end.

  • They also believed that reservations should disappear along with Indian identity.

  • In 1887 Congress undertook a significant change in reservation policy with the passage of the Dawes Act, which began the policy of granting small parcels of land to individuals, not tribes as a whole.

  • The government's policy continued to assume that the road to salvation followed the white road to the church, school, and farm.

  • This belief remained firm even when the dry Plains proved difficult or even impossible to farm.

Citation Types

MLA 8th
. "New Teacher For The Dakota Sioux In 1888." This Is Who We Were: 1880–1899, edited by Scott Derks, Salem, 2016. Salem Online, Accessed 26 Jun. 2022.
APA 7th
(2016). New Teacher for the Dakota Sioux in 1888. In S. Derks (Ed.), This Is Who We Were: 1880–1899. Salem Press.
CMOS 17th
. "New Teacher For The Dakota Sioux In 1888." Edited by Scott Derks. This Is Who We Were: 1880–1899. Salem, 2016. Accessed June 26, 2022. .