Dorothy Small survived meanness and discrimination so others can learn and grow
By Robert Lucke
Dorothy Small's snug house is located in a bosky dell just behind the Rocky Boy Agency at the heart of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in the Bear Paw Mountains of north central Montana.
When she climbs the hill above her house, Small looks down on Stone Child College, Rocky Boy Elementary School and Rocky Boy High School, along with the beautiful log Head Start building. She must feel a sense of pride when she surveys all the educational buildings at the agency because she is responsible in no small way for much that has been done.
Her story begins when she was born in 1928.
"I was born right at the agency," Small said. "Pete Sunchild was my father and Fanny Oats was my mother. We had a big family. I had five sisters and four brothers."
"As long as I have been able to hear from my parents and tribal elders, their message to me was always simple," Small said. "It was, don't give up. Some day you will have what you want for this reservation.'"
As much as Small has struggled to get the maximum amount of education for Rocky Boy, her own education was rocky, to say the least.
"I didn't go to school until I was eight. I think that finally they found out that I was of age and I didn't speak a word of English," Small recalled. "My first teacher was Mrs. Bain. She was mean! The first day of school I got spanked and I don't know how many times I was spanked because I didn't know how to speak English. It took two weeks for me to learn yes' and no,' and then it got better. You know you learn English fast when you get hit. And yet, at home we were not allowed to speak English. My grandfather spoke Cree, French and Chippewa."
Discrimination? You bet. Every time that the Sunchild family headed down Beaver Creek in their wagon, people would shout at them.
"In the old days, my mother would make us paint our faces red to keep from getting sunburned, and when we got to Beaver Creek kids would shout at us, Indian papoose! Indian papoose!' One boy in particular said that, and there he was on this day hollering at us. My brother looked at me and said, let's jump off the wagon and beat him up!' So we did and then jumped back on the wagon and rode on to town. That boy was an Italian and we bought our groceries at an Italian store, because they let all us Indians park our wagons by their store. Well, they were really mad at my parents for letting us beat up this boy and my parents didn't even know we had done it. Were we in trouble that time," Small said with a chuckle.
Small never made it to high school. Instead, she married Andrew Small and had three children Robert, Delphine and Junior.
"Later, I did go to college for three and a half years," Small said. "I got my GED in 1971 and, really, I went to college just to encourage my children to go too. All of my children have their college degrees."
Dorothy Small was first appointed to the Rocky Boy school board in 1970. She served until 1976 and got back on the board in 1980 and continued on the board until 2000.
"We were starting to get our own education system out here and it was really quite easy then because there was no competition at all for grants and federal funding. And if we wanted to go to Washington to testify, all we had to do was to call a congressman and off we would go," Small said.
"I remember that in 1973 all federal funding was blocked and we belonged to a coalition. Off we went to Washington to testify. We stayed for two weeks and on the last day we got to go to the White House and meet President Nixon," Small said. "What we told him must have worked, because he signed the bill right in front of us to release those federal funds. He was easy to talk to. Then we told him we had to hurry to the airport to catch our plane back to Montana. He told us he would have his security people and limousine drive us, so that was my first time riding in a limo to the airport."
These days the competition for federal funds is much more intense as many more tribes are applying for that money, Small said.
What kept Small and her band of persistent educational leaders going was simple.
"People always told us that is, our elders always told us, that even if no one listens to you here, at least in heaven they will listen to you and someday there will be a college at Rocky Boy," Small said. "And now we have all that here and people don't have to go away to go to school."
Looking ahead 20 years, Dorothy Small does not hesitate a moment to tell what she thinks it will be like at Rocky Boy.
"I just know that most of our young people will be in college or in vocational school, and our kids will keep learning more, and we will just keep going, and that will be good," Small said.
She looked up, sitting in her chair in the living room of her house walls intense with hundreds of pictures of Rocky Boy young people. She smiled and thought of the future and what she could do to make it better for Rocky Boy youth. That is vintage Dorothy Small.