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Analysis of Poem 'Indian Boarding School': The Runaways by Louise Erdrich

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich

'Indian Boarding School:The Runaways' Analysis

'Indian Boarding School: The Runaways' focuses on the identity of the Native American children who were sent to boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries, as part of a state-sponsored attempt to gradually eradicate the culture of the native people.

Over the years, many children were abused in these institutions. Many children ran away. Most came out with a confused idea of who they were and where they should be living. Virtually nobody had a clue as to what home meant because the land they were born on had been taken by the government.

Louise Erdrich's poem highlights this problematic issue of home and identity by giving a voice to a child in one of these schools, a speaker for the collective soul of wronged natives.

The poet herself is part Native American (Ojibway or Chippewa tribe) and part German. She says of the poem:

'Runaways is one of the first poems that came out of letting go and just letting my own background or dreams surface on the page.'

The poem was written in 1981 and published in her first poetry book Jacklight in 1984. It received critical acclaim. Louise Erdrich is also a novelist and in both disciplines writes about the Native American world, basing much of her narrative in the Turtle Mountain region of Minnesota.

  • 'Indian Boarding School: The Runaways' takes the reader into the dream-like world of young runaways about to fall asleep perhaps after being recaptured and returned to the dreaded boarding school.
  • The poem is part virtual journey, part wishful thinking, part ancestral hurt and pain.
  • What makes the poem so powerful is the contrast between hope and despair within the collective hearts and the inevitable clash of language. There is in reality nowhere for the runaways to go. Their escape to freedom is a delusion, yet their instinct is to try and make it home nevertheless.

'Indian Boarding School: The Runaways'

Home’s the place we head for in our sleep.
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams
don’t wait for us. We catch them on the run.
The rails, old lacerations that we love,
shoot parallel across the face and break
just under Turtle Mountains. Riding scars
you can’t get lost. Home is the place they cross.

The lame guard strikes a match and makes the dark
less tolerant. We watch through cracks in boards
as the land starts rolling, rolling till it hurts
to be here, cold in regulation clothes.
We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun
to take us back. His car is dumb and warm.
The highway doesn’t rock, it only hums
like a wing of long insults. The worn-down welts
of ancient punishments lead back and forth.

All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
the color you would think shame was. We scrub
the sidewalks down because it's shameful work.
Our brushes cut the stone in watered arcs
and in the soak frail outlines shiver clear
a moment, things us kids pressed on the dark
face before it hardened, pale, remembering
delicate old injuries, the spines of names and leaves.

Overview of the Poem

'Indian Boarding School: The Runaways' is a poem essentially about survival, of how Native American children taken from their natural homelands were able to keep the idea of home alive within, despite the attempts of the system to crush their culture.

Overall the tone is hopeful, yet an underlying streak of fateful reality brings a sense of inevitable loss - and these two forces are juxtaposed throughout the speaker's narrative, which is dreamlike in quality.

The poem is also full of imagery which helps give the reader a visual representation of their attempts to physically run away from their boarding school.

  • From the very first line, the reader is aware of the collective. This is a speaker giving voice to a group, a generation, a tribe, a nation trying desperately to get back to the roots of existence. Home.

How to get there is through a dream full of boxcars, railroad cars designed for freight rather than people so the implication is that the people in this poem are nothing but freight, goods and things. And the boxcars don't wait, there's no timetable.

These kids have to hurry to get on this train but once aboard, the mood changes because the rails might get them home, to Turtle Mountains (in Minnesota), the homeland of the tribes.

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Even if the rails are lacerations metaphorically speaking - cuts across the good earth, the earth so venerated by the native people - they lead home, they go across the homeland, scarred forever yes but never changing in the dreamworld.

It's ironic that the very transport they use to try and reach home is the train, the great railroad system that brought so many so quickly across the USA and signaled the end of natural life for the Native American.

On board, a guard strikes a match as the kids watch the countryside rolling by. On and on through the cold dark night, the poorly clad runaways go. But they already know their fate. They'll never get home.

  • The authorities will be waiting, the sheriff will be there and he'll return them like before and the time before that. And that ride back in his stupid car despite the warmth will be an insult.
  • The word-down welts - a welt is a mark made on the body by a whip or other weapon - are these welts on the earth? Perhaps, but they are also on the Native American soul itself, going back through time.

The runaways are on their way back to the institution. They are back. In their green dresses, they are working again, feeling shame because they are Native Americans having to scrub the sidewalk where dirt and dust prevail.

And as they work across the stone the kids recall their ancestors, the ancestral memories return (for they can never really leave).

The last five lines, one complete sentence, sum up the poem's legacy of hope through memory - the spine is the strength of the body keeping it upright...hence the strength of the name, either personal or tribal or totemic...and the strength of leaves...of nature, of seasonal cycles.

Yes, there is pain, and the memory of pain, but there is also strength in the memory of image and story, where names and nature live side by side.

Literary/Poetic Devices Used

'Indian Boarding School: The Runaways' is a free verse, 3 stanza poem which is structurally formal-looking on the page. The first stanza has seven lines, the second has nine and the third has eight lines, a total of twenty four.

There is no set rhyme scheme and no definite regular meter (metre in British English), so the beats vary in each line.


Alliteration brings texture and echo to the sounds:

Line 1 : Home's the place we head

Line 4 : lacerations that we love

Line 8 : match and makes

Line 9 : We watch

Line 11 : cold in regulation clothes

Line 15 : The word-down welts


There is a striking contrast between words such as:

Home/dreams/love and lacerations/scars

hurts/cold/dumb/insults/punishments/shame/injuries and warm/delicate.

Internal Rhyme

Look within the poem and discover connections between hard consonants:




and softer:



and also full and near rhyme:





© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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