Indian Boarding School: The Runaways Poem by Louise Erdrich Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” is written by Louise Erdrich. The poem was first published in her poetry collection, “Original Fire: Selected and New Poems” in 2003. This poem, like her other poems, deals with the issues pertaining to the Native American culture. In this poem, the poet talks about the Boarding Schools that were made specifically for Native Americans. These schools were made with the goal to “civilize” the savage tribes of the Indians. The poem is about the children who ran away from these schools. They narrate their painful past and the things they had to go through.

About the poet

Karen Louise Erdrich was born in 1954 in Minnesota, USA. She is an American writer of poetry as well as novels. She also writes children fiction books with Indian characters and settings. She has published numerous books and poetry collections. Some of her famous works are the famous novel “Love Medicine” and the poetry collection “Original Fire: Selected and New Poems” published in 2003.


The poem is written in free-verse. It is written in 3 stanzas, each varying in length. The first stanza consists of 7 lines. The 2nd and 3rd stanza consist of 9 and 8 lines respectively.

Stanza 1

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 poem starts with the speaker talking about their home. They say that “home” is a place they go to rest and fall asleep. The boxcars, freight trains, heading north pay no attention to the speaker. They don’t stop for her. She runs after the trains in hope of catching them and running away. The speaker says that the railway tracks are like “old lacerations” that run across the region. The freight train tracks create deep cuts in the landscape and divide up the place that the children love and call home. She talks about how these trains run all the way up to Turtle Mountain, where her home is situated. These trains “cross”, pass by, the speaker’s home time.


This poet begins the poem by talking about the life and dreams of a young Native American girl who is living in a boarding school.the girl talks about her definition of a “Home”. She wishes to go home, a place where she can sleep and be at peace. She talks about “boxcars”, “boxcars” are a reference to the American railway system which had freight trains that ran across the country. The girl looks at the freight trains heading north. She runs after them but the trains never stop for any of them. The running after the trains reflects a desire to escape the life that they are forced into. The girl wants to go back and connect with her traditional and cultural roots.

The railway tracks are used as a metaphor for “old lacerations” . The poet, through this comparison, suggests a deep and historical wound or cut that is caused by the white settlers over the girl’s homeland. The poet talks about the trains acting as a divisive force which created “deep cuts in the landscape.” The poet makes a reference to Turtle Mountain, a significant location,where Native American tribes were living. The trains cross the young girl’s home town without stopping. This is done to highlight the neglect and disregard for the well-being of the Native American community by the white settlers.

Stanza 2

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.


The young girl now talks about the lame guard striking a match. This light source brings a fleeting light to the darkness. This makes the darkness a little bit tolerable for the children. The children hide behind the boards and witness the unsettling rolling of the land. The speaker talks about how painful it is to stay in school. She feels cold while wearing the clothes issued by the institution. Even if the children manage to catch the train and run away, they know that the sheriff is waiting mid-run, ready to catch and return them. The girl describes the sheriff’s car as both “dumb and warm.” The highway, unlike the rocking trains, does not move or rocks. It stands steady and hums with a wing of long insults hurled at the kids trying to run away. The girl remembers and knows that going back, the worn-down welts of older punishments are waiting to be inflicted on them again. This suggests the cyclical and oppressive nature of their life.


The poet in this stanza talks about the struggles of Native American children in boarding schools. The lame guard striking a match brings a brief light in the darkness. This symbolizes a short relief. The kids try to hide behind boards and try to find the perfect opportunity to escape. They look at the landscape and it becomes increasingly uncomfortable for them. They wear institution-issued clothes and feel cold.

This reveals the harshness of their school life. The children want to catch the train to escape but know that the sheriff will bring them back. The poet talks about highway, unlike moving trains, standing steady, humming insults. This symbolizes a society that doesn’t care about their struggles. The mention of “worn-down welts of older punishments” also shows a repeating cycle of mistreatment, highlighting the challenges faced by these children.

Stanza 3

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.


In this stanza, the girl addresses her less and other children as the runaway kids. All of them are wearing green dresses. The speaker associates the color green to shame. She talks about how while wearing the color of shame all of them are doing shameful work—scrubbing sidewalks. Their brushes cut into the stone and reveal the faint outlines pressed by the kids before it solidified. The speaker says that these outlines hold memories of old injuries, both personal and symbolic. These images carry memories of delicate old injuries, reminiscent of both personal experiences and the imprints of names and leaves.


In these lines, the poet describes a vivid scene where runaways, who are Native American children in a boarding school, are wearing long green dresses. The choice of green, a color associated with nature, contrasts with the shame they feel. The children engage in the shameful work of scrubbing sidewalks, and as they do, their brushes cut through the stone in arcs of water. During this process, faint outlines become visible for a moment—these are images the kids had pressed onto the dark surface before it solidified. These images carry memories of delicate old injuries, reminiscent of both personal experiences and the imprints of names and leaves. The lines evoke a sense of the children grappling with shame, engaging in labor, and confronting the tangible imprints of their past on the hardened surface.