Kerosene Scrub down

Historical/Generational trauma are terms we often hear linked to government boarding schools that were designed to assimilate Native American children to our European immigrant culture.  While researching a project I’m working on, the term “kerosene bath” popped up several times. An example, “[Native] Children were … cleansed with alcohol, kerosene, and synthetic pesticides.”


The summer of 1960 my younger brother and I were placed in a foster home with four young Native American boys. Within half an hour of being dropped off by the welfare worker, we were forced to strip our clothes and get scrubbed down with kerosene. It was the “rule,” the old lady said. I’m quite certain the young Native boys were also forced through the same humiliating treatment. I share this memory story of that event; an excerpt from my memoir, PAWNS (2018), pages 276-280.

The Snake

Gray light filtered through dirty basement windows as the afternoon sun silhouetted brown lily-of-the-valley leaves stuck to the panes. No escape there. Too high. I could hold Randy up but even if he did manage to open the window and squirm out, he didn’t have anywhere to run.

Randy, nine years old, standing; Wendell, twelve, sitting, August 1960 in our foster home. Our hair is beginning to grow back a few weeks after our buzz-cuts. We were ordered to smile for a picture to be sent to our mother who was committed to a the mental institution.

Water trickled from cracks in the concrete basement walls, saturating my ripped tennis shoes—always it seemed, I was growing out of my shoes. The smell of stale earth rose from the dampness. Cobwebs wove between dangling electrical wires and caught in my hair. In a corner, remnants of past seasons’ canned produce rested on metal shelves. A hose hung from a rusty spike that was anchored to an oak post in the center of the basement.

In the thin beam of light, a spider—the size of a .22 caliber bullet head—rappelled a silk thread from the ceiling joist. A chameleon frog the size of a penny leapt and caught the spider while it hung defenseless two inches above damp concrete. A thick garter snake shot from beneath the cement block furnace base. Jaws wide, he locked on the frog. From the snake’s mouth two legs convulsed frantically as webbed toes clawed concrete. I felt the silent scream of helplessness as the kicks weakened.

The woman stood between Randy and me and the worn wooden steps. Her thick red arms protruded from a faded tent dress. Her gray hair, wrapped in a tight bun anchored at the back of her head, stretched the skin of her wide round face and underscored the hairy mole on the side of her chin.

“Sit on that stool by the window,” she said. “I need to cut your hair.” I meekly sat down and she buzz-cut my head while Randy stood watching. “You’re next,” she pointed at him.

I silently slid off the stool and lifted Randy up. It only took her a few minutes. I lifted him down and we huddled below the window as she wrestled with the corroded faucet. As her work-calloused hands unwound the hose, water pressure straightened it, and small misty leaks sparkled tiny rainbows where the hose had kinked over the spike. Reaching quickly back to the valve, she turned it off with a mutter about not wasting water. Eyes never leaving us, she stepped over to the furnace, reached behind it, and lifted out a small kerosene can.

The garter snake, startled by the intruder, slithered from under the furnace, across the concrete, and into a wide crack at the base of the wall.

Sidling over to the potato bin, the woman picked up a dented baking pan and poured kerosene. She set the pan on the floor and moved back to the stairs where she felt for something on a step. Grasping it, she returned to the pan and set the object in the kerosene. It was an old animal scrub brush, the kind with a leather strap across the top. Towering over us, she ordered, “Take your clothes off and throw them in the stove.”

Randy began crying and shuffled behind me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Get undressed in front of this woman—this stranger? No way, not in a million years. We moved away from her toward the darkest corner of the basement.

Hose nozzle in hand, she turned the valve and stepped toward us. “Get those louse-infested clothes off. Now.” I looked past her toward the stairs. “Don’t even think about it,” she warned. “My husband is up there waiting for you.”

“I’m not getting undressed in front of you. I don’t even let my mother see me naked.”

“You’re twelve years old. I have custody of you and your brother. Now get undressed and no more back talk.”

How could we escape? I couldn’t leave Randy behind. I edged toward the furnace, shadowed by Randy. The woman shifted, staying between us and the stairs. “What’s taking so long down there? I’ve got hay to put up and I need the big boy to help me,” yelled a voice from the top.

“They don’t want me to see them naked. You boys get undressed. Now.”

“If you leave us alone we’ll clean up and come upstairs when we’re done,” I bargained.

Cold water hit me in the face. “No more playing. I said to get undressed. Do it now. If he has to come down, you’ll be sorry.”

Randy’s snuffles grew into a wail. “What are we going to do? Why does she have that pan of gas? Is she going to burn us in the stove with our clothes?”

“No one’s going to burn anyone,” the woman said. “You need to strip your filthy clothes and scrub in kerosene and soap to get rid of the lice.”

Kerosene. I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t have lice. Besides, kerosene burned. But there was no escape. Slowly I pulled my shirt off. “Let’s just do it, Randy. We’ll be all right.”

With Randy naked and my shirt and shoes off, the woman picked the dripping brush from the kerosene and told me to scrub Randy. “Keep your eyes tight shut and start with the hair. Soak it good, then scrub. Work your way down, between the legs, and down to the feet.”

We didn’t have any hair left. I held my hand on Randy’s forehead, shielding fuel from his eyes. But he screamed, rubbing them as kerosene leaked in.

“Keep scrubbing. We’ll rinse it out when we soap him down. Shut up, boy. You want my husband down here?” She grasped Randy by the neck and bent him over. “Spread your legs, scrub up between, get those critters out.”

Satisfied with the fuel scrub, she produced a Lava soap bar and a tattered washcloth from her apron pocket. “Soap him down with this, then it’s your turn,” she ordered, and drenched Randy with the hose. I lathered Randy’s hair, telling him to keep his eyes tight shut.

“They burn,” Randy complained. I scrubbed until the woman grunted in satisfaction. She hosed the fuel-Lava paste from Randy while I held him by the wrist as he tried to dodge the cold water.

“At the top of the steps you’ll find a towel and some fresh clothes. Leave the towel for your brother. It’s your turn now,” she added, eyes directed at me. “Take those pants off and start scrubbing. You know what to do.”

There was no way out. I glanced about the cold basement, knowing I was trapped. At the top of the stairs, the man’s voice soothed a sniffling Randy. Perhaps the old man would rescue me. The woman, as if reading my thoughts, warned me again not to even think about it. Tears welled as I begged her not to make me get undressed.

“Take those pants off. Now.”

I undid my belt, eyes locked on the snake’s haven. My back to the woman, I stepped out of the wet trousers ringing my ankles. She told me to start scrubbing. One hand covering my front, I picked up the brush and held it to my scalp. Kerosene poured down, across my eyelids and over my cheeks. Rivulets merged on my chin and trickled to my chest. The woman grabbed my arm and demanded the brush. I opened my eyes in panic, fuel flooding in. My shielding hand came up as I rubbed burning eyes.

“No more lice in them.”

Clutching my wrist, she dipped the brush and scrubbed. I stood sobbing, hands covering my front. That night I lay awake in a moonbeam on a sweat-stained bed beside Randy, reflecting on our situation.

Randy and I joined four Red Lake Nation Native brothers in this foster home: Peter, the oldest, Lance and Lars—twins—and Ervin, a toddler, who could only speak Ojibwe. I was the oldest at twelve. The social worker told the foster parents to allow only English to be spoken, so many evenings over the next year, Ervin went to bed without supper as a punishment.

Later, after the old people had gone to sleep, I tiptoed down to the kitchen and made Ervin a sandwich and got him a cup of water. As I look back, I think the woman knew I brought Ervin food because in the morning she’d sometimes wink and smile at me with a comment about a mouse getting in the fridge. I remember them as decent people. I think that during the 1950s and ’60s it was common for farm families to become foster parents when all of their own kids had grown up and left home. It was an additional source of income to fill those vacant bedrooms, and we were cheap labor. I spent that summer harvesting hay—just as I had done at home.

A few years ago I discovered Lars’ obituary online and realized that he was one of the homeless men I often saw wandering around Bemidji. He had died at Peoples Church, a homeless shelter in Bemidji, MN. Lars was fifty-three years old when he died. It’s a heart-wrenching story. “He was preceded in death by his parents, three sisters and four brothers, including his twin brother Lance,” reads the obituary. I’d heard that Lance died in a fight.  I wondered how the foster home experience impacted their lives, ripped from their Ojibwe culture and forced into the white man’s world.

Peter and Randy became close friends. Several years later, after we all returned to our homes, Peter and Randy played baseball on opposing teams. By then I was in the Navy, but I imagine that they got together socially. Not long ago, my sister Laurel and I were visiting and discussing that era, and she commented that the Native girls she lived with were the sisters of the boys Randy and I lived with.

64 years later, as I revisit that experience, I wonder how many other foster children from that era were subjected to a kerosene scrub down?


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