South Dakota’s sordid past: Abuse at Indian boarding schools

Investigates

The U.S. Interior Secretary is launching an inquiry into the federal government’s boarding school program for Native American Children. Deb Haaland says the goal of the investigation is to better understand the loss of life at the schools while they were in operation. This comes after the recent discovery of children’s remains buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school has magnified interest in that legacy both in Canada and the United States.

Courtesy: Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate

South Dakota was in the top five states for the number of Indian boarding schools. Attempts to right the wrongs committed against children haven’t gotten very far. However, over the last several years, victims of abuse have come forward and shared their stories.

KELOLAND Investigates went back through our news archives and in 2004 former boarding school students filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Dioceses in both Sioux Falls and Rapid City over abuse that took place at St. Paul’s boarding school on the Yankton Sioux Reservation and St. Francis boarding school on Rosebud.

The suit went all the way to the South Dakota Supreme Court, which ruled in 2012 the Diocese was not liable for acts committed by clergy and laypeople at the schools because the Diocese didn’t run the schools.

“You never, ever get rid of that sense of guilt, that sense of shame; that sense of why did this happen to me,” Louise Charbonneau Aamot said.

These are two of nine Native American sisters who say they suffered abuse at the hands of priests, nuns and lay workers at St. Paul’s boarding school in Marty during the 50’s and 60’s.

“I was forced to perform those despicable acts in order to survive,” Barbara Charbonneau Dahlen said.

Children were taken from their families and placed into boarding schools when the Indian Appropriations Act was passed in 1851.

“The boarding school era is, of course, I sort of break things down into, which actually was sort of a genocide era,” said Sisseton Wahpeton Tribal Historian/Archivist Tamara St. John said on May 16, 2018

In 1952, Dennis Seely, born Cyril Dennis Isaac, of Rapid City was was kidnapped from his mother on the Lake Traverse Reservation. He was put in a Sisseston orphanage

Courtesy: Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate

“It was a horrendous place to be. They beat the kids there,” Seely said.

At the age of six, he was shipped out on a bus alone and sold for labor to an Illinois family for $10.

“I was cheap Indian labor,” Seely said.

The “Remember the Children Memorial” will be placed at the unmarked graves of children who died at the Rapid City Indian School.

“The boarding school was in existence from 1898 to 1933 and was almost erased from our Rapid City history. And to date, we found almost 50 children who died while attending there.”

Lafawn Jenis, Event organizer, October 12, 2020

The Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese released the names of 11 abusive clergy in March of 2019. A watchdog group disputes that number, saying it’s more than twice as many. Click here to review that list.

The Rapid City Catholic Diocese released a list of 21 clergy who committed abuse.

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