South Dakota’s Boarding School Survivors


They’re stories you won’t read about in history books. But many Native Americans are still dealing with memories of a past where they were taken from their families and stripped of their culture. 

KELOLAND News introduced you to survivors of some the state’s Indian boarding schools–schools where former students say they were beaten for speaking Lakota and forced to assimilate into American culture. 

The systematic round up of Native American children and placing them in boarding schools went on through the 1960s. 

Thursday night we bring you the rest of the story, which includes allegations of sexual abuse and the mark it’s left on generations of Native American people.  

A local park in Sisseton appears to be a happy place, where children can spend carefree days. But the days of boarding school survivors were far from carefree. This is where Tekawitha Orphanage and Boarding School once stood, a boarding school that many former students say was a place of horrors. 

“Where we’re standing would be where the house where the priest of Father Pohlen’s house would be. You see a little bit of the cement foundation,” said Tamara St. John, Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribal Historian. 
Many former students have accused Father Pohlen of sexual abuse; something his order denies any knowledge of to this day. 

KELOLAND News contacted Fr. John Pohlen’s order to ask what they knew about the allegations of abuse against Pohlen, who died in 1969.  

We received this statement: 

“Determining the accuracy and credibility of claims of abuse alleged to have taken place more than 60 years ago, involving people who were then young children, is very difficult, if not impossible.  We can say that the allegations of abuse are inconsistent with what we know of Fr. Pohlen’s character, reputation, and accomplishments.  Everything we know about Fr. Pohlen suggests that he worked tirelessly, and at considerable personal sacrifice, to improve the lives of Native American children and others in the Sisseton community.  It appears that he was well-respected among the Native American community of Sisseton as well.   We have no information that would indicate that Fr. Pohlen ever exploited or facilitated the sexual abuse of Native American children through trial adoptions, permanent adoptions, participation in visits or vacations with local families, or otherwise.”

With best regards,

Thomas G. Coughlin, omi
On behalf of the Central United States Province of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Tekawitha student Jon Eagle says at the time he didn’t understand why Father Pohlen treated certain boys better than others. 

“When I think about it today. They must’ve been going through some kind of trauma or something,” said Eagle. 

While the children talked with each other about the abuse they endured, it was kept secret from the rest of the world. 

“It was almost a perfect formula for devastation in a person,” said St. John. 

“It was always scary during those years,” said Harriet Brings, survivor of the Oglala Community School on the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

And some students attempted to escape and return to their families. 

“Louis ran away in October. It was one of those early blizzards that hit and he got caught and it froze his feet so they amputated both his feet at the ankles,” said Tim Giago, survivor of the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

Most never got over the horrors they experienced as a child. 

“How do you show somebody love when you’ve never been shown love. So the result was a level of separation in relationships and even as a parent,” said St. John. 

That disconnect is something Holy Rosary Mission survivor, Tim Giago experienced firsthand from his parents and grandparents who also grew up in boarding schools. 

“They become cold. A lot of us from the boarding schools say that not once in our lives did our parents ever give us a hug or say they love you. It just wasn’t apart of what we were growing up or what they were a part of growing up,” said Giago. 

Giago, who wrote a book about his time at the school, reached out to the Catholic Church looking for answers, but didn’t get any. 

“They were all in total denial and to this day here we are in 2018 there’s never been an apology from the school about what they did to hundreds of kids,” said Giago. 

“There are a lot of things that I would say that they don’t talk about and I don’t talk about because of the things we saw. The things we went through,” said Eagle. 

It’s also a piece of the past that has been left out of most American history books. 

“A lot of people don’t know that this was really happening within the state. They didn’t realize that children were being physically taken from their homes,” said Giago. 

“They will deny it because they’re part of the other society that came in to conquer us. We have to work through it. Word has to get out there that we have to stick with it, we’re not going to lose it,” said Brings. 

“The mistreatments or how we were treated, it was well covered up. To actually be a part of that, I know it bothers me and it bothers my relatives,” said Eagle. 

These boarding school survivors by speaking out now, they hope to shine a light on South Dakota’s dark past. 

There are still 53 Native American boarding schools open across the country today, with 14 in South Dakota. According to a federal law that remains on the books in, the government can still come in and take Native American kids without parent consent. It’s something that Senator Mike Rounds says he’s trying to get removed. 

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