South Dakota’s Secret Past


A 66-year-old story is getting new life on social media, because of its shock value of just how far back human trafficking goes.

An attorney and advocate for Native American survivors of child abuse posted a letter from a Catholic run orphanage offering an Illinois couple a Native American child in exchange for their $10 donation in 1952.

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In tonight’s Eye on KELOLAND Investigation, Angela Kennecke tracked down the facts behind this viral social media post and uncovered the proof of South Dakota’s secret past.

“I was a blue light special,” Seely said. 

Dennis Seely, Born Cyril Dennis Isaac, displays the sign put around his neck when he was shipped off on a bus all alone from the Tekakwitha Orphanage in Sisseton to his adoptive family in Wheaton, Illinois in 1952.

“And I also have the bus ticket,” Seely said.

But Seely’s shocking story begins long before he was put on a Greyhound bus at the age of six. Seely says he was kidnapped from his mother on the Lake Traverse Reservation.

“This is her right here. This was taken up in long hollow and these are all Isaacs, all Indians,” Seely said, pointing to a picture of his mother with relatives.

Seely says when he was eight months old, his mother went to a dance and his babysitter answered a knock on the door.

“And as soon as she opened the door, they punched her in the face and knocked her back down onto the floor. They took me out of her arms,” Seely said.

Seely says his mother and babysitter went to the Tekakwitha orphanage to try to get him back, but were thrown in jail. 

It’s a story Native American Studies Educator Marcia Zephier says has been left out of the history books.

“It was genocide of the culture, of the people. The federal government could no longer terminate us so the federal policy of the American government was to assimilate Native American, Indian children. They thought let’s start with the children,” said. Marcia Zephier, USF Native American Studies Instructor.

Seely’s account of his life in the Sisseton Orphanage ran by Fr. John Pohlen is a nightmare.

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

Seely says the children were forced to stand outside in freezing cold if they spoke their native Dakota language. He claims Fr. Pohlen was a pedophile who had his pick of any boy he wanted.

“He showed me a candy. Of course I wanted the candy, so I had to do that horrible thing to him,” Seely said.

“The institutions were pretty isolated. And they could really do whatever they wanted with the kids. And so there as a lot of abuse: physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse,” Zephier said.

It was after that alleged abuse that Fr. Pohlen wrote this letter to the Illinois couple Malcolm and Suzanne Seely, thanking them for their $10.00 donation and for an invitation to bring one into their home. Fr. Pohlen writes, “We have a few little boys and girls who have no one at all interested whether they live or die or come or go. I would send you a little boy of six years or older or a little girl whatever you prefer. 

Fr. Pohlen goes on to reassure the couple they don’t have to meet any other requirements by writing, “I am not making an inquiries about you, because it takes a good person to make an offer as you did.”

“There were a lot of orphans sold. In fact a majority, I would say 100 percent were sold,” Seely said.

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“It is a shameful legacy when you stop and think about the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of children who were taken away from their families and families torn apart; sometimes never to be reunited again,” Zephier said.

Seely has one memory of his mother, Sophia May Isaac, who was allowed to come to orphanage just once, before he was sent to Illinois.

“That’s where she gave me a kiss and a hug and that was it. I would never see her again,” Seely said. 

His mother had all four of her children taken away and died of complications from alcoholism at the age of 41.  Seely says his adoptive home was not a happy one.

“I was cheap Indian labor,” Seely said. 

Despite his troubled beginnings, Seely went on to serve as a paratrooper in the Vietnam War and later returned to Sisseton to work as a tribal police officer. But he tells us he never recovered from the trauma as a child.

“It took my identity away. When I was there we could speak Dakota to each other and when I came back there, I had lost everything,” Seely said. 

“It brings to light a story like this; that happened in our own state, our own backyard–just a couple hundred miles up the road in Sisseton,’ Zephier said. 

It’s like the holocaust, survivors of WWII; never let this happen again to any of us,” Seely said.

In 2010 Seely was among the two dozen people who filed a lawsuit against the Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese over alleged by priests and nuns at the Tekakwitha Orphanage from the 1940s through the 70’s.

That lawsuit was dismissed a year later because in South Dakota victims can’t bring about child abuse lawsuit after the age of 40.

During this past legislative session lawmakers killed bill to repeal that rule.

KELOLAND Investigates reached out to 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.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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