South Dakota’s Stolen Children


In today’s world, it’s unimaginable—someone coming into your home and taking your children right out of your arms. 

However, that was the reality many Native American families faced at the turn of century through the 1960s. 

The federal government came in, took their children, and placed them into boarding schools, sometimes thousands of miles away. 

KELOLAND News looks back at South Dakota’s secret past. 

“We seen kids come in with bruises, but we never asked. We never asked why,” said Harriet Brings, survivor of the Oglala Community School on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“The priests were pretty handy using a leather strap to beat us with if we did something that they thought was wrong,” said Tim Giago, survivor of the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

“That’s all they did was punishment,” said Jon Eagle, survivor of the Tekawitha Orphanage and Boarding School. 

Tens of thousands of Native American children endured physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the government and church-run boarding schools across the country. 

“Back in those days it was the law, you had to go to school,” said Giago. 

It was a requirement in the 1851 the Indian Appropriations Act. 

“If parents didn’t send them there were repercussions for that. They could have annuities withheld, they could be put in jail,” said Tamara St. John.

But the children often fought being taken away. 

“They had to come and chase the kids down and catch em’ and put em in cars and take em to the boarding schools,” said Giago.

The first school was opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879. A place where many children from South Dakota were sent; never to be seen again. 

“We are dealing with Carlisle and a number of children that were taken from the reservations and are buried there,” said Tamara St. John Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribal Historian. 

The federal government’s goal for the schools was to assimilate Native children and strip them of the only identity they knew. 

“The old saying was ‘Kill the Indian. Save the child’ and that was part of the education process,” said Giago. 

Both Tim Giago and Harriet Brings were sent to schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Brings went to Oglala Community School; while Giago attended Holy Rosary Mission. 

“We lived there, slept there, worked there. Everyone of us that went to school there had a job,” said Giago. 

They were instructed to forget everything they knew about their previous life and culture, including how they had dressed. 

“The clothing. The girls dresses were just torn up and just really, you could tell they were very old and the boys wore pants that were rolled up and rolled up and the sleeves were rolled up because they were oversized,” said Brings.

“They pounded into your head that whatever religion you had before you came to school was evil and wrong. Your medicine men were evil,” said Giago. 

But these former boarding school students say they not only lost their culture, they lost their innocence. 

“Those that have openly shared with me the sort of abuses that occurred,” said St. John. 

Decades later, former students joined together to file lawsuits over physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands the nuns and priests who ran the schools.  

“I remember going in as a kindergartner and I spoke Lakota, so I was beat up for it,” said Brings. 

“My friend Basil Braveheart was speaking Lakota one time and the priest caught him. Made him bite down on a rubber band and then he stretched the rubber band and smacked it against his face,” said Giago. 

These survivors say they lost much more than their culture at the boarding schools they were forced to attend. Thursday night we continue our look into South Dakota’s Dark Past to hear how extreme the abuse was that they suffered and the long lasting impact on multiple generations of Native people.  

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