Red Cloud Indian School will dig for graves

Stairs lead down to the basement of Drexel Hall on the campus of Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where officials are set to begin excavation in October 2022 to search for unmarked graves. A search with ground-penetrating radar in the basement was inconclusive as to whether graves might be there. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. In Canada, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

Mary Annette Pember
ICT

Leaders at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation have announced they will dig up a portion of the basement in a former school dormitory in search of unmarked graves.

The announcement came after a search with ground-penetrating radar in May was inconclusive about whether remains might be under what is now a concrete slab in a corner of the large basement.

A report on the testing said the ground-penetrating radar failed to show a definitive presence of graves, but that a final determination could only be determined through excavation.

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The excavation is part of what the school calls its own search for truth and reconciliation as the U.S. and Canada continue to search for unmarked graves at former Indian residential or boarding schools.

“We are committed to the process of being transparent,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School. Black Elk is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribe.

“We will investigate places that have been identified by eyewitness testimony (of the presence of graves),” Black Elk said.

Drexel Hall, a former dormitory on the Red Cloud Indian School campus on the Pine Ridge reservation, is more than 100 years old. School leaders will begin excavation of a corner of the basement in October 2022 to search for unmarked graves after ground-penetrating radar was inconclusive. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Drexel Hall, a former dormitory on the Red Cloud Indian School campus on the Pine Ridge reservation, is more than 100 years old. School leaders will begin excavation of a corner of the basement in October 2022 to search for unmarked graves after ground-penetrating radar was inconclusive. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

In May, Marsha Small, Northern Cheyenne, and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. used ground-penetrating radar to conduct an analysis of the front lawn of the school as well as an area in the basement of Drexel Hall, a former student dorm.

According to the radar report, there were no indications of graves in the area of the school’s lawn.

‘Horrific truths’

Rumors of unmarked graves and missing students have circulated in the Pine Ridge community for years but have seldom included eyewitness testimony, until now.

A former worker at the school came forward recently to report he had seen what looked like small graves in the basement in the 1990s – with small crosses marking each one.

“These stories are rooted in horrific truths of the broader boarding school past,” Black Elk said.

Red Cloud Indian School was originally opened as Holy Rosary Mission in 1888 by Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests. The name was changed to Red Cloud in 1969. In 1980, the school ceased offering boarding and now functions as a day school serving about 600 students.

Red Cloud now operates as a nonprofit organization describing itself as “a Lakota Jesuit Catholic Institution administered by the Jesuits and Lakota people.”

Unlike discoveries of unmarked graves at Canada’s Indian residential schools, however, where hundreds of bodies have been discovered at several former school sites, the allegations of graves in the basement of Drexel Hall raise more sinister concerns.

Drexel Hall was built more than 100 years ago, serving first as a student dorm and later as a convent for nuns who worked at the school. Today, the building houses offices for school staff and the Heritage Center, an art gallery and gift shop.

Marsha Small and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. use ground penetrating radar to scan the basement of Drexel Hall on the Red Cloud Indian School campus in May 2022. Officials decided to dig up the concrete and excavate the area after radar findings were inconclusive about whether unmarked graves may be underneath. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Marsha Small and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. use ground penetrating radar to scan the basement of Drexel Hall on the Red Cloud Indian School campus in May 2022. Officials decided to dig up the concrete and excavate the area after radar findings were inconclusive about whether unmarked graves may be underneath. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

“Red Cloud wasn’t a boarding school in the 1990s when the graves were first discovered, so we will be involving law enforcement in addition to members of the community when we excavate the area,” Black Elk said.

“This is a hard conversation for our community to have,” he said. “If our GPR work helps open the door to those conversations, then hopefully that leads people to healing.”

‘Mitigating damage’

Not everyone in the Pine Ridge community is confident in the school’s show of transparency.

Dusty Lee Nelson, of the Oglala Lakota tribe, describes the school’s truth and healing efforts as a charade, saying that letting the Catholic Church and Red Cloud lead its own investigations into wrongdoing is the opposite of transparency.

“It’s all about mitigating damage control,” she said.

She said most efforts have been focused on a small group of Lakota Catholics.

On Aug. 16, for example, Jesuit Father General Arturo Sosa visited the school, but his presence was not widely publicized in the community.

Sosa, whose office is in Rome, is the leader of the Society of Jesus, the largest religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church. Red Cloud was founded by Jesuit priests, as was St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Reservation. St. Francis has been tribally controlled since 1979.

During his visit, Sosa presented an apology.

“On behalf of the Society of Jesus, I apologize for the ways in which St. Francis and Holy Rosary Missions and boarding schools were for decades complicit in the U.S. government’s reprehensible assimilation policies, trying to eradicate your culture,” he said. “I ask for your forgiveness for that and for any other abuses that your ancestors may have suffered.”

In response to ICT’s inquiry about why the broader community was not notified of Sosa’s visit, Black Elk said, “I think the feeling was to keep his visit intimate. So we informed our community and parents. But didn’t do anything big with press.”

A video of Sosa speaking at Red Cloud was posted on the school’s website shortly after ICT inquired about the visit.

Sosa promised to take demands from leadership of both the Oglala Lakota and Rosebud Sioux tribes for the Catholic church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery to Pope Francis. The letter, signed by Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was posted on the tribe’s Facebook page.

Demands have escalated in recent months to rescind the doctrine, a foundational document guiding Catholic and Christian occupation of the Americas. The doctrine is composed of bulls or orders handed down in the 1400s by Catholic popes authorizing agents of European monarchs to dominate Indigenous lands and people by any means necessary. The doctrine helped shape the entirety of the White settler relationship with Indigenous peoples in the Americas and is the genesis of U.S. federal Indian law.

But the issue is dividing the community. Since speaking out publicly about Red Cloud’s truth and healing efforts, Nelson said she has become a target for community members who disagree with her.

“I’m tired of being the one to say things,” she said. “God bless the [Indigenous Youth Council]. They are organizing and approaching these issues. Activism has been demonized here.”

Looking ahead

School leaders said in a statement posted to the school website that the next round of work in the Drexel Hall basement is set for this fall.

“We will be working again with Marsha Small and OVAI to follow their recommendations,” the statement said.

“The removal of concrete and excavation will take place in October 2022 where law enforcement, spiritual advisors and the community member who brought forward the testimony will be present.”

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Indian Boarding SchoolsUnmarked GravesGround Penetrating RadarTruth And ReconciliationPine RidgeRed Cloud Indian School

Mary Annette Pember

By

Mary Annette Pember

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for ICT.

U.S. Boarding Schools: Investigation

This July 8, 2021 image of a photograph archived at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico, shows a group of Indigenous students who attended the Ramona Industrial School in Santa Fe. The late 19th century image is among many in the Horatio Oliver Ladd Photograph Collection that are related to the boarding school. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The U.S. Department of Interior released its investigative report Wednesday on the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. It’s being called the first volume of the report and comes nearly a year after the department announced a “comprehensive” review.

Deb Haaland, Interior secretary, Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, and Deborah Parker, chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition were scheduled to speak at a news conference in Washington announcing the report’s findings.

“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies—including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Haaland said in a statement. “We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face. It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous Peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

Newland led the over 100-page report, which includes historical records of boarding school locations and their names, and the first official list of burial sites.

The findings show from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states, some territories at that time, including 21 schools in Alaska and seven schools in Hawai’i. Some of these schools operated across multiple sites. The list includes religious mission schools that received federal support, however, government funding streams were complex therefore, all religious schools receiving federal, Indian trust and treaty funds are likely not included. The final list of Indian boarding schools will surely grow as the investigation continues. For instance, the number of Catholic Indian boarding schools receiving direct funding alone is at least 113 according to records at the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.

Approximately 53 different schools had been identified with marked or unmarked burial sites. The department expects the number to increase as the investigation continues.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits the Grand Junction Air Center Complex on Friday to discuss her agency's response to wildfires and the Bureau of Land Management headquarters move to Grand Junction on Friday, July 23, 2021, in Grand Junction, Colo. (McKenzie Lange/The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel via AP)

FILE. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits the Grand Junction Air Center Complex on Friday to discuss her agency’s response to wildfires and the Bureau of Land Management headquarters move to Grand Junction on Friday, July 23, 2021, in Grand Junction, Colo. (McKenzie Lange/The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel via AP)

In June 2021, Haaland announced an Interior investigation in federal Indian boarding schools to make “a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies” from as early as the 19th century.

She said the initiative was created after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May 2021.

The first volume of the report highlights some of the harsh conditions children endured at the schools. Children’s Indigenous names were changed to English names; children’s hair were cut; the use of their Native languages, religions and cultural practices were discouraged or prevented; and the children were organized into units to perform military drills.

The report cites findings from the 1928 Meriam report in which the Interior acknowledged “frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate.

Examples included descriptions of accommodations at select boarding schools such as the White Earth Boarding school in Minnesota where two children slept in one bed, the Kickapoo Boarding School in Kansas where three children shared a bed and the Rainy Mountain Boarding School in Oklahoma where, “single beds pushed together so closely to preclude passage between them and each bed has two or more occupants.”

(Related: Pope Francis apologizes for churches’ role in Canadian Indian residential schools)

The 1969 Kennedy Report, cited in the Department investigation, noted that rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse: disease; malnourishment; overcrowding,; and lack of health care at Indian boarding schools are well-documented.

It also found schools focused on “manual labor and vocational skills that left American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian graduates with employment options often irrelevant to the industrial U.S. economy, further disrupting Tribal economies.”

Federal boarding schools first started with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 when the government enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools. For more than 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation. An unknown number of religious Indian boarding schools, funded by private and government funds, predate the Civilization Act by at least 100 years.

(Related: ‘We won’t forget about the children’)

Native land and wealth diminished

In a major finding, the report documents the use of tribal trust and treaty funds for the federal boarding school system as well as mission schools operated by religious institutions and organizations. Although the total amount of these funds used to directly fund schools is unknown, according to an investigation by Indian Country Today, more than $30 million in today’s dollars were siphoned away during a nine year period by Catholic schools alone.

The U.S. also set apart tracts of Native lands for use by religious institutions and organizations. According to an ongoing investigation by Indian Country Today, a large portion of this land may still be held by churches.

Indeed, the relationship between major religious denominations and the federal government regarding Indian mission schools is described as “an unprecedented delegation of power to church bodies that were given the right to nominate new agents, direct educational and other activities on the reservations.

Members of the Sicangu Youth Council help provide a formal burial at the Rosebud Indian Reservation on July 17, 2021, for some of the nine Rosebud students who died at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the 1880s. The children's remains were finally returned to their homelands after 140 years, wrapped in a buffalo robe bundle and placed in a cedar box. Earth collected at the Carlisle graves were added to the children's final resting places. (Photo by Vi Waln for Indian Country Today)

Members of the Sicangu Youth Council help provide a formal burial at the Rosebud Indian Reservation on July 17, 2021, for some of the nine Rosebud students who died at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the 1880s. The children’s remains were finally returned to their homelands after 140 years, wrapped in a buffalo robe bundle and placed in a cedar box. Earth collected at the Carlisle graves were added to the children’s final resting places. (Photo by Vi Waln for Indian Country Today)

Although the report makes little mention of accountability for religious organizations that operated boarding schools, it does indicate that non-federal entities will be given support in releasing their records associated with the schools.

As part of the initiative and in response to recommendations from the report, Haaland announced the launch of “The Road to Healing” year-long tour. It’ll consist of a tour across the country to allow boarding school survivors to share their stories, help connect communities with trauma-informed support and to gather a permanent oral history.

The report also points to the 2019 watershed Running Bear studies, funded by the National Institute of Health. This research contains the first medical studies to systematically and quantitatively show that the Indian boarding school system experience continues to impact the present day health of adult boarding school survivors.

Newland cited the need for more investigation because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting closures of federal facilities that affected obtaining and reviewing documents and the department’s limited funds at that time.

(Related: ‘Our ancestors risked their lives and freedom’)

The second volume will be aided by a $7 million investment from Congress through fiscal year 2022. Newland recommended for it to include a list of marked and unmarked burial sites at federal Indian boarding schools — with names, ages, tribal affiliations of the children at those locations — an approximation of the total amount of federal funding used to support the boarding school system and to further probe the impacts on Indigenous communities.

“This report presents the opportunity for us to reorient federal policies to support the revitalization of Tribal languages and cultural practices to counteract nearly two centuries of federal policies aimed at their destruction,” Newland said in a statement. “Together, we can help begin a healing process for Indian Country, the Native Hawaiian Community and across the United States, from the Alaskan tundra to the Florida everglades, and everywhere in between.”

Opportunity to submit stories

On Thursday, members of Congress are holding a hearing at 1 p.m. ET, for the bill “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the US.” Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, is the lead sponsor of the bill.

The National Boarding School Healing Coalition is requesting people who attended a boarding school or are a descendent of a boarding school attendee to submit their written testimonies to the House of Natural Resources Committee by May 26. Email submissions to HNRCDocs@mail.house.gov and CC NABS at info@nabshc.org.

The National Boarding School Healing Coalition has an available template to use here.

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ICT’s Mary Annette Pember contributed to this report.

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter. 

InteriorDeb HaalandU.S. Department Of InteriorUS Boarding SchoolsIndian Boarding Schools

Kalle Benallie

By

Kalle Benallie

Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today’s Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.