Monday, 27 March 2023 06:56

Buried Secrets: America’s Indian Boarding Schools Part 2

Tyler Star Comes Out leads a group from the International Indigenous Youth Council on horseback at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in May during a search of school grounds for unmarked graves with ground-penetrating radar. The group has pressured Red Cloud officials to examine the school’s boarding school past. Credit: Mary Annette Pember/ICT

A Catholic boarding school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is seeking forgiveness for its troubled history. But school survivors want justice first.

In the second half of our two-part collaboration with ICT (formerly Indian Country Today), members of the Pine Ridge community put pressure on the Catholic Church to share information about the boarding school it ran on the reservation. Listen to part 1 here.

ICT reporter Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe, visits Red Cloud Indian School, which has launched a truth and healing initiative for former students and their descendants. A youth-led activist group called the International Indigenous Youth Council has created a list of demands that includes financial reparations and the return of tribal land. The group also wants the Catholic Church to open up its records about the school’s past, especially information about children who may have died there.

Pember travels to the archives of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, which administered boarding schools like Red Cloud. She discovers that many records are redacted or off-limits entirely, but then comes across a nuns’ diary that ends up containing important information. Buried in the diary entries is information about the school’s finances, the massacre at Wounded Knee and children who died at the school more than a century ago.

Pember then returns to Red Cloud and attends the graduation ceremony for the class of 2022. In its early years, the school tried to strip students of their culture, but these days, it teaches the Lakota language and boasts a high graduation rate and rigorous academics. Pember presents what she’s learned about the school’s history to the head of the Jesuit community in western South Dakota and to the school’s president.

This is a rebroadcast of an episode that originally aired in October 2022.

Dig Deeper

Listen to part one:

Reveal · Buried Secrets: America’s Indian Boarding Schools Part 1

Read related stories from ICT:

• Buried Secrets: Red Cloud takes the lead in uncovering boarding school past

• Red Cloud Indian School will dig for graves

• The Catholic Church siphoned away $30M paid to Native people for stolen land

• Deaths at Chemawa

• ‘Sometimes we hear the voices of children playing there’


Reporter: Mary Annette Pember | Lead producer: Michael I Schiller | Editor: Taki Telonidis, with Dianna Hunt | Additional reporting and production: Kathryn Styer Martínez | Fact checkers: Nikki Frick and Kim Freda | Data editor: Soo Oh | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Kathryn Styer Martínez and Claire Mullen | Executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks to ICT Editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT Editor-at-Large Mark Trahant, ICT Managing Editor Dalton Walker, Meg Lindholm, Jason Tichi, Nadia Hamdan and Stan Alcorn.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, the second part of our series about Indian boarding schools and how the Catholic Church shaped US policy towards Native Americans. That policy can be boiled down to one ugly phrase from the 1800, “Kill the Indian and save the man.”
Al Letson: For more than a century, Native children were taken from their families and sent away to boarding schools. Some were run by churches, others by the federal government. They all had the goal of stripping away Native identity. Children were traumatized by their experiences, but these schools ultimately failed. Native language and culture are still here.
Al Letson: We partnered with Indian Country Today, now known as ICT, to investigate the history of boarding schools. Last week, ICT national correspondent Mary Annette Pember took us to Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which is starting to confront its troubled past. These days, students are reclaiming their heritage.
Speaker 2: And I tell them, whatever you do as a Lakota, be proud. Because our ancestors couldn’t do that.
Al Letson: For some members of the older generation, memories of the school are harsh and vivid.
Speaker 3: Being left at a school and taken away from my parents, I was in a state of shock, traumatized. I couldn’t understand what was happening.
Al Letson: We met the man in charge of the school’s effort to bring truth and healing to the community.
Raymond Nadolny: There are things that we can do as an institution, things that might help individuals to overcome those experiences and that painful history.
Al Letson: And we learned how difficult it is to move beyond that pain without accountability.
Speaker 4: I am not going to accept no cheap apology. The Catholic church needs to own up. We need to find the body’s…
Al Letson: For many people on Pine Ridge, owning up means the church needs to answer difficult questions about land ownership and money and about children who are sent to boarding school and never came home.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: If my child had went somewhere else and never came back, I would spend the rest of my life mourning them.
Al Letson: People are convinced there are kids buried on school grounds in unmarked graves at Red Cloud and other boarding school locations across the nation and they need to be found.
Speaker 6: I travel around the country and sometimes around the world looking for things that have been lost, especially graves. We spend a lot of time looking for graves.
Al Letson: The search is part of a national effort to come to terms with the long shadow of boarding school history. Red Cloud is a microcosm of America’s reckoning.
Al Letson: Today we go back to Pine Ridge to find out what people there expect the school to do in order to fulfill its promise, to bring truth and healing. Mary Annette’s on her way to meet someone who has an especially close connection to the history of Red Cloud School.
Mary Annette Pe…: It’s a crisp morning on the Pine Merge reservation. I pull up to a blue house that’s perched on a low hill overlooking the vast prairie. I’m here to see a woman named Dusty Lee Nelson. Are you Dusty?
Dusty Lee Nelso…: Yes.
Mary Annette Pe…: We’re in the right place. Can we just park here? Is this all right?
Dusty Lee Nelso…: I’m a direct descendant of Chief Red Cloud. My family are the buyers of the 1868 treaty pipe.
Mary Annette Pe…: Chief Red Cloud was a Lakota leader in the late 1800s when the conflict between the US government and American Indians was intense. He was the tribal chief when the Catholics built the Holy Rosary Mission, which was the original name for Red Cloud School.
Mary Annette Pe…: Dusty’s in her late 30s and wears jeans and a t-shirt. She attended Red Cloud from 1997 to 2001. These days she runs a daycare from her home and is a youth organizer on the reservation.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: I think the youth just feel this huge responsibility to bring forth healing for their grandparents and justice for a lot of our grandparents who are no longer alive, who never got to tell their story.
Mary Annette Pe…: Dusty is outspoken about the church and the school. She’s a mentor for an organization called the International Indigenous Youth Council. The group took part in the oil pipeline demonstrations on the Standing Rock Reservation in 2016 and has stayed active over the past few years. A lot of their attention is focused on Red Cloud School.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: Oh, alrighty. Let me pull this sting out for you. Okay?
Mary Annette Pe…: I’m sitting at her dining room table, Dusty’s Grandma and a few relatives and friends are here too.
Speaker 7: Now where’s the food?
Mary Annette Pe…: Yeah, I should have brought some food. For Dusty, part of getting to the truth means setting the record straight about her ancestor. A story I’ve heard many times, mostly from the Jesuits is that Chief Red Cloud invited the black robes, the Jesuits, onto Lakota land to open the school. Dusty says that’s not the way it went down.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: So in the beginning, whenever they were doing the treaty stuff, it wasn’t Chief Red Cloud who said, “Hey, it’s a good idea, let’s invite the Catholics.” No, it was the government who said, “You have to have churches on your reservation.” So he said, “Well, these two.” And it was Episcopal and Catholic.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: And if you were a leader at that time and your people were being hunted and you had a chance to secure a future for them, you would do it. You would do it out of the love of your people because you want them to survive, and I’m certain he had no idea the violence that would be unfolded on us when he signed that treaty.
Mary Annette Pe…: Dusty’s grandma, Vivian Nelson Locust experienced that violence firsthand when she was a student at the school 70 years ago.
Vivian Nelson L…: I went there at 1947 through 1951. Right now I’m 89 years old, so that’s a long time ago. We were abused and mistreated, but no one ever did anything about it. The one nun actually had a ring of keys and they had big skeleton keys and I don’t remember even what I did, but she beat me in the head with it, with those keys and I had big old bumps on my head and I hated that place. I hate it to this day.
Mary Annette Pe…: Years after Vivian left the school decided to rename itself from Holy Rosary Mission to Red Cloud Indian School. That doesn’t sit well with Dusty.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: The name was changed in the 60s, but it was Holy Rosary Mission. They are the Catholic church and they are on a mission and so to change the name was very sneaky, to appear more Native.
Mary Annette Pe…: Dusty and the youth council have organized protests on the reservation, demanding accountability from the Jesuits, holding signs outside the church.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: There was a picture taken of one of the signs and it kind of went viral and it said, “Honk if you want the churches gone.” In my heart, in my soul, I feel like the best thing that they can do is to exit the reservation, return all property, and pay us.
Mary Annette Pe…: Dusty and the youth group have put together a list of demands for the school, including financial reparations, Red Cloud, like religious boarding schools all over the country, got payments from what were called trust and treaty funds. This was money originally set aside for tribes that signed treaties with the US government.
Mary Annette Pe…: Families were sometimes coerced into signing these funds over to the schools with as little as a thumbprint. The Catholic church was also given tribal lands by the government to build missions and schools.
Brian Brewer: I really wish the tribe would do a land audit for the Holy Rosary for the land that they do own.
Mary Annette Pe…: Brian Brewer has been sitting across the table looking somber quiet up till now. Brian went to Red Cloud in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Brian Brewer: I have a couple friends that actually worked for Holy Rosary and Holy Rosary sold him land or gave him land and that’s our tribal land. If a church or anyone is not using that land, if they quit using it, it’s supposed to come back to the tribe, but they’re selling that land to benefit them.
Brian Brewer: And that’s why I really believe there should be a land audit. You get a history of where that land went, how much of it has been sold, how much of it has been given away, and any land that they’re not using should be returned to the tribe, for us, because we need land.
Mary Annette Pe…: So there’s land return and financial reparations, but there’s one more thing. Perhaps the most crucial issue for Dusty and the youth group. They believe there are far more graves on campus than anyone from the school is willing to admit and are demanding the release of any and all information about kids who died and may be buried on school property and they want the entire campus scanned with ground penetrating radar for human remains.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: This is something that was told to me and a lot of people, my grandparents have said, it was probably the babies of the students that were, students and nuns, who were impregnated by the priests.
Mary Annette Pe…: Oh, wow. She tells me a story that I’ve heard several times now. That there are very young children’s remains on campus, infants who met a terrible end.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: And it feels like growing up I’ve always heard these things from grandparents, from aunties, from uncles, and these are just common knowledge. These are things that everybody knows and it’s just so normalized that that happened, but nobody’s doing anything about it.
Mary Annette Pe…: The story of buried infants is disturbing and so far I haven’t found any evidence of it. For me, it falls into that category of things that really need to be proven or disproven if this community is to find real truth and healing.
Dusty Lee Nelso…: We need community members involved, and the elders and the survivors, we need more people involved to be bear witness to what’s happening because are we going to let the church investigate itself?
Mary Annette Pe…: Dusty and the youth group are pressing the school for access to records and for details about financial reparations, land ownership, and children who died at Red Cloud.
Mary Annette Pe…: They want to know how much money, how much land, how many kids. Figuring that out is much harder than it sounds, but there could be clues in the historical archives of the school.
Mary Annette Pe…: Red Cloud School, like most Catholic organizations, kept a lot of records, paper trail. And they’re held far from Pine Ridge at Marquette, a Jesuit university in Milwaukee. So that’s where I’m headed next.
Al Letson: When we come back, Mary Annette runs into roadblocks and some unexpected breakthroughs at the boarding school archive. You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Red Cloud School’s records are kept at the archives of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. The bureau oversaw Catholic Indian boarding schools in the US and lobbied the federal government for funding to set up and run the schools.
Al Letson: Its archive is at Marquette University of Milwaukee, a place where Mary Annette Pember from ICT has spent a lot of time trying to unearth old documents.
Mary Annette Pe…: Several years ago I got a tour of the collection from longtime archivist Mark Thiel.
Mark Thiel: Well, I’ve been here over 35 years.
Mary Annette Pe…: Mark was welcoming but cautious, protective of his archival domain. Oh my gosh, it’s freezing in here. What temperatures are things kept at?
Mark Thiel: This is 60 degrees.
Mary Annette Pe…: The study area of the archives is austere in that uniquely institutional manner I recall from my years at Catholic school. There’s little ornament. The furnishings are wooden, heavy, with an air of quality.
Mark Thiel: That was the correspondence there. That comes up from 1862.
Mary Annette Pe…: Mark gave me a lot of his time and while there was a lot of stuff I was allowed to see, there were a lot of documents I couldn’t look at. The access seemed random, discretionary.
Mary Annette Pe…: It seems to me that, it seems like transparency at this juncture, it can’t hurt. Could it really hurt or?
Mark Thiel: We don’t have any records that are closed for any reasons of protecting the Catholic church. There are records that are closed for reasons of personal privacy and it would apply to all people equally for whenever those situations come up.
Mary Annette Pe…: The privacy claim has been a big obstacle for the truth and healing process. There’s a lot of truth buried in these boxes, but many documents are redacted with big black marker strokes covering important information. Other documents are just off limits to the public.
Mary Annette Pe…: If we had access to the quarterly reports sent by schools to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, we could get a good idea of how many children attended these schools. Nobody knows the actual number. We could also cross reference names with death records and try to figure out who might still be buried at the school without a grave marker.
Mark Thiel: There’s 39 boxes of originals copies, and then there are also several boxes of redacted copies. And this is without the…
Mary Annette Pe…: I wanted to see everything including the redacted stuff. So I asked the head of the University archives, Amy Cooper Carey, about the access issues. Amy told me it’s up to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions to decide what they let the public see.
Mary Annette Pe…: Could one look at the agreement that the between Marquette and the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions?
Amy Cooper Care…: No, no. We don’t make those agreements publicly accessible. Those are internal documents. But you said, “What is our policy on access?” Our policy on access is that we try to have open access to as much material as possible.
Mary Annette Pe…: I would love to talk to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions about oversight about the openness of the records and if you could facilitate that or just say that…
Amy Cooper Care…: Well, I don’t know if I can. I’ll see. I’m not sure that, yeah, I don’t know. I can ask about it.
Mary Annette Pe…: Okay.
Amy Cooper Care…: But I’ve never had a researcher say, “I want to talk to your donor about access to records.” That’s not usual.
Mary Annette Pe…: Oh, wow. So I’ll be doing something new. That’s exciting.
Amy Cooper Care…: Yeah, it’s not common.
Mary Annette Pe…: Okay. Well, so this is educational for me.
Mary Annette Pe…: There’s legislation making its way through Congress right now that would help people get access to the records at Marquette and other institutions. It’s called the Indian Boarding School Truth and Healing Commission Bill. Deb Parker, from the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, spoke about it at a committee meeting last spring.
Deb Parker: We must be able to locate church and government records beyond the Department of Interior’s reach. The commission would have the power to issue subpoenas to produce records.
Mary Annette Pe…: The church and the Catholic schools are private organizations, so unlike the National Archives, which also holds some records, they don’t have to share what they don’t want to. The bill would give the government subpoena power to open up some of the records.
Mary Annette Pe…: I went back to the Marquette archives again in May, this time to see what I could learn about Red Cloud School.
Mary Annette Pe…: Hi, I have an appointment for the Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission records at the Raynor Archives.
Speaker 8: Your name ma’am?
Mary Annette Pe…: Mary Pember.
Mary Annette Pe…: I’m shown to a quiet study room in the archives and start pouring over boxes of dusty old documents on the verge of flaking apart. Some of this stuff is more than a century old. I come across a document that dates back to 1888. The cover sheet reads, “These notes on Holy Rosary mission were translated from the Diary of the Sisters of St. Francis who have been in charge since the very foundation.”
Mary Annette Pe…: Holy Rosary Mission was the original name of Red Cloud School. The nuns names are not listed. It was originally written in German. Their words, however, say a lot about how the nuns viewed Native people. We asked one of our colleagues to read some excerpts.
Speaker 9: All the children the first year were heathens. 60 received baptisms and 30 made their first holy communion.
Mary Annette Pe…: The nuns write about their arrival in Lakota country and how Native folks first seeing them dressed in long black habits asked if they were the priest’s wives. There’s heartbreaking stuff here too about the flu, tuberculosis, and other diseases that were spreading throughout the Lakota community and Pine Ridge.
Speaker 9: The Indians were left mostly for themselves. In one tent after four days, it was found that the entire family was dead. In one, just a baby remained. Among the Indians there were many deaths. Medicine, treatment, food, et cetera was all missing for them. We had funerals every day in our cemetery, even as high as four in one day.
Mary Annette Pe…: Then I find a chilling firsthand account of an especially tragic chapter in America’s history with Native peoples. By the late 1800, American Indians were losing their hold on their ancestral lands and way of life. People in the plains were starving because the buffalo had been killed off. European diseases were tearing through tribal communities and the US Army was winning the so-called Indian Wars, a movement took hold in many parts of Indian country called the Ghost Dance.
Mary Annette Pe…: The Ghost Dance was based on a prophecy that better days would come for Native people, that the earth would be restored and that they would live in peace. The dance was intense and mesmerizing. The Nun’s Diary talks about going to see the Lakota Ghost Dance a few miles away from the school.
Speaker 9: When we arrived, 500 were ready to start the dance. At a sign from the head chief, they started to howl, they started to dance, slowly at first then faster until they were unconscious.
Mary Annette Pe…: The nun describes the Ghost Dancers as wearing clothes painted with pictures of scary animals. She wrote that they wanted the Great Spirit to turn the white man into buffalo and codfish so that they’d have something to hunt.
Mary Annette Pe…: White Americans felt threatened by the Ghost Dance. It was a peaceful movement, but the US government treated it like an uprising that had to be put down. On a December day in 1890, a group of Lakota gathered not far from Holy Rosary Mission at a place called Wounded Knee. The US Cavalry surrounded them then started shooting. Reading this firsthand report is gut-wrenching.
Speaker 9: And in their superstitions, they imagined nothing could possibly harm them. But in their first bloody meet with the government troops, it proved to them that they had a false impression.
Mary Annette Pe…: Wounded Knee was a massacre, one of the final chapters of America’s Indian wars. Hundreds of men, women, and children were killed on that barren hill. All this practically on the doorstep of the school.
Speaker 9: As 40 acres of the land where the battle was fought belongs to Holy Rosary, the cemetery where the original warriors are buried, still remain next to the church.
Mary Annette Pe…: Even though I wasn’t given access to the school’s quarterly reports to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, I found details about the school’s budget in correspondence between priests and church authorities. There was also information on school funding embedded in the nun’s diary like how much money Holy Rosary got largely from Indian Trust and Treaty Funds to run the school.
Mary Annette Pe…: The sisters wrote that they got $108 per kid from these funds starting in 1903. There were 188 kids at the school in 1903 and 200 the next year. Enrollment grew in the following years. We ran the numbers to try to calculate how much money that would add up to in today’s dollars.
Mary Annette Pe…: When you adjust for inflation it’s almost $18 million paid from 1903 to 1940 out of funds given to the Lakota tribe through treaties with the US government. So the tribe was actually paying for their children’s forced education out of their own pockets. It worked like this across the country and in many places, mission schools drew on tribal funds until they ran out.
Mary Annette Pe…: I also saw records at the Marquette Archive about the land the boarding school was built on. Not long after the school was founded, the federal government began handing over tribal land to Holy Rosary Mission, ultimately giving it more than 700 acres. Across the country Catholic run schools received more than 10,000 acres carved out of Native lands.
Mary Annette Pe…: There’s one more thing I learned from the archives about the most sensitive issue for people at Pine Ridge. Kids who may have died at Red Cloud when it was a boarding school. I found references to 20 students who died there. Only 10 of them were named Clara Yellow Bear, Zora Ironteeth, Clara Klondalario, Ellen Shangro, Sophia Bush, Rosa Red Elk, Ignez Blackface, Louisa White, Harley Cook, Lawrence Clifford.
Mary Annette Pe…: In most cases, the records don’t say anything about how they died or where they’re buried, but there’s one child’s grave I think we might actually be able to locate, Zora Ironteeth. She died in 1915 and her name is the only one that appears on a map of the school’s cemetery. So I decide to go back to the Red Cloud Cemetery to see if I can find her.
Mary Annette Pe…: Boy. The sun is already getting high in the sky. The cemetery is on a hill, a short walk from the school buildings. Walking through the gate this place has a celestial feel. I wander past weathered grave markers. It’s just how it is on the map.
Mary Annette Pe…: I’m looking for Zora who died when she was seven years old. I think maybe over the years it might have worn away. I think frequently they marked people’s graves with wooden crosses or something of that nature. So it might be gone, but we will take a look.
Mary Annette Pe…: The nun’s diary calls her Zona with an N and the death certificate says Zora with an R. So I’m not sure which one it is, but I don’t find either one, even though I’m clearly in the right spot according to the map. Well, I’m thinking little Zora or Zona’s marker may be gone.
Mary Annette Pe…: There’s many places, grave sites, it looks like there were markers at one time, but they seem to have worn away. So 1915, that’s more than a hundred years ago. And if it was marked with wood, it does seem likely that it would be gone.
Mary Annette Pe…: So it appears there’s at least one child here in an unmarked grave that we have some proof of. There’s a chance school officials don’t even know about her.
Al Letson: After a short break, Mary Annette returns to Red Cloud with what she’s learned.
Mary Annette Pe…: Where does the buck stop here at Red Cloud?
Raymond Nadolny: The buck stops with the board of directors and the president. That’s where the buck stops.
Al Letson: You’re listening to Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: Reporter Mary Annette Pember’s visit to the archives at Marquette University painted a harsh picture of Red Cloud when it was a boarding school. Native children lived and suffered there for years. People in the Pine Ridge community like Chief Red Cloud’s descendant Dusty, are demanding and accounting from the school about finances, land, and lost children.
Al Letson: And the school has pledged to be transparent as part of its truth in healing effort, its reckoning with the past. But Red Cloud is no longer a boarding school. It’s a day school for kids from kindergarten through high school. And there are plenty of Red Cloud graduates, especially in the modern era, who will tell you they love the place. Native folks who’ve had great experiences that propelled them forward in life onto college and careers.
Al Letson: Mary Annette picks up the story back on Red Cloud’s campus on a very special day for the school.
Mary Annette Pe…: It’s graduation day at Red Cloud. The air is filled with excitement and nervous teen energy. People are filing into the school auditorium, some carrying colorful quilts with star patterns, others wearing ribbon skirts. Many students have decorated their graduation caps with traditional bead work and feathers.
Clare Huerter: It is my very great honor to welcome you to Graduation Day at Maȟpíya Lúta Owáyawa. I extend my warmest congratulations to every member of the graduating class of 2022 and their families.
Mary Annette Pe…: The principal encourages graduates to look to their traditions.
Clare Huerter: But each of you has real tenacity, strength, and resilience. Don’t let the opinions of others drown out your voice. Have courage. Find joy in your day. Draw on your Lakota and Ignatian values for guidance.
Mary Annette Pe…: It’s such a different message than students would’ve heard years ago.
Clare Huerter: Congratulations. [inaudible].
Mary Annette Pe…: Today the school is celebrating Lakota language and culture. A local drum group, the Creek Side Singers kick off the ceremony after prayer. They sit in a circle and harmonize their voices.
Creek Side Sing…: (singing)
Speaker 10: Caden [inaudible], Stefan Cliford, Melissa Flincher.
Mary Annette Pe…: One by one this year’s graduates walk across the auditorium stage to get their diplomas. Awards and scholarships are given out too.
Clare Huerter: This morning, we will present the remaining awards and scholarships to our seniors.
Mary Annette Pe…: Even with its troubled history and ongoing struggles, Red Cloud is still the best opportunity for a lot of kids on Pine Ridge. It’s got rigorous academics and a graduation rate of about 95%. In South Dakota, only about 63% of Native kids finish high school. Nine out of 10 Red Cloud graduates go on to college. So for the 35 kids graduating today, there’s a huge sense of accomplishment and a world of possibility.
Mary Annette Pe…: Catholic schools have educated lots of Native folks around the country, including most of my family. My mother often complained about her time at Catholic boarding school. She hated it. But when it came time to send me to school, Catholic school was what she thought gave me the best chance to succeed in the white men’s world.
Mary Annette Pe…: Like many things in Indian country, it’s complicated. Teens who go to school here today still have to navigate that complexity like Jade Eckafee, who made it past the school’s tough entrance requirements.
Jade Eckafee: Red Cloud’s curriculum is very, very hard. This is a college prep school, and so they hold their kids up to a very, very high standard.
Mary Annette Pe…: Jade is athletic and poised. She’s an 11th grader and star athlete on the Varsity Track Team.
Jade Eckafee: So yes, I know about the Truth and Healing program that is going on at Red Cloud, which is kind of the aim to get everything up to the surface about the boarding school history. There is a lot of mixed kind of opinions on it. A lot of people are like, “You should just shut down Red Cloud completely because of its history.”
Jade Eckafee: So I think it’s kind of admiral what Red Cloud is doing. I think they’re doing what they can in light of everything.
Mary Annette Pe…: Jade says she really likes going to school here, but also recognizes the heaviness of Red Cloud’s history.
Jade Eckafee: My culture is a way to like, “No, you didn’t take that away from me.” Those colonizers didn’t win and they didn’t assimilate us. We’re still here and we’re still speaking and we’re still being Lakota.
Mary Annette Pe…: So you feel like that that’s lifted up here at Red Cloud?
Jade Eckafee: I think they’ve definitely gotten better. In the past I know that kids were forced to go to church every Sunday. It was called prayer and praise and every Friday we had to go and stuff like that. And now they don’t force you to do that. And Lakota sacred studies have gotten serious, more serious. So yeah.
Mary Annette Pe…: So that’s pretty recent though? How long ago did they?
Jade Eckafee: My freshman year we had to go to church and everything and I think after COVID they’ve kind of changed that. I know Red Cloud itself really tries to preach Lakota Catholic like, “We are Lakota and we are Catholic and they can coexist and live together.” But I’m just like, “But how could they?”
Jade Eckafee: I don’t understand. Because Catholic was all about wiping out Lakota culture and now you kind of want to them to coexist. So I understand how people, and myself, are having an internal conflict and a hard time of accepting those two to coexist and live together and kind of be one.
Mary Annette Pe…: The tension in that coexistence plays out even in the school’s mascot. The school’s teams are called the Crusaders. What are the implications of being called the Crusaders?
Jade Eckafee: Well, I definitely think we should change it. I don’t think it’s a good image to put out for our school because the Crusades were kind of a very sketchy and not a very good thing. They literally thought they were being told by God to go and take their land back from these people.
Jade Eckafee: Wait, isn’t that what colonizers were doing to us and our people? Why are we called the Crusaders? So that’s kind of my thought process going into it. Why are we named that?
Mary Annette Pe…: Red Cloud is in a major transition, but relics like the school mascot remain. It’s in an estuary between the rigid approach of the old days and creating a more inclusive environment now. And church leaders believe it is possible for Catholicism and Lakota spirituality to coexist. So do the 990 Lakota people who are practicing Catholics on the reservation.
Mary Annette Pe…: Father Joe Daoust oversees the Jesuit community in Western South Dakota and he’s a member of the Board of Red Cloud School.
Father Joe Dous…: It was clear that there’s, if you want to call it real ambiguity, about the school’s existence. That people seem to appreciate what it is doing now, but that there was this kind of dark history that people didn’t talk about much. What we’re trying to do now since the 1960s, I would say, is to help restore the culture, might undo some of the damage or allow people to heal from damage that was done when the school was part of an effort to remove the culture.
Father Joe Dous…: To at least let them know that we are very open to anything we can do to help that process. And to say in some very public ways that we are sorry for that history, the dark history. So we’re talking about something that began by government decree in the school systems, not just this one, to forbid the language, to change the way they dress, to cut the hair, to become European Americans. Certainly up until the 1930s that official government policy was something that the school was complicit in.
Mary Annette Pe…: I’ve done considerable research on this issue and actually government policy was very influenced by Christian missionaries, particularly by Catholics, who actually were really instrumental in forming the governmental assimilationist attitude. If one looks historically, even at some of the congressional records, you see the tremendous role that Catholic and Christian missionaries played. What are your thoughts on that?
Father Joe Dous…: Well, I think with regard to the US government policy, the Catholic church was not that strong because at that time the government policy was pretty anti-Catholic. I agree with you that the Christian, including Catholic, View at that time of the churches even theological view was one that kind of that Darwinian, there’s a higher spirituality that these people can be brought to and that often meant the extinguishment of what was below, in their view.
Father Joe Dous…: So I’m not disagreeing at all that the churches at the time, I think the prevailing view was in favor of what the government was doing.
Mary Annette Pe…: When it comes to who is responsible for the Indian boarding schools, it’s a merry-go-round of blame and Native people don’t really get anything out of that, but the church seems to be at a point where it feels a need to apologize.
Mary Annette Pe…: Catholics have been operating Indian boarding schools in North America for more than 400 years, and in July, Pope Francis traveled to Canada to give a formal apology for the church’s role in Indian residential schools there.
Speaker 11: [foreign language].
Pope Francis: The overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mary Annette Pe…: The Pope’s apology came after the Canadian government created a formal process for truth and reconciliation that lasted for years and resulted in financial reparations to victims of residential schools. The US is just at the beginning of that process.
Speaker 11: [foreign language].
Pope Francis: I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.
Mary Annette Pe…: The Pope’s apology, as a lot of folks in the Native community have pointed out, really put no responsibility on the church for what happened. It blamed a lot of individuals. We wanted to know if the Pope plans to apologize to Native people in the US where the church ran more boarding schools.
Mary Annette Pe…: Also, does the church have a plan for land givebacks and reparations? We reached out several times to the Vatican and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the highest church authority in the US. They wouldn’t talk with us about these issues.
Mary Annette Pe…: In August, the Jesuit Order issued an apology specifically to the Lakota community. Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, Superior General of the Jesuits, traveled from Rome to Pine Ridge and spoke at the Red Cloud campus.
Fr. Arturo Sosa…: On behalf of the society of Jesus, I apologize for the ways in which…
Mary Annette Pe…: Red Cloud is doing a lot more than other Catholic organizations I’m aware of with regard to seeking truth and healing in their community.
Fr. Arturo Sosa…: I ask for your forgiveness.
Mary Annette Pe…: But for many people here, the school has to do much more if it’s going to earn their trust. At an Oglala Lakota tribal council meeting in August, people got up to speak about their experiences with the truth and healing process at Red Cloud.
Speaker 12: So the youth elders and community created a list of demands to hold the Jesuits of Holy Rosary Mission accountable for the genocide they’ve committed against our nation. This list of demands emphasized on pushing the Jesuits to search their entire property for unmarked graves as soon as possible.
Mary Annette Pe…: One thing that came up over and over was to search for unmarked graves of students.
Craig Dillon: They said they were going to do it and they did do it, but they only looked in certain places.
Mary Annette Pe…: And by the end of the meeting…
Speaker 13: Therefore be it resolved that the Tribal Council of the Oglala Sioux Tribe hereby authorizes and approves the creation of a task force to investigate.
Mary Annette Pe…: The council gave the green light for the formation of a Tribal Task Force to investigate and pursue truth, healing, and reconciliation independent of Red Cloud School’s efforts. Council member Craig Dillon had the final word.
Craig Dillon: If they don’t do it all over the grounds, there’s always going to be questions and the best way for the school to address it is to be open about it.
Mary Annette Pe…: The tribe’s Truth and Healing Task Force will be working with the school and school president Raymond Nadolny in the hunt for unmarked graves. Where does the buck stop here at Red Cloud?
Raymond Nadolny: The buck stops with the board of directors and the president. That’s where the buck stops.
Mary Annette Pe…: Raymond has been president since 2019. We talked via video chat while he was on a fundraising trip in Chicago. He’s in his 60s, trim, and energetic. Raymond’s not a member of the clergy, a first for the school. He’s not Native either. The school’s never had a Native president, but it’s ultimately up to him to answer for what the church did here and for how the school is going to make it right.
Mary Annette Pe…: I ask him about what I learned sifting through church documents at the Marquette Archive. We start with property. Red Cloud School got more than 700 acres of tribal land back when it was called Holy Rosary Mission. So do you have plans to return that land or to compensate the tribe for that land?
Raymond Nadolny: We had property up at Wounded Knee and we returned that last year. And any time that we have an opportunity to return land back, we have been working with the tribe to do so.
Mary Annette Pe…: Is there any plans to compensate, if not return?
Raymond Nadolny: I don’t believe I’ve been in any discussion in terms of compensation for the land. I do believe that if the tribal authorities wanted to sit down and have a conversation and kind of demarcate all of those properties to see what possibilities exist, yeah, we’d be happy to have those discussions.
Raymond Nadolny: It’s not as easy of a process even returning the land as one might think. But yeah, we’re very open.
Mary Annette Pe…: So is that something you folks are going to pursue, do you think, in the near future?
Raymond Nadolny: It hasn’t been something that’s been brought to me, but we’d certainly be welcome to talk to the Tribal Council Members. I think that there actually may be some parcels of unused property and I’d be more than happy to have a conversation with the Council about that.
Mary Annette Pe…: So it’s only if it’s unused on the school’s part though, that you would consider return, is that correct?
Raymond Nadolny: Well, right now the schools and the cemeteries and the Heritage Center and the churches, I guess no one’s ever actually brought that to the table, so it would be interesting to have a conversation.
Mary Annette Pe…: We also discuss Red Cloud’s, finances. The school’s holdings are substantial. It’s 2021 audit lists $82 million in assets. It employs a lot of Native people, but teachers here make less than at other schools on Pine Ridge and Red Cloud relies heavily on volunteers.
Raymond Nadolny: So the last three years I think we’ve increased faculty wages by about 25%. In the spring of this year, we are in the design phase, we hope to begin construction of a $7.5 million building for a new Heritage Center and that new Heritage Center will house and archive and display the 13,000 plus pieces of Lakota art. So a lot of that money is constantly going back into the community
Mary Annette Pe…: Oglala Lakota County is one of the top 25 poorest counties in the United States, and for the institution like Red Cloud to have $82 million in assets…
Raymond Nadolny: I do believe that we’re well positioned to continue to support the community and to continue to invest in the community. We’re in a good position to dialogue about what our obligations are to the community if there are additional obligations that we need to do.
Raymond Nadolny: One thing I like about Truth and Healing is that it’s an opportunity being transparent. It’s an opportunity to try to be open so that even when council members hear this kind of data and these kind of numbers that we’re able to come to the table and explain what it is that we do, how we do it, where we spend money, how we spend the money.
Raymond Nadolny: Because if there is more that we can’t do, I think that’s part of any discussion that we want to have as an organization that is here to kind of walk hand in hand.
Mary Annette Pe…: I ask him about access to school records, the ones that are still off limits to the public, that could have information about kids who died at the school.
Mary Annette Pe…: The burial records could present a wealth of information, but they’re considered sacramental and therefore private. Potentially, Red Cloud has some very good documentation of the children that died there, but yet as a researcher, I’ve been unable to access that because it’s considered private.
Raymond Nadolny: Yeah, and that I don’t know about. So actually if you send me a request for that information, I can talk to the people who have access to those records and get you an answer back. But I was not aware of that. I was not aware that that’s off limits.
Mary Annette Pe…: It has stymied are our efforts to try to get a number of how many kids, not only at Red Cloud, but at all of the Catholic Indian boarding schools.
Raymond Nadolny: Sure. I would understand it’s frustrating. I was not aware of it. But again, it sounds like you’ve got two requests. If you send them to me, I think you know that I’m pretty responsive.
Mary Annette Pe…: Sure.
Raymond Nadolny: I can find out what is taking place that I can get back to you, but again, that’s kind of off my radar, but I will put it on my radar.
Mary Annette Pe…: A few days later, he did get back to me to tell me he forwarded my questions to the same people who had already refused to give me access. And records are still off limits.
Mary Annette Pe…: Back at the graduation it’s an emotional moment for a lot of reasons. A mixture of jubilation and relief. Today is huge for a community that deals with lots of adversity. Families gather around their graduates, an elder smiles at her grandson. She’s a compact woman and has to stretch to reach his graduation cap. The husky teen lowers his head so grandma can turn the tassel.
Mary Annette Pe…: The history and legacy of Indian boarding schools is an unsettling new story for many Americans. But Native people have always known. We’ve really had no choice. Few of us, including my family, are untouched by the ongoing fallout and generational trauma of boarding schools.
Mary Annette Pe…: I think of my mother and other relatives now gone. The calls for justice have gone unheeded for generations until now. Native people have been hollering for simple acknowledgement that this happened for years. In this emerging era of racial reckoning it seems that the world may be ready to hear the truth, but will America and the Catholic Church atone for the past?
Mary Annette Pe…: I’m unsure, but one thing is certain. A movement has been ignited and can no longer be ignored. There’s no turning back from the truth.
Al Letson: Red Cloud School may be getting closer to learning the truth about unmarked graves on its campus. In the spring, the school scanned two places with ground penetrating radar, a field where the school plans new construction and the basement of a building where a worker says he saw three graves.
Al Letson: The field showed no sign of graves. The basement site did show two anomalies, but it wasn’t definitive. So now they’re back in the basement digging up the concrete to sift through the dirt underneath.
Al Letson: Red Cloud is one of just a few schools doing excavations like this out of hundreds of places across the nation where people want answers about the lost children of America’s Indian boarding schools.
Al Letson: Mary Annette Pember from ICT reported today’s show. Our lead producers, Michael I Shiller, Taki Telonidis edited the show with help from ICT’s Diana Hunt. Thanks to ICT editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, editor at large Mark Trahant and managing editor Dalton Walker. Special thanks to Kathryn Styer Martínez for additional reporting and production help. And to Meg Lynn Holm, Jason Titchy, Nadia Hamdon, and Stan Alcorn.
Al Letson: To see photos from Red Cloud School and to find links to ICT’s digital stories about boarding schools, go to our website Nikki Frick and Kim Freda are our fact checkers. Soo Oh is our data editor. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy, the Great Mustafa. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando Manuel Arruda. Our digital producer is Sarah Merk. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis.
Al Letson: Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the In As Much Foundation.
Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.