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Abused students fight back

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - When Cory Hairy Shirt was drinking, he had thoughts of
killing a man who severely beat him and a friend when they were in fourth
grade; today the thoughts have subsided, but the anger is still there.

Hairy Shirt was a student at St. Joseph's Indian School in the mid-1960s
when he suffered what he said was the "worst beating I ever took in my
life."

Hairy Shirt is one of 21 plaintiffs who recently filed a lawsuit in Circuit
Court in South Dakota asking for accountability.

St. Joseph's is a currently operational elementary boarding school that was
opened in 1927 in Chamberlain, S.D. The school is listed as defendant, as
are the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart in Wisconsin,
owners of the school, and the Benedictine Sisters of Yankton South Dakota,
who supplied staff and teachers.

The complaint claims the atrocities committed include sexual, mental,
psychological and physical abuse.

"The physical beatings and sexual abuse were justified by school teachers,
administrators and officials as a means to 'send the devil' out of the
Native American children," the complaint stated.

Hairy Shirt said they were made fun of if they spoke their language and
were called heathens, savages and pagans.

Life at the school was filled with abuse or witnessing abuses perpetrated
on others that left scars for many young people. Hairy Shirt claims his
anger and behavior has been affected by one incident that he will long
remember.

Hairy Shirt said he and other students were playing around, having fun and
running during a basketball game. They ran into the restroom, which was
used as the locker room for the opposing team. He and another student, a
friend of his, were accused of stealing money.

"Brother Dennis asked us to pull down our pants and hang on to the sink. It
first started out with a small skinny belt and every time he asked us to
give the money back and we said we didn't have it, he would hit us. We
continued to tell him we didn't take any money," he said.

Hairy Shirt said he and his friend even turned their pockets inside out to
show Brother Dennis they weren't lying. "We were crying pretty hard, but we
stuck to what we knew."

According to Hairy Shirt, Brother Dennis left the boys in the restroom
twice and each time returned with a larger belt.

"After a while he just kept doing it and it got to the point where it
didn't hurt anymore. I couldn't feel anything and we quit crying. He wanted
us to cry so he hit harder, he just kept hitting us," Hairy said.

He said Brother Dennis then took his friend into another room and when they
returned the beating stopped. Hairy Shirt said he hurt so bad he couldn't
move.

"I couldn't understand why a person wouldn't believe that we didn't take
anything," Hairy Shirt said.

Hairy Shirt said after years of drinking, he sobered up and while in
treatment dealt with the anger he had for Brother Dennis. "I had to work
with that when I went to treatment, I had a lot of anger toward him and I
don't know if I'm over it yet," he said.

"I took a heck of a beating from that man and I still remember."

Hairy Shirt said his friend committed suicide about 10 years ago. He was
told his friend also drank a lot.

The recent complaint stated that the defendants had the responsibility to
protect the health, safety and physical and psychological well-being of the
children in their care, and that the plaintiffs were compelled to put their
trust and faith in the school's educators, clergy and staff.

The defendants failed to investigate any abuse that took place at the
school, the suit alleged, and did not disclose any facts about dangers at
the school or the risk of abuse. Nor did the defendants disclose their own
negligence and fault regarding the abuse.

Hairy Shirt said the first day he arrived at the school he was stripped
naked and doused with "bug juice," a mixture that included turpentine that
was supposed to remove body lice.

"If a kid ran away they would be brought back, stripped and beaten in front
of everyone," he said. He also said that students' hair would be shaved
with a stripe down the middle and it would stay that way for two weeks
until all the hair was shaved off.

"I have seen other kids get whipped; I used to think, I know what that
feels like. They did it in front of everyone. I would get away from there,"
Hairy Shirt said.

The plaintiffs did not set punitive damages to the complaint; in fact, it's
not about money, they said. It's about accountability.

The complaint requests a trial by jury, severe judgment against the
defendants and that compensatory damages be decided by the court.

Hairy Shirt said he would feel better if those who abused him were held
accountable and punished. "I would be happy; it's about time. I suffered
through all that ... all these years and I don't want to see somebody get
away with it; to beat a defenseless child. It's hard [to deal with]."

The abuse victims suffered at St. Joseph's is similar to the abuse
experienced at other boarding schools that occurred from the late 19th
century until the 1970s, when most of the schools were taken over by the
tribes.

A complaint against the federal government, filed in 2003, accuses the
government of allowing abuses to take place at St. Paul's Marty Mission in
Marty, S.D. Depositions are currently taking place in that lawsuit.

Many victims do not come forward until sometimes decades after the abuse
took place because of suppressed memory or fear of shame. Hairy Shirt said
he had not told anyone about the beating he received until now. He lived
with the pain.

"At all relevant times, the defendants knew or in the exercise of
reasonable care should have known that the personnel at St. Joseph's Indian
School were unfit, dangerous and a threat to the health, safety and welfare
of the minors entrusted to their counsel, care and protection," the
complaint stated.

Hairy Shirt is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and has worked as an
alcohol and drug counselor for the past 10 years. He is supervisor of the
youth program.

Herman said other potential plaintiffs will come forward to add their names
to the complaint, although this is not a class action suit. Anyone who
attended St. Joseph's and suffered abuse can call Jeffrey Herman at (305)
931-2200.