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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

No human remains were found in the recent excavation and soil survey conducted recently at Red Cloud Indian School, where a worker reported seeing three small graves years ago, according to a statement published on the school’s website on Nov. 4.

The anomalies discovered in May with ground-penetrating radar were found to be related to building products such as mortar used for laying bricks and to rodents burrowing in the soil, according to the statement.

A final report will be produced and posted on the school’s website “once a final examination of soil samples from the site has been analyzed,” according to the statement.

“To be clear,” the statement notes, “no human remains were found in the soil survey.”

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A seven-month review of the Red Cloud school by ICT and Reveal found evidence of at least one unmarked grave, in addition to the three reported by Pourier, and at least 20 student deaths. The review also found evidence of harsh, dehumanizing treatment of students at a time when the Catholic Church was accumulating thousands of dollars in government payments and hundreds of acres of land at the expense of the Oglala Lakota people

The ICT/Reveal findings were featured in a two-part podcast, “Buried Secrets: America’s Indian Boarding Schools,” that started with part 1 on Saturday, Oct. 15, and concluded with part 2 on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Red Cloud officials also announced on the website that they are collecting testimony from people who boarded at the institution.

Cecilia Fire Thunder, former president of the Oglala Lakota Nation who boarded at the school from 1953 to 1962, is helping gather testimony. In a video interview posted on the school’s website, Fire Thunder said so far no one has yet reported memories of children going missing.

Ground-penetrating radar

School leaders ordered a search with ground-penetrating radar in May after former student and employee Justin Pourier came forward earlier with a report that he saw three small graves in the basement of Drexel Hall in the 1990s.

The May search revealed possible disturbances to the soil under the cement in the former 100-year-old building that once served as a student dormitory and nuns’ quarters.

The basement floor was dirt when Pourier, of the Oglala Lakota tribe, made the discovery in the 1990s. At some point later, the floor was covered over with cement.

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In October 2022, an investigation team including Marsha Small, Northern Cheyenne, and her team at Ohio Valley Archeology, members of the FBI and tribal law enforcement conducted a search of the soil after removing the cement from the section of floor identified by Pourier.

He said he saw three small mounds with primitive crosses in the remote section of the vast basement.

“I seen what I seen,” Pourier told ICT on Nov. 5, the day after the findings were posted. “I’m thinking whatever was buried was moved, but I don’t know. It leads to more questions.”

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Pourier and some other members of the community were present during the excavation.

“They hauled the soil out bucket by bucket and sifted through it,” he said. “The FBI created a grid for them to work from.”

Justin Pourier, Oglala Lakota, his daughter Joaquina, left, and wife, Marla, watch technicians conduct ground-penetrating radar in the basement of an old building at Red Cloud Indian School. Pourier was working for the school in the 1990s when he saw what appeared to be three small graves in a dark corner of the vast basement. He was told to stay quiet about it, and he did, until 2022, when he reported it again to school leaders. Officials are set to excavate the section of the basement starting Oct. 17, 2022. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Pourier said he believes the excavation was a good start on the truth and healing efforts that were launched at the school several years ago in an effort to uncover the truths about its boarding school history.

“I think they are trying to be transparent and open to the public,” he said.

Pourier and Dusty Lee Nelson, however, are not so sure about the Jesuits and the Catholic church.

“This is an investigation started by the organization that perpetrated the offenses; a lack of evidence in this instance doesn’t mean atrocities didn’t happen there,” said Nelson, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribe.

Both Pourier and Nelson expressed concern about the role that generational trauma plays in keeping survivors from coming forward with their stories.

“Many others have approached me with personal stories, not about deaths but about past abuse,” Pourier said. “It’s a very sensitive issue.”

He said he is encouraging people to come forward with their memories. Some, according to Nelson, are concerned about negative school and community reaction if they speak publicly about abuse.

What’s ahead

Although the school is beginning to address its boarding school past, Pourier noted that neither the Jesuits nor the Catholic church are providing significant funding to help survivors, their families or the community to begin healing.

When Jesuit Father General Arturo Sosa visited Red Cloud in August, Pourier asked him if the church could fund counseling for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder associated with attending the school.

“He said that was a good recommendation and that he would take it back to Rome to the Pope,” Pourier said. “We haven’t heard anything so far though.”

This historic photo shows female students at Red Cloud Hall, circa 1910 – 1930, when the school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was known as Holy Rosary Mission. (Photo courtesy of Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University from Holy Rosary Mission-Red Cloud Indian School records via Reveal)

Sosa is the leader of the Jesuit order and is based in Rome; he apologized for the order’s complicity in the U.S. assimilation policies.

“The school is doing all the work themselves,” Pourier said. “There’s no systematic effort being made by the Jesuits or the church … Abuse at Red Cloud went on for generations; hopefully it won’t take generations for the Jesuits to correct the situation.”

Small declined to comment for this article. Red Cloud school leaders did not respond to email requests for comment. 

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