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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, South Dakota — On the far western reaches of Rapid City, South Dakota, lies a small, hardscrabble hill with poor, shallow soil and a deep and troubled history. A century ago, the United States operated an Indian boarding school nearby and, recently, researchers identified the hill as the final resting site for some Indigenous students who died at the school and were buried in unmarked graves.

A community-led effort to build a proper and respectful monument to the students got a major boost Monday, Nov. 15, when it received a $100,000 donation from a national organization, Monument Lab, that is working to reimagine public monuments in the country.

“This is great news,” said Raine Nez, Sicangu Lakota, who is a member of the Remembering the Children organization in Rapid City. “This support from Monument Lab moves us closer to the day we can finally honor these ancestors who may have thought they were forgotten.”

The Remembering the Children memorial would be the first large-scale installation in the country honoring students who died at Indian boarding schools.

Students line up outside the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of the South Dakota State Historical Society)

Monument Lab announced Monday the inaugural 10 members of its Re:Generation Cohort of innovative, community based projects. The lab is a nonprofit public art studio working to cultivate critical conversations around past, present and future monuments.

The studio this year completed an audit of the nation’s public monuments and found they are overwhelmingly built to celebrate white men and warfare. Monument Lab’s audit was undertaken to help guide the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s $250 million investment designed to “transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces and ensure that future generations inherit a commemorative landscape that venerates and reflects the vast, rich complexity of the American story.”

The Remembering the Children project is a natural fit for reimagining public monuments, said Monument Lab’s director of research Sue Mobley.

“If we seek a nation that lives up to its creed, learns from and labors to repair its past, and connects to its history in ways that are more truthful, complex, and vital, then our monuments must change,” she said. “What better place to start than by working to honor Native children who died after being stripped from their families and then buried anonymously?”

Nez said she felt it was important for the Rapid City community to honor the children, begin a healing process and set an example for other communities facing their Indian boarding school histories.

But working on the project is also deeply personal, since many children were taken from their homes and families on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota and sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Many never returned.

“This effort is very close to my Nagi (spirit) because of what happened to my ancestors,” Nez said. “This is a tragedy that is part of too many Native families.”

The Rapid City Indian boarding school operated between 1898 and 1933 and was part of the nationwide federal initiative to crush Indigenous cultures and assimilate Native youth into the Western world. The school was turned into a tuberculosis sanitarium and eventually a hospital.

Today, the site is home to the Oyate Health Center run by the Oglalla, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes.

In recent years, researchers have identified at least 50 children who died at the school. Many of them are buried in unmarked graves on the hill that used to be part of the school grounds. The researchers were able to move the property into federal trust for three area tribes.

Community members have planned a $2 million memorial to the children to be built on the site that they hope will serve as a national model for how a city and a region can mark a troubling blemish on its history and yet look forward with hope and healing.

Plans include a walking path up the hill with boulders displaying the names of the children who died. Ceremonial scaffolds are planned for the top of the hill with a space for feeds and ceremonies down low. Also planned are four inipi purification lodges.

An honor guard leads a march October 2020 in Rapid City to honor children who died at the old Rapid City Indian Boarding School in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Photo by Stewart Huntington for Indian Country Today)

For the past four Indigenous Peoples Days, the local community has held a Remembering the Children walk and prayer gathering.

During the walks, community members hold placards with names of the children who perished at the school. Many surviving relatives of the children hold the card with their family member’s name.

Kibbe Brown, Oglala Lakota, has carried the placard honoring her ancestor Adolph Russell in the Memorial Walks, including the one last month.

“Adolph was my grandmother’s little brother,” said Brown. “In about 1908 he got a potato from the school’s garden and took it to the boiler room where the kids would go to heat up the vegetables. The students were chronically underfed so they had to do what they could to supplement their diets. He died when the boiler exploded. They had to identify him by his shoes.”

To learn more about the Rapid City Indian Lands Project or to make a donation to the memorial, go to RememberingTheChildren.org.

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