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Stewart Huntington
Special to ICT

RAPID CITY, South Dakota — With each passing decade after the Rapid City Indian Boarding School shut down in 1933, the memory of the 50 children who died there grew fainter and fainter – until a handful of years ago.

It was then that Native community members in this western South Dakota town began documenting the children’s fate and vowed to honor their lives — first with an in-the-works, multimillion-dollar memorial called Remembering the Children and now with a documentary film with the same title.

“This film is about the children who perished at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School,” said producer Jim Warne, Oglala Lakota. “But there is a bigger picture as well. There were more than 400 Indian boarding schools across the country and children died at many of those as well. Those stories need to be told.”

Students line up on the campus of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in this undated photo. The school operated from 1898-1933 in Rapid City, South Dakota, and was part of a federal initiative to crush Indigenous cultures and assimilate Native youth into the Western world. The children attending the school were from the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River and Rosebud reservations but children also came from as far away as the Gros Ventre, Northern Cheyenne, Flathead, and Chippewa Nations. (Historic photo courtesy of Kibbe Brown)

In May, the U.S.Department of the Interior released the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report that identified “approximately 19 Federal Indian boarding schools (that) accounted for over 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian child deaths. As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of recorded deaths to increase.”

The “Remembering the Children” film, directed by Arlo Iron Cloud, Oglala Lakota, and underwritten by the Windrose Fund at the Common Counsel Foundation, will premiere Saturday, July 30, at the Journey Museum in Rapid City.

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It tells the story of the school that operated from 1898-1933 and was part of a federal initiative to crush Indigenous cultures and assimilate Native youth into the Western world. The children at the school were mostly brought to Rapid City from their Lakota homes on the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River and Rosebud Reservations, but children also came from as far away as the Gros Ventre, Northern Cheyenne, Flathead, and Chippewa Nations.

The work also traces the efforts of present-day researchers who tracked down records and stories of the children who died at the school, many of whom were buried in unmarked graves.

Those graves are believed to be on a hillside near the center of the original school campus on land that was placed in federal trust for the three nearest area tribes: Oglala Lakota, Cheyenne River and Sicangu Lakota.

It is on that hill that the memorial is planned. The project’s primary design elements include a walking path lined with boulders with the names of each of the children, four sculptures and four inipi purification lodges.

Jim Warne, Oglala Lakota, produced the new documentary film, "Remembering the Children,“ about the 50 children who died at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in South Dakota. The film premieres Saturday, July 30, 2022, in Rapid City. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

The researchers found that many of the children who died fell to disease. One died in an explosion in the school’s boiler room; another died trying to escape back to his family. The researchers also located the grave of Mabel Holy in a municipal graveyard with a small marker with her name misspelled.

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Holy died at the school in 1901 with no family nearby, and her family was never told where she was buried. In 2017, researchers were able to reunite Holy’s remains with her family in time for her then 87-year-old nephew, Martin Holy, to make it down from his home on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation to visit the grave of his aunt.

Martin Holy died before the making of the “Remembering the Children” documentary but his niece, Violet Catches, Cheyenne River, is interviewed in the film.

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For Warne, the documentary work was a powerful experience.

“It was wonderful to be part of such a wide community effort – to have the tiospaye, or extended family, all working together,” he said.

It was also a labor of love close to his own family. Warne’s mother, Beverly Warne, Oglala Lakota, is a boarding school survivor and serves on the Elders’ Committee assisting the “Remembering the Children” documentary team.

“It’s the right time to publicly honor the Lakota children who have passed away,” Beverly Warne said. “It’s important for both Native and non-Native children to see and understand the history that for so long has been hidden.”

It might have stayed hidden if not for a pivotal moment at a Rapid City luncheon seven years ago.

Kibbe Brown, Oglala Lakota, who was in attendance, had been doing research for the 75th anniversary of the Sioux San Hospital, the Indian Health Service institution that for years operated on the grounds of the old boarding school. She soon pivoted to researching the fate of those who died at the boarding school.

“Out of the blue an elder came up to me and said, ‘What are you going to do about the graves up there?’” Brown said. “I didn’t know what to make of it.”

Until she started digging.

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