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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
Indian Country Today

PINE RIDGE, South Dakota — The search for truth began on a spring day under a brilliant blue sky at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge reservation.

The air fairly buzzed with blossoming life, a buzz that belied the serious business at hand. Red Cloud, a Catholic Jesuit school once known as Holy Rosary School, is beginning its search for graves of children who may have been buried here long ago.

Basil Braveheart, a survivor of Holy Rosary boarding school, and his son Robert offered prayers and traditional Lakota song in preparation for a public demonstration Wednesday of the ground-penetrating radar that will be used to search for unmarked graves.

Related stories:
— US boarding school investigative report released
— Pope apologizes for Canada’s residential schools
— Canada, US differ on boarding school policies

The search is part of Red Cloud’s Truth and Healing Initiative, which began in 2019 and includes providing access to school archives and research, community engagement and survivor outreach.

As work began, however, an unexpected visitor arrived. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community, was in the area to announce Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investments in the Oglala Dam.

Newland worked with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in creating the recently released Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, the first-ever inventory of federally operated schools.

He said the United States must come to terms with what happened.

“This is not just some gratuitous look at the past,” Newland said, in response to Indian Country Today’s question about why boarding school history is such an important issue in Indian Country.

“This report is a recounting and accounting of the United State’s operation of these schools and part of an effort to better understand how this legacy impacts people across Indian Country,” he said.

Demands for justice

At the request of community members and as part of its Initiative, Red Cloud school leaders hired Marsha Small, Northern Cheyenne, to conduct ground-penetrating radar to search for the graves of students who perished here during the boarding school days.

Red Cloud is using the radar to search the nearby cemetery that was used by the local Catholic community and the school, as well as areas that community members have identified as possible locations of graves.

Many tribal citizens, including members of the local chapter of the International Indigenous Youth Council, have demanded the school conduct the search.

About 50 percent of federal Indian boarding schools received support or involvement from a religious institution or organization, including funding, infrastructure and personnel. According to an investigation by ICT, various orders of priests and nuns within the Catholic Church operated most of the religious schools, although the Quakers, Episcopalians and other denominations also operated boarding schools. Currently, Catholics are the only Christian denomination running schools targeting Native Americans.

The Holy Rosary School was founded in 1887 and functioned as an Indian boarding school until 1980. The institution changed its name from Holy Rosary to Red Cloud School in 1969. Today, it is a day school operated by Catholic Jesuits.

Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, and Bryan Newland, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs listen on May 18, 2022, as Marsha Small explains the ground-penetrating radar technology used to search the grounds of Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Jarrod Burks, in front, of Ohio Valley Archaeology, Inc helps with the radar. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)

The purpose of Indian boarding schools, Newland said, was part of a twin policy of taking land from Native people and assimilating them.

The United States is trailing Canada in investigating the boarding school legacy. In 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was approved by the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples, providing financial compensation to former residential school students and a $125 million payment by the Canadian government to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. 

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In 2008, Canada created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued its final report in 2015. The Canadian government has issued a formal apology for creating and operating the schools.

The U.S. initiative is the first move toward a nationwide assessment of the boarding school systems.

The intent of the report is part of an effort to identify the names, numbers of schools, number of children who attended and those who died at the schools, and to find and protect their graves, which may be unmarked.

Assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, Ojibwe, speaks to a community gathering on May 18, 2022, at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, as Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, looks on. Ground-penetrating radar is set to begin at the school to search for graves of students who died there. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)

According to Newland, the aim of the boarding school initiative is also to provide understanding of the cost in dollars appropriated from Native lands and wealth to operate the schools.

“I think everybody here knows that before you can begin any healing, the very first thing you have to do is acknowledge what happened,” he said.

“And so for the very first time, we, as the United States, are acknowledging what we did with these schools and why they existed.”

'We need action'

Some people at the gathering expressed impatience and anger at the slow pace of the Catholic Church in acknowledging its role in operating boarding schools. Pope Frances recently apologized to First Nations survivors of Canadian residential schools, but no church-wide apologies have been offered in the United States.

Alex White Plume, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux tribe, spoke to Red Cloud leaders and others at the gathering.

“We don’t want no cheap apology,” White Plume said. “The Catholic Church needs to own up and pay back rent so we can restore our traditional ways … We’re not going to heal until we see some sort of justice from the church and the United States.”

Members of the Tokala Inajinyo Youth Leadership Mentoring Program on Rosebud Sioux tribal lands discuss on May 18, 2022, how they helped bring back ancestors who died at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. They are, left to right, Rachel Janis, Alexis White Hat and Jaydenrose Whiting. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)

Several members of the Indigenous Youth Council rode horses around the church, as Dallas Nelson, Marlon Kelly and Red Dog sang the American Indian Movement song. The group placed a sign against the wall of the church at Red Cloud.

“We are the grandchildren of the Lakota you weren’t able to remove,” the sign said.

Youth from Tokala Inajinyo Youth Leadership Mentoring Program based on the Rosebud Sioux tribal lands also joined the gathering. They helped bring home the remains of nine ancestors who died while attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

“I’m glad the Pope apologized but we need action,”said Alexis White Hat, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

“We need help in our communities and more efforts to educate the public about Native peoples and our histories,” she added.

“Ours is a story of resilience; we are still here and speaking up for ourselves.”

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