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
Leaders at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation have announced they will dig up a portion of the basement in a former school dormitory in search of unmarked graves.
The announcement came after a search with ground-penetrating radar in May was inconclusive about whether remains might be under what is now a concrete slab in a corner of the large basement.
A report on the testing said the ground-penetrating radar failed to show a definitive presence of graves, but that a final determination could only be determined through excavation.
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The excavation is part of what the school calls its own search for truth and reconciliation as the U.S. and Canada continue to search for unmarked graves at former Indian residential or boarding schools.
“We are committed to the process of being transparent,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School. Black Elk is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribe.
“We will investigate places that have been identified by eyewitness testimony (of the presence of graves),” Black Elk said.
In May, Marsha Small, Northern Cheyenne, and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. used ground-penetrating radar to conduct an analysis of the front lawn of the school as well as an area in the basement of Drexel Hall, a former student dorm.
According to the radar report, there were no indications of graves in the area of the school’s lawn.
Rumors of unmarked graves and missing students have circulated in the Pine Ridge community for years but have seldom included eyewitness testimony, until now.
A former worker at the school came forward recently to report he had seen what looked like small graves in the basement in the 1990s – with small crosses marking each one.
“These stories are rooted in horrific truths of the broader boarding school past,” Black Elk said.
Red Cloud Indian School was originally opened as Holy Rosary Mission in 1888 by Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests. The name was changed to Red Cloud in 1969. In 1980, the school ceased offering boarding and now functions as a day school serving about 600 students.
Red Cloud now operates as a nonprofit organization describing itself as “a Lakota Jesuit Catholic Institution administered by the Jesuits and Lakota people.”
Unlike discoveries of unmarked graves at Canada’s Indian residential schools, however, where hundreds of bodies have been discovered at several former school sites, the allegations of graves in the basement of Drexel Hall raise more sinister concerns.
Drexel Hall was built more than 100 years ago, serving first as a student dorm and later as a convent for nuns who worked at the school. Today, the building houses offices for school staff and the Heritage Center, an art gallery and gift shop.
“Red Cloud wasn’t a boarding school in the 1990s when the graves were first discovered, so we will be involving law enforcement in addition to members of the community when we excavate the area,” Black Elk said.
“This is a hard conversation for our community to have,” he said. “If our GPR work helps open the door to those conversations, then hopefully that leads people to healing.”
Not everyone in the Pine Ridge community is confident in the school’s show of transparency.
Dusty Lee Nelson, of the Oglala Lakota tribe, describes the school’s truth and healing efforts as a charade, saying that letting the Catholic Church and Red Cloud lead its own investigations into wrongdoing is the opposite of transparency.
“It’s all about mitigating damage control,” she said.
She said most efforts have been focused on a small group of Lakota Catholics.
On Aug. 16, for example, Jesuit Father General Arturo Sosa visited the school, but his presence was not widely publicized in the community.
Sosa, whose office is in Rome, is the leader of the Society of Jesus, the largest religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church. Red Cloud was founded by Jesuit priests, as was St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Reservation. St. Francis has been tribally controlled since 1979.
During his visit, Sosa presented an apology.
“On behalf of the Society of Jesus, I apologize for the ways in which St. Francis and Holy Rosary Missions and boarding schools were for decades complicit in the U.S. government’s reprehensible assimilation policies, trying to eradicate your culture,” he said. “I ask for your forgiveness for that and for any other abuses that your ancestors may have suffered.”
In response to ICT’s inquiry about why the broader community was not notified of Sosa’s visit, Black Elk said, “I think the feeling was to keep his visit intimate. So we informed our community and parents. But didn’t do anything big with press.”
A video of Sosa speaking at Red Cloud was posted on the school’s website shortly after ICT inquired about the visit.
Sosa promised to take demands from leadership of both the Oglala Lakota and Rosebud Sioux tribes for the Catholic church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery to Pope Francis. The letter, signed by Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was posted on the tribe’s Facebook page.
Demands have escalated in recent months to rescind the doctrine, a foundational document guiding Catholic and Christian occupation of the Americas. The doctrine is composed of bulls or orders handed down in the 1400s by Catholic popes authorizing agents of European monarchs to dominate Indigenous lands and people by any means necessary. The doctrine helped shape the entirety of the White settler relationship with Indigenous peoples in the Americas and is the genesis of U.S. federal Indian law.
But the issue is dividing the community. Since speaking out publicly about Red Cloud’s truth and healing efforts, Nelson said she has become a target for community members who disagree with her.
“I’m tired of being the one to say things,” she said. “God bless the [Indigenous Youth Council]. They are organizing and approaching these issues. Activism has been demonized here.”
School leaders said in a statement posted to the school website that the next round of work in the Drexel Hall basement is set for this fall.
“We will be working again with Marsha Small and OVAI to follow their recommendations,” the statement said.
“The removal of concrete and excavation will take place in October 2022 where law enforcement, spiritual advisors and the community member who brought forward the testimony will be present.”
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