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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, South Dakota — A memorial planned to honor children who died at an Indian boarding school has received a $2 million grant that pushes the project beyond its initial fundraising targets.

The Remembering the Children memorial — envisioned as a place of prayer, gathering, and remembrance on a hillside near the site of the former Rapid City Indian Boarding School — received the grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

It is the largest single donation to date for the project, which has received numerous contributions from the Rapid City community and a $100,000 donation from the Monument Lab, a nonprofit working to cultivate critical conversations around past, present and future public art.

A private funder is also underwriting South Dakota Artist Laureate Dale Lampher’s work on sculptures that will be included in the project.

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Researchers have identified the hillside where the memorial will be placed as the likely location of unmarked graves of children who died while attending the school, which operated from 1898-1933.

“The children need to be remembered — their lives that were tragically lost and taken way too soon,” said Kibbe Brown, Oglala Lakota, whose grandmother and other ancestors attended the school. “Now there will be a place we can go and grieve for the family members who died.”

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The U.S. government and a number of churches operated Indian boarding schools throughout the nation beginning in the 1800s in an attempt to assimilate Native children. Children were often forcibly removed from their families and forbidden from speaking their languages or following their traditions. U.S. policies changed in the 1970s, and only a few boarding schools remain today.

The federal policy was infamously summarized by Richard H. Pratt, the founder and superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, one of the nation’s first Indian boarding schools, who said he wanted to “kill the Indian, save the man.”

International attention has been focused anew on residential schools since May 2021, when more than 200 graves were found at the former site of the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. The creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada in 2008 has led to settlements, the release of historical records and apologies from Canadian officials.

The U.S. has been slower to respond, but that could be changing. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo and the first Indigenous person in the presidential cabinet, is expected to release this month an investigation of the boarding school system and the enduring trauma that has resulted from the federal policies.

Community members stand in prayer at a hillside in South Dakota that is believed to the the site of unmarked graves of children who died at the long-shuttered Rapid City Indian Boarding School. Plans to build a first-in-the-nation memorial to children who died at the school are moving forward with a recent $2 million donation. (Photo courtesy of Rapid City Indian Boarding School Memorial Project)

Deborah Parker, a citizen of Tulalip Tribes and the chief executive of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said the coalition is partnering with the Interior Department in tracing and collecting the history and records of the boarding school era.

“We stand with the Rapid City Indian Boarding School Project, which has worked diligently for decades to tell the truth about what happened to their children,” Parker said. “We hope that others will donate to make this memorial even stronger. The time is now for boarding school sites and unmarked graves all around the country to be recognized and protected.”

Brown, who has worked for nine years as a volunteer on what grew into the Remembering the Children project, said the trauma endures.

“Even the ones who survived (the boarding schools) are scarred and the stories they tell you will bring you to tears,” Brown said. “My grandmother told about how bad she felt when the children who returned after they had run away would be placed in balls and chains and made to march up and down at the school grounds day after day. You can just see the scars of the people who did survive.”

The project’s fundraising successes were welcomed by city leaders.

“This is a significant project for the community,” said Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender. “It will initially be for those who know about the difficult history of the boarding school but it will also help teach those who don’t. I’m happy they have raised so much money.”

The primary design elements of the memorial project include a walking path lined with boulders with the names of each of the children, four sculptures and four inipi purification lodges. The project grew out of an effort nearly a decade ago to mark the 75th anniversary of Sioux San Hospital, the Indian Health Service institution that eventually moved onto the property after the school closed.

The discussions originated at a luncheon, Brown said.

“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.”

The idea grew from there.

“Everyone of a certain age seemed to have a story from the school era in which children were buried up there,” she said.

Soon a bevy of volunteer researchers, including Brown and Heather Dawn Thompson, Cheyenne River, began pouring over school records and interviewing uncis, or grandmothers.

The team eventually identified at least 50 children who died at the school. Next came a legal effort to place in federal trust for the Oglala, Cheyenne River and Rosebud Sioux tribes the hillside identified as the site of the graves. The idea blossomed into what would be the nation’s only large-scale monument to children who died at Indian boarding schools.

“This story belongs to our community and the uncis and community members who have kept this story alive,” said Amy Sazue, Sicangu Lakota, who was recently hired as the executive director of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School Memorial Project.

“Our families and our community never forgot them and it’s amazing how our people have carried on this story,” Sazue said. “They always asked about the children. They looked for their children; they wanted their children back.”

Some of those efforts went on for more than 100 years.

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

Among the stories uncovered by the researchers was the saga of Mabel Holy, who records show was the first student to die at the school in 1901. Six years ago they located her grave in a municipal cemetery with a small headstone with the name misspelled. Her family had never been told how she died or where she was interred.

The researchers posted the find on Facebook, asking if anyone had information about the girl. .The response was almost instantaneous from Holy's relatives on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

“It was, ‘Oh my gosh. We've been looking for Mabel for 116 years and we're going to come see her now,’” said one researcher. “It was amazing.”

Holy’s relatives relayed how her brother, Leon Holy, had tried to find her, writing to the school in 1929 for word. The school responded that no records existed.

“We regret to advise you that … we cannot give you the desired information," wrote school Superintendent Sharon Mote.

Leon Holy spent the rest of his years wondering what happened to his sister.

In 2017, after learning that Mabel’s grave had been located, Leon Holy's then-87–year–old son, Martin Holy, Cheyenne River, drove down with other family members to finally visit her gravesite.

“I'm glad now that my uncle was able to see where (Mabel) is,” Martin Holy’s niece, Violet Catches, Cheyenne River, said in 2017. Martin Holy died not long after visiting Mabel’s grave.

Catches is now focused on her aunt, and is among a group of elders helping guide plans for a memorial to remember the children who died at the school.

“I imagine that she may have thought that she was forgotten. So I told her (at the grave site), ‘You're not forgotten,’” Catches said, her voice breaking. “‘They found you. We found you. We're here. We're going to do all we can to remember you from now on.’

“That's what I told her. Finding her is really a kind of a joy but at the same time it's very sad. Sad because of the fact that my grandpa was looking for her. My grandma was looking for her. They didn't get to see her.”

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For more info
For more information about the Rapid City memorial, visit https://www.rememberingthechildren.org.

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