'They are not forgotten'

Children with placards bearing the names of students who died at the old Rapid City Indian Boarding School sit in front of a hillside that researchers determined holds unmarked graves of some of the deceased children. A memorial is planned to honor the children at the site. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

Stewart Huntington

March honors children who died at Indian boarding school in South Dakota

Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, S.D.   This western South Dakota city marked Indigenous People’s Day with a march to remember the students who died decades ago at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School, and a groundbreaking ceremony for a $2 million memorial to the children.

“It’s a very important day to acknowledge the accomplishments of our people,” said John Old Horse, a pastor, veteran and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation who led the march with song and prayer. “And also to remember the things that aren’t so great in our past and heal our community.”

About 200 marchers gathered in the morning at the city’s Sioux Park, and organizers handed out placards with the names of 50 children who perished at the boarding school before family members could be notified. 

Family of the fallen children carried some of the placards on the march, and many more were carried by children.

In this Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, photo, John Old Horse stands ready to lead marchers in Rapid City, South Dakota. Indigenous People’s Day is a "very important day to acknowledge the accomplishments of our people,” said Old Horse. “And also to remember the things that aren’t so great in our past and heal our community.” (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
John Old Horse stands ready to lead marchers in Rapid City, South Dakota, on Monday. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
In this Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, photo, children sit with placards with the names of children who died at the old Rapid City Indian Boarding School sit in front of a hillside that researchers determined hold unmarked graves of some of the deceased children. A memorial is planned to honor the children at the site. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)
Children with placards bearing the names of students who died at the old Rapid City Indian Boarding School sit in front of a hillside that researchers determined holds unmarked graves of some of the deceased children. A memorial is planned to honor the children at the site. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

The boarding school operated between 1898 and 1933 and was part of a federal initiative to crush Indigenous cultures and assimilate Native youth into the Western world.

Most of the fallen children died from disease. One died in a boiler room explosion. Mark Sherman died escaping. The families of the children have long held that conditions were less than ideal for the students.

Researchers uncovered their names after heeding the pleas of generations of grandmothers who refused to let their memory die.

The city’s mayor, Steve Allender, pronounced the day "Grandmothers Day" in honor of the Lakota grandmothers, or “uncis,” who never forgot. “(Today) can be a day of anger, because the way these children died and the reasons that they died were cruel,” he said. “There’s no justifying it.”

When the boarding school closed, it became a segregated tuberculosis clinic for Native Americans called the Sioux Sanitorium, and that later became the Sioux San Hospital.

Students line up outside the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in this undated photo. The school operated from 1898 until 1933. After the school shut down the federal government distributed some 1,200 acres of school land to the city, the local school district, the national guard and churches — but none to Native Americans. (Photo courtesy of the South Dakota State Historical Society)
Students line up outside the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of the South Dakota State Historical Society)

The seven years of research that led to this day began as a project to mark the 75th anniversary of Sioux San Hospital in 2012. But the project grew in different directions when the researchers met the grandmothers, who told them not to overlook the children — or the unmarked graves.

Their work eventually led them to a hill overlooking the old school grounds where they determined unmarked graves lay. 

“We had a spiritual leader  her name was Gwen Hollow Horn  take us over to this acreage, and she showed us where the graves were,” said Kibbe McGaa, Oglala Lakota, who was one of the original researchers on the project. “And she taught us things about this area historically. That it was a camp area. … We were here long before this was used by the boarding school.”

The land is now held in federal trust for the three area tribes — Cheyenne River, Rosebud and Oglala Lakota Sioux Nations — and it is where organizers hope the planned memorial will rise.

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.

In this Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, photo, an honor guard leads a march in Rapid City, South Dakota, 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)
An honor guard leads a march Monday in Rapid City, South Dakota, 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)

When the marchers gathered at the hillside for the groundbreaking ceremony, it was a moving moment for many in the crowd.

“Emotions run high whenever we are remembering children who thought they were lost,” said LaFawn Janis, Oglala Lakota, who was one of the day’s organizers. “Now we’re here to let them know that we are here, and we’ll remember them. They are not forgotten. We honor them by walking while in our own journeys.”

Added Bev Warne, an Oglala Lakota elder: “It was very meaningful for me watching those children holding the signs of those children who died. They were honoring each child, which is so, so meaningful for me as a grandmother.”

(Related: Historic settlement inches closer in South Dakota land dispute)

And moving for family members of the honored children. Like Victoria Sherman, Oglala Lakota, whose ancestor Mark Sherman died while running away from the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. Her great-grandmother Lizzie was sent to a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

“And she comes home and gets married ... and it happens to her children,” said Sherman. “Her child is brought up here (to the Rapid City Indian Boarding School). Remember, this wasn’t free will. They were taken from the families and put in boarding schools. So Mark is brought up here, and like many other children in many other boarding schools in stories I’ve heard all my life. .... And from running away, he meets his death.”

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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Stewart Huntington is a reporter based in Minneapolis. He spent the past five years covering western South Dakota Indian Country for KOTA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rapid City, S.D.

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