Native Americans share stories of boarding school sorrow

RAPID CITY (AP) – Violet Catches remembers her mother, Mabel, crying after asking if she went to the Indian Boarding School after hearing her grandmother say she was taken from them long ago.

Catches, an elder from Cherry Creek, said her mother was named after her mother’s aunt, Mabel Holy, who died at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School in 1901.

“My mom sat down and just cried,” Catches said. “I think she remembered that was her aunt.”

Catches spoke at the fourth Memorial Walk for the children who died at the Indian Boarding School. The school was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1898 to 1933 to assimilate Native American children. By the 1920s, enrollment grew to 340 students. Between 40 and 50 children died at the school. Some of the children found have been identified, like Holy, while others remain unknown.

Heather Dawn Thompson, a lawyer and researcher with the Indian Boarding School Lands group, said Holy was the first known recorded death they were able to locate. She said Holy was buried at a marked grave and her family found her after 90 years of searching.

Lafawn Janis, a team member with the Indian Boarding School Lands team, said the group is grateful Catches speaks at the Memorial Walk and event every year, the Rapid City Journal reported.

“I can’t imagine having to relive that pain and then relive that pain publicly in front of strangers,” she said. “Every year we’ve found new family members that are descendants, and so having them here just shows the strength and resiliency of our Indigenous people.”

Janis said there is a memorial park installation planned to honor the children. The group announced the park in October 2020 at the last walk. The park will be on the flat land and a hillside between Canyon Lake United Methodist Church and West Middle School and is expected to cost about $2 million.

Janis said there will be walking paths that go up and have every child’s name etched into a boulder. She said the project has a few donors, but needs “substantially more” for a groundbreaking.

She said they would like to break ground by next year.

The memorial will include the Tiwahe Sculpture by Dale Lamphere, which will be a life and a quarter sized bronze sculpture. He said a family stands in a circle with their backs to a sphere with a perforation with stars for each of the children who died.

Lamphere said there will be a light within the sphere that will shine through the openings.

“In the Lakota culture, there’s a belief that when a child is born, they come down from the stars, so this is a way to send those spirits back,” he said.

Catches said she went to a mission school in Chamberlain and had her mouth washed out with soap three to four times a day to make her forget how to speak Lakota. She said she was called a “dirty Indian” and a “heathen.”

Chief Black Spotted Horse, 73, of Rapid City said he grew up in a boarding school. He said it wasn’t the one in Rapid City, but that they’re all the same. He said they went through a lot of rough stuff.

“The things we went through at the boarding school, I hope nobody has to go through that,” he said. “A child or today a man or a woman can never forget being beaten, even being raped, molested. All those things, you don’t forget them.”

Black Spotted Horse said as long as they continue to do the walk and remember the children, his people will never forget.

“Where they were, where they are and where they’re going, and mostly don’t forget themselves, who they are,” he said.

Phil Little Thunder Sr. said he still gets choked up thinking about it, having gone to a boarding school himself in the ’60s. He said his experience was a little more civilized, but he endured physical abuse. He said he ran away from the school.

Marlyce Miner said her grandmother Rose Brown told her stories about kids getting rounded up in a wagon and taken to the schools. She said sometimes the kids would just disappear.

“She said we all knew what happened, but they never came back,” Miner said.

Miner said she’s a boarding school residential survivor and comes every year for the walk. She said she’s anxious to see the memorial.

Ben Rhodd, a member of the Rosebud Sioux who helped bring the remains of nine children back from the former Carlisle Indian Reform School, said he asks for the day to be one of joy.

“Be happy that our young are coming home now,” he said. “Yes, there is much sorrow behind the events of this past.”

Janis said part of truth in healing is having hard conversations, and it has to be done together.

“(We have to) dig deep and dive inside of ourselves to have those hard conversations so we don’t relive the past,” she said.


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