The Dakota expression for child, wakan injan
can be translated as “they too are sacred,” according to Glenn Drapeau,
Ihanktonwan Dakota and a member of the Elk Soldier Society on the
Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
“To us, children are as pure
as the holy, moving energy of the universe,” he says, “and we treat them
When Native children arrived at Holy Rosary Mission, founded in 1888
at Pine Ridge to help in the religious conversion of the Oglala Lakota,
nuns staffing the school described them as having good “morals” and
giving “a tenth of the trouble white children cause,” Raymond A. Bucko
wrote in Lakotas, Black Robes, and Holy Women
Nebraska Press, 2000). Nevertheless, corporal punishment was meted out
regularly at Holy Rosary—“apparently without scruple,” according to
Bucko—and a primary goal of the school was to cut the children off from
their parents, their language and their culture.
Across the nation, in both the secular and church-run schools the
federal government required Native children to attend from the late
1800s to the 1970s, the goal was assimilation—“kill the Indian to save
the man” was their motto—seemingly at any cost. Court documents filed
over the last several years in lawsuits against the boarding schools in
South Dakota allege that as recently as the ’70s Native students were
beaten, whipped, shaken, burned, thrown down stairs, placed in stress
positions and deprived of food. Their heads were smashed against walls,
and they were made to stand naked before their classmates. Untold
numbers of children died over the century during which the residential
schools flourished: some while en route to the institutions or at the
schools themselves, and others of exposure and starvation while trying
to escape, according to several sources, including the Boarding School
Healing Project [www.boardingschoolhealingproject.org/]
Native parents forced to part with their children came to understand
they might never see their youngsters again, and if they did, the
children had often become strangers to their own people.
As a cost-saving measure, the federal government eventually turned
much of the boarding-school system over to churches, primarily the
Catholic Church, which used it to help expand its empire throughout the
West. Churches, abbeys, convents and monasteries were built on or near
reservations, and religious orders were founded and flourished.
Recent court settlements reveal that the education the Church offered
Native children featured not just brutal corporal punishment but also
rampant sexual abuse. Some 400 Native ex-students in the Northwest and
Alaska recently shared in a copy66-million settlement with the Jesuits’
Oregon Province for abuse suffered at schools in that region. Canada
has set aside copy.9 billion for payments to survivors of its
residential schools; more than 20,000 ex-students have submitted claims.
In South Dakota, 100-some former students of the state’s half-dozen
so-called Indian Missions have sued the Catholic Dioceses of Sioux Falls
and Rapid City since 2003. They’ve also made claims against the
religious orders that ran the mission schools and Blue Cloud Abbey, in
Marvin, South Dakota, which provided priests and is the final resting
place of several alleged predators. They charge that priests, brothers,
nuns and lay employees at these institutions raped, sodomized and
molested them, often for years. Court documents, including testimony and
Church records filed during the lawsuits’ initial phases, contain
accusations of bizarre, violent and humiliating sexual abuse, along with
the horrific physical abuse described above.
In 2010, South Dakota legislators discussed the Church’s difficulty
defending against these many suits and passed a statute—written by a
Church attorney and submitted as a “constituent bill”—blocking anyone
over 40 from suing an institution, such as the Catholic Church, for
childhood sexual abuse, though they may still sue individual
perpetrators. (The South Dakota statute of limitations for physical
abuse has long expired for the former students.) Since virtually all the
Native plaintiffs are over 40 and some of the alleged perpetrators are
dead, many observers, including Robert Brancato, director of the South
Dakota chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, have
accused the legislature of targeting the Native cases. “The law was
designed both to make things difficult for Native Americans and to help
the Church,” says Brancato. In March 2011, a judge applied the statute
to throw out 18 of the South Dakota boarding-school cases; the
plaintiffs in those cases have filed appeals with the state’s Supreme
Below, former students recall their experiences.
Howard Wanna, 60, is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton
Oyate, whose homeland straddles North and South Dakota. He has terminal
lung cancer and recently celebrated what doctors tell him will be his
Wanna and several siblings entered Tekakwitha Orphanage, in
Sisseton, South Dakota, around 1956. Despite the institution’s name,
there were few orphans among the approximately 150 American Indian
children housed there at any one time. Some had been taken from their
parents for reasons that were not fully; others, like the Wanna
children, were placed there by desperately poor parents who believed the
priests and nuns they revered would care for and educate their
When Wanna lived at Tekakwitha, the wooded, estate-like complex
included a Southwest Mission-style church; the Papoose House, a nursery
for children ranging in age from newborns to five-year-olds; dormitories
for boys and girls aged 6 to early teens, with nuns and priests living
upstairs; and a separate house for the priest in charge, John Pohlen.
Here is Wanna’s story:
Mary Jane, Patricia and Howard Wanna
“When I first arrived at Tekakwitha at age four or five, the nuns and
priests seemed welcoming, as though they wanted me to think of the
place as my home. This friendliness went on for several weeks. Then one
day, Father Pohlen came to the Papoose House, where I was living, and
took me by the hand. He led me to the church, where we went behind the
altar to a little room that had nothing in it but a chair.
“Father Pohlen sat me down, unzipped his pants, took his penis out,
and began to wipe it on my face and lips. I was terrified. I didn’t know
what was happening. In later sessions, sometimes behind the altar and
sometimes at his house, suddenly I’d be choking and something would be
running out of my mouth. He’d also turn me around and rape me, hurting
me badly as he used his hands to grip my hair, neck, or shoulders.
“He rotated among about five of us younger boys, which left me with
such confused emotions. On days it wasn’t my turn, I was so grateful,
yet I felt terrible that one of my little friends was suffering. I also
dreaded the fact that my day was coming again soon. Worst of all, I had
no one to turn to, not even God, because God’s representative on earth
was the one hurting me.
“Soon a nun began to abuse me as well, placing me under her gown and
rubbing my little hands between her legs. This was something the nuns
did to other children there, too. It was horrifying, not just because of
what she was doing but because it was dark and I couldn’t breathe.
Other abuse included beating us with sticks, hoses, and even a metal
“The cruelty was strangely inventive. At bath time, we’d line up, a
line of naked girls and a line of naked boys, which was embarrassing to
begin with. We’d take turns jumping into a laundry tub and being
scrubbed—scratch, scratch, scratch
—with a stiff brush you’d use for floors. We’d then hop out of the tub with scrapes all over our bodies.
“Once, after I tried to run away, I had to wear a dress for a while, and when we went outdoors I was tied to a tree.
“Tekakwitha was a very quiet place. You’d think with all those
children, there’d be noise and laughing. But so many of us were being
abused and simply didn’t talk. We were too frightened. It was like a
horror movie in which people walk by each other but can’t communicate.
“As the years went by, my abuse lessened, probably because I wasn’t a
cute little toy anymore, but also because I became more outspoken. I
remember being told I was a smart-ass. When I was 8 or 9—we had no sense
of time, because at Tekakwitha there were no markers, like birthday
celebrations—my mother got wind of what was going on and came and ranted
and raged. I heard they told her something like, ‘Take the little
bastards,’ and we left.
“My adulthood was one hell of a struggle. But I fought through my
failures and obstacles, went to college, and owned a restaurant and a
“[I believe] the Church caused the drinking and other problems former
students experience. As a result, the tribe must sponsor
chemical-dependency, suicide-prevention, anger-management, and many
other programs, which is an enormous economic burden. At Sisseton
Wahpeton, we just had three suicides, all youngsters in their 20s, and
this happens frequently. Why? It’s the result of how we elders were
treated as children—an effect that continues through the generations.
“I often wonder how so many pedophiles ended up at Native American
schools. Father Pohlen was not only a pervert; he also hired the worst
of the worst, which meant none of the Tekakwitha staff would protect us
from the others. How did he find them? Is there someone in the Church
you can call to request problem priests and nuns? Was there a dual plan
to hurt Native Americans while taking care of the pedophiles? Was this
genocide? It’s so confusing, but it’s also just plain evil.
“When the orphanage was demolished in 2010 [because of Environmental
Protection Act issues], my relatives and I went to watch. Suddenly,
during the demolition, we saw three eagles circling overhead, rising up
and flying down low repeatedly for about 45 minutes. They had come to
take home the spirits of the children. It was so awesome.
“I have sued the Church over my abuse, but because of my cancer I’m
going to die with this on my mind, well before any chance of receiving
justice. The people we looked up to most as children failed us. God’s
servants blocked our power and took away our spirits. But we’ll get ’em
back. By telling our stories, we’re opening a door, and we’re not going
to let it shut until we’re done with them. No amount of compensation can
cure us or absolve them, but we want our day in court. We want the
public to hear what was happening to many Native American children in
this country while non-Native people lived peacefully in their cities
and towns and on their farms. Millions don’t know what we went through,
and they need a quick history lesson. It’ll be a hard one, but it’s a
In 1946, when she was just three months old, Mary-Catherine
Renville, 65, of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, was taken from her mother
for reasons that remain unclear and placed in Tekakwitha Orphanage.
After Tekakwitha, which went through junior high, she was sent to a
boarding school in Nebraska.
Here is Renville’s story:
“All I remember of my earliest years at Tekakwitha was being hungry
and a punishment that consisted of being placed in a dark crawl space.
When I was 6, they moved me from the Papoose House for babies to the
main building so I could start school. The nuns there would take us to
their private quarters and do things to our bodies that even at that
young age I knew were not right.
“The next year, a teenaged boy raped me. He said if I told, he’d
bring other boys, and they’d all rape me. I was so frightened that I
never did say anything.
“When I was 8 or 9, Father Pohlen placed me with a Michigan family. I
understood it was a tryout for being adopted by them. I have a memory
of being told to go get Vaseline, then returning to the room to find the
boys and men in the family waiting for me. This lasted for a summer.
“I didn’t know where to turn or who to tell. Father Pohlen had placed
me with the family, so I couldn’t confide in him, and the nuns were so
cold—they didn’t care about our feelings and showed us no affection.
They wanted our souls and to teach us to fear God. Sometimes they’d whip
us, holding us with the left hand while using the right to beat us with
a rubber hose. None of the adults in my life ever noticed anything
about me: whether I’d sustained injuries because of the rapes or
mistreatment or if I was afraid.
“When I was about 10, Father Pohlen placed me with a Spanish-speaking
dentist, who wanted to teach me his language so I could speak it once
he and his wife adopted me and took me to their country. Instead, he
raped me and said he wanted to continue his ‘affair’ with me, though I
mustn’t tell his wife. After several weeks, I was returned to the
orphanage. Again, I never said anything to Father Pohlen or the nuns,
other than that I didn’t want to learn Spanish or live with that man.
I’d learned that to protect myself I shouldn’t say much.
“We did have good times. At Christmas, we each received a shoebox
full of nuts and candy and oranges and another box with trinkets and a
doll. Most of us girls traded the dolls for food. We did that because
the Mother Superior used to force us to simulate sex with a large doll
before abusing us, so we were scared of dolls. Can you imagine putting
the fear of dolls into a child’s mind?
“The Nebraska boarding school where I went to high school subjected
us to similar physical violence, though no sexual abuse. We all
continually tried to escape. We weren’t trying to get home, because we
didn’t know where that was. We were completely disoriented. We just took
off and took our chances in the world, hitchhiking down the road. Then
they’d find us and bring us back.
“As an adult, I’ve been a traveler. I’ve lived in 14 states, mostly
waitressing, because it’s a job you can get quickly. I’d always move on,
though. I think I was searching for family. I eventually had three
children, who were taken from me or I gave up. I don’t know where my
boys are, though I keep in touch with my girl. Now, I’m back living on
my reservation, which sometimes feels like a foreign country, though I’m
related to half the people here.
“What I want to do is talk about Tekakwitha. They took away our sense
of belonging to anyone, our opportunities to develop relationships.
They kept us off-balance by sending us here and there without warning.
But they could never take away the truth: that what they were doing was
wrong. I want everyone to know what happened to us there.”
As Sherwyn Zephier, 54, drives to his job at Ihanktonwan
Community College, in Marty, South Dakota, where he is the adult
education director and teaches math, science, English, art history, and
other subjects, he passes the derelict buildings of what was St. Paul’s
Indian Mission. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was a student at the
Catholic-run school, where children were required to board during the
nine-month school year, even though many, like Zephier, were from the
surrounding community, the Yankton Sioux Tribe.
Here is Zephier’s story:
St. Pauls Building, Marty, South Dakota
“The priests’ and nuns’ keys jangled as they walked, so we knew when
they were coming. Everyone in the dorm would quiet down, because you
never knew what they’d do. Sometimes they’d bring high school students
or more priests and brothers to hold our arms and press our bodies
against a metal pole in the center of the room. Then they’d beat us with
straps and a two-by-four with handles, which they called the ‘board of
“There were also regular whippings at noon. One day, my older
brother, Loren, created a commotion at midday so just that once we
little ones escaped the whipping. Because we showered together in one
large room, we could always see that many of us were bruised black, blue
and purple. The beatings were so frequent, we adapted to the pain and
got used to living that way.
“The nuns were as vicious as the priests—real brutes. I remember
getting caught in the barbed wire around the top of the little boy’s
playground. I’d seen Loren go by and had tried to go over the fence to
get to him. Once the nuns got me untangled, I got quite a beating. At
night, they’d pretend they’d left us, then stand in the dark corners of
the dorm room, eerie in their hooded robes.
“The school was essentially a prison, with every door locked and
total control of the children. We went in supervised groups from one
secured place to another: to lunch, play, church, the dorm, and so on.
Even if you managed to get out of a dorm room or classroom, you couldn’t
run far, because at the end of each corridor was a locked
floor-to-ceiling gate. The windows were covered with bars or chain-link
grates, and the campus had barbed wire everywhere—along sidewalks and
even around the church itself.
“As children, we didn’t know their policy was to de-Indianize us. We
only knew we enjoyed one another’s company and would play games, such as
‘migs,’ or marbles, that involved phrases in our language. Another
student would inevitably run and ‘tell Sister,’ and I would get a
beating. At the time, they never explained my infraction. Just recently,
the reality hit me hard: it was because I had so frequently spoken my
language with my playmates. I suddenly understood why those snitches,
often from more assimilated families, ‘told’ and why I was punished so
“Another aspect of assimilation was taking away ribbon shirts and
other culturally related clothes. Every year, I looked forward to
wearing clothing my mother spent most of the summer sewing to make me
look proud and colorful for school. But once I got there, those items
were removed, and instead I wore clothes that were drab and not even
“The child-molesters would come and go, as the Church rotated them
among the Indian missions. We children stood by each other as best we
could, but for a child, it was a disturbing, sickening place to be. I
have often wondered, where did the nuns and priests learn those things?
“My class, 1975, was the last to graduate from St. Paul’s Indian
Mission, which then passed to tribal control and became Marty Indian
School. At our commencement, a medicine man, Pete Catches, was allowed
for the first time to fill his sacred pipe on the altar and pray with
“There’s beauty in our traditional ways. There’s honor, honesty—no
lies, no judgment, no exaggeration. It’s the true experience of life.
There’s no interpreting of someone else’s words, and no one else
interpreting your experience. No one can tell you what is good or bad.
That’s where the Church confused a lot of our people, conditioning them
to think the traditional way of prayer was evil, the devil’s way. And if
you didn’t believe them, they’d beat you.
“After I filed my lawsuit against the Church—with the blessings of my
most revered supporter and hero, my father—I started talking about my
experience to sisters, brothers and cousins who had also attended St.
Paul’s. It was a relief to sit with them—to share and to cry. We knew
what we experienced was unfathomable to others.”
Funding for this story was provided by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.