Native Americans remember torture and hatred in boarding schools
MISSION, SD — After her mother died when Rosalie Whirlwind Soldier was just four years old, she was placed in a Native American boarding school in South Dakota and said her native Lakota language was “Devil’s Talk.”
She remembers being locked in a basement at St. Francis Indian Mission School for weeks as punishment for breaking the school’s strict rules. Her long tresses have been shorn off in a deliberate effort to eradicate her cultural identity. And when she broke her leg in an accident, Whirlwind Soldier said she received shoddy care, leaving her with pain and a lameness that still plague her decades later.
“I thought there was no God, just torture and hatred,” Whirlwind Soldier testified at an event Saturday on the Rosebud Sioux reservation led by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland , as the agency grapples with the bitter legacy of a boarding school system that had operated in the United States for more than a century.
Now 78 and still living on the reservation, Whirlwind Soldier said she broadcasts her horrific experiences in hopes of finally moving past them.
“The only thing they didn’t do was put us in (an oven) and gas us,” she said, comparing the treatment of Native Americans in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.
“But I gave up,” she later added. “I’m going to get there.”
Saturday’s event was the third in Haaland’s year-long “Road to Healing” initiative for victims of abuse at government-supported boarding schools, following previous stops in Oklahoma and Michigan.
Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the United States enacted laws and policies to establish and support schools. The stated goal was to “civilize” Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians, but this was often achieved through abusive practices. The religious and private institutions that ran many schools received federal funding and were willing partners.
Most closed long ago and none still exist to strip students of their identity. But some, including St. Francis, still operate as schools — albeit with radically different missions that celebrate the cultural backgrounds of their Indigenous students.
Former St. Francis student Ruby Left Hand Bull Sanchez traveled hundreds of miles from Denver to attend Saturday’s meeting. She cried as she remembered being almost killed as a child when a nun stuffed laundry soap down her throat in response to Sanchez praying in her native language.
“I want the world to know,” she said.
Haaland was accompanied by Wizipan Garriott, a member of Rosebud Sioux and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. Garriott described how the boarding schools were part of a long history of injustices against his people that began with the widespread extermination of their primary food source – bison, also known as buffalo.
“First they took our buffalo. Then our land was taken, then our children, then our traditional form of religion, our spiritual practices,” he said. “It is important to remember that we, the Lakota and other indigenous peoples, are still here. We can go through anything.
The first volume of a survey report released by the Department of the Interior in May identified more than 400 boarding schools that the federal government supported from the late 19th century through the 1960s. It also revealed that at least 500 children have died in some schools, although this number is expected to rise significantly as research continues.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition says it counted about 100 other schools not on the government list that were run by groups such as churches.
“They all had the same missions, the same goals: ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,'” said Lacey Kinnart, who works for the Minnesota-based coalition. For Native American children, Kinnart said the intent was “to assimilate them and rob them of everything Indian except their blood, to make them despise who they are, their culture, and forget their language.”
South Dakota had 31 of the schools, including two on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation – St. Francis and the Rosebud Agency Boarding and Day School.
The Rosebud Agency School in Mission operated until at least 1951 on a site that now houses Sinte Gleska University, where Saturday’s meeting was held.
All that remains of the boarding school is a gutted building that once housed the dining hall, according to tribesmen. When the building caught fire about five years ago, former student Patti Romero, 73, said she and others were on hand to cheer on its destruction.
“No more worms in the chili,” said Romero, who attended school from age 6 to 15 and said the food sometimes got infested.
A second report is pending in the schools investigation launched by Haaland, herself a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico and the first Native American cabinet secretary. It will cover burial sites, the schools’ impact on Indigenous communities, and also attempt to account for federal funds spent on the struggling program.
Congress is considering a bill to create a “truth and healing commission” for boarding schools, similar to the one established in Canada in 2008. It would have a broader scope than the Department of the Interior’s investigation into federally run boarding schools and subpoena power, if passed.