TThere is so much mourning here that the natives still have to do. The full magnitude of Native American suffering has yet to be fully understood, especially when it comes to the nightmarish legacies of American Indian boarding schools. The purpose of the schools was “civilization”, but, as I have written elsewhere, the boarding schools served to provide access to native land, dividing native families and holding children hostage so that their nations would cede more territory. And one of the main benefactors of the boarding school system is the Catholic Church, which is today the largest non-governmental landowner in the world, with approximately 177 million acres of property around the world. Some of the evidence for exactly how the church acquired its wealth in North America is literally being unearthed, and it exists in the stories of the Native children whose lives it stole, which includes my own family.
Last month, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation made a shocking discovery of 215 remains of children in a cemetery next to the former residential school for Kamloops Indians in British Columbia. The news sent shockwaves through the Indian Country. On Tuesday, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland Announced that his department would lead an investigation into “the loss of human life and the lasting consequences” of the Indian federal inmates. Although it is not clear whether the scope of the investigation will include church-run schools, it should because many of the Catholic-run schools received federal trust money reserved for native education.
On Thursday morning, a relative calls me when more dire news comes out: The Cowessess First Nation has discovered 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Martial Indian residential school in Saskatchewan, Canada. Both Marieval and Kamloops began as Catholic-run schools.
For my relative (who wishes to remain anonymous), the death and grief came after he left St Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, which he attended from 1968 to 1977. “A lot of people ended up killing themselves. ”He says of friends and classmates who attended the Catholic-run school. My uncle, also a St Joseph’s survivor, took his own life at 23 in 1987, when I was only two.
My relative calls St. Joseph’s “a smorgasbord” for pedophiles and rapists who prey on and terrorize Native children. It describes beatings and nights of terror when the priests chose the children while they slept. The abuse was worse for the girls, who sometimes got pregnant by their rapists, she tells me. His experience was not unique and has been documented elsewhere by journalists Y scholars.
Despite the evidence, there is an active conspiracy to silence the survivors and cover up the story. South Dakota passed laws to prevent survivors from seeking damages against the church.
Eight plaintiffs sued the diocese of Sioux Falls in 2010 for alleged rape and sexual abuse they had experienced in the 1970s at the hands of several clergy and a staff member. (The photograph of one of the men still hangs on the wall of St Joseph’s in the hallway of his school’s museum, visible to passing children and visitors.)
Just days before the survivors went to court in 2010, then-Republican South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds (now US Senator) signed a bill that bans anyone age 40 or over more to recover damages from the institutions responsible for their abuse, except by the perpetrators themselves. The act crushed the lawsuit, effectively protecting the Catholic Church from any responsibility or accountability.
The bill was written and proposed by Steven Smith, a Chamberlain attorney who, according to the leader of argus, was representing the Priests of the Sacred Heart, the founders of the San José Indian School, in various sexual abuse cases at the time. Smith accused the survivors of being motivated by money and costing the church undue expenses in legal fees. The lawsuits were a “ticket to misery” for the survivors, Smith told the Huffington Post in 2011.
However, money and profits have never been too far from the concerns of Smith’s clients.
St Joseph’s has been investigated in the last decade for its sketchy fundraising practices, such as creating fake kids or doing “Misleading appeals” (for example, claiming not to have enough money to heat the school) to solicit donations. In 2014, Indian Country Today reported that the school raised nearly $ 51 million in 2013 through 30 million mailings featuring dream catchers made in China. With such negative press and the decline in donations by mail, St Joseph’s helped create Native Hope, an expert social media charity that, according to the Bismarck Tribune, is owned and operated by the Chamberlain Priests of the Sacred Heart. (Tax forms for 2016 please list Native Hope mailing address as St Joseph’s Indian School campus). According to ProPublica, Native Hope has reported millions of dollars in donation income since 2016.
I ask my relative if the money motivated him to take the lawsuit against the church. He lets out a sigh and tells me how his lifelong friend who was a survivor from San José recently died. He hints that the death was related to addiction. “Nobody cares about the Indians,” he tells me. “That’s why they got away with it.” It’s also easy to rule out abuse survivors who live with the shocks for life. One tactic of the church is to hope that native survivors just disappear.
The last time I visited St Joseph’s was in 2019. Photographs of clergy and staff accused of rape and sexual abuse still hung on the walls of the school museum, as if the institution was proud or in denial of its history, not I couldn’t quite say. I tried to imagine school from the perspective of my relative as a child, and all I felt was a deep, silent anger.
Nowhere was there a recognition of the stories like that of my relative. It was as if he and other children like him were just ghosts that haunted the hallways.
I ask my relative what justice would be like. There is a pause. He tells me he’s not interested in apologies. The school, he says, was a “children’s brothel” when he was there, and deserves to be remembered for such atrocities. He would like to see San José “turned into a school run by and for the natives” without the benefit of the church.
“Wani Wacin,” my relative tells me. It is a Lakota phrase that means: “I want to live.” “I just want to live,” he says, “without having to think about all that nonsense.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism