My Relatives Went to a Catholic School for Native Children. It was a Place of HorrorsRoundup
tags: racism, Native American history, Indian Residential Schools
Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He is a journalist, historian, and host of The Red Nation Podcast. He is the author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (Verso, 2019).
There is so much mourning Native people have yet to do. The full magnitude of Native suffering has yet to be entirely 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, boarding schools served to provide access to Native land, by breaking up Native families and holding children hostage so their nations would cede more territory. And one of the primary benefactors of the boarding school system is the Catholic church, which is today the world’s largest non-governmental landowner, with roughly 177 million acres of property throughout the globe. Part of the evidence of how exactly the church acquired its wealth in North America is literally being unearthed, and it exists in 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 grisly discovery of 215 children’s remains at a burial site next to the former Kamloops Indian residential school in British Columbia. The news sent shockwaves through Indian Country. On Tuesday, the US interior secretary, Deb Haaland, announced that her department would lead an investigation into “the loss of human life and lasting consequences” of federal Indian boarding schools. Although it’s unclear whether the scope of the investigation will include church-run schools, it should because many of the Catholic-run schools received federal trust money set aside for Native education.
On Thursday morning, a relative calls me as more terrible news breaks: the Cowessess First Nation has discovered 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval 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 survivor of St Joseph’s, took his own life at the age of 23 in 1987, when I was just two.
My relative calls St Joseph’s “a smorgasbord” for pedophiles and rapists who preyed on and terrorized Native children. He describes beatings and nights of terror as priests took their pick of the children as they slept. The abuse was worse for the girls, who were sometimes impregnated by their rapists, he tells me. His experience was not unique and has been documented elsewhere by journalists and scholars.
Despite the evidence, there is an active conspiracy to silence survivors and whitewash history. South Dakota passed laws to prevent survivors from seeking damages against the church.
Eight plaintiffs sued the Sioux Falls diocese in 2010 for alleged rape and sexual abuse they had experienced in the 1970s at the hands of multiple members of the clergy and one staff member. (The photograph of one of the men still hangs on the wall of St Joseph’s in the hallway of its school museum, visible to the children and visitors who pass it.)
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