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Former Boarding School Establishes Truth And Healing Committee To Reconcile With Its Past

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Maka Black Elk and Fr. Brad Held work together to uncover truths about their institution's past.
Maka Black Elk and Fr. Brad Held work together to uncover truths about their institution's past.
Courtesy of Marcus Fast Wolf

Canada’s discovery of more than  700 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School, brings the brutal legacy of Native American Boarding Schools into the spotlight. 

“Nobody who knows the Indian Boarding School history is really surprised by these graves existing,” said Maka Black Elk,  Executive Director of Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School.  

“What’s surprising is the amount compared to official numbers and that’s where the revealing of records is so important because it is possible that a lot of these graves are known about in these records. But they’ve not been revealed, they’ve not been studied, they’ve not been documented or at least the documentation has not been combed over.” 

Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation is a private institution established by the Catholic Church in the early 1900s. Middle and high school kids learn academic subjects with Lakota language studies and Catholic liturgy.  

It began as a boarding school called Holy Rosary Mission. Jesuit priests started the school when  Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala  Lakota invited Catholic missionaries to the reservation.  

In the late 1800s, the federal government pressured Native communities to enroll their children in boarding schools. Many of them were run by religious institutions. The goal was assimilation into white society. Parents were forced to comply when government agents withheld rations. 

Jesuits stand with Lakota students outside Holy Rosary Mission (n.d., 1890-1900, Courtesy of Red Cloud Indian School).

Red Cloud Indian School alumnus, Black Elk, said tension between the Oglala Lakota community and Catholic tradition permeated the school. He has sought to change the historically white-washed narrative within his own community. 

“You can’t build a bridge that you refuse to see, and you can’t build a bridge across a chasm if you refuse to even try,” Black Elk said.  

“So I think that’s where we are right now is we’re one, trying to acknowledge that there is a chasm and that if we really want to move forward, we have to build this bridge, and that requires some hard work.” 

Black Elk created the Truth and Healing committee that began to meet in the fall of 2019. It’s their effort to address the trauma of the boarding school era. 

“No longer deny and no longer stand in the way of that history being told,” he said. “So, what we’re trying to do is create a platform for survivors to tell their story, to make our records much more public and share those stories that are within those records.” 

The group attended the second annual National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition conference to provide a starting place for healing relationships in the community. Father Brad Held who is a pastor at Red Cloud school attended the conference as a committee member and noticed multiple strategies of truth-telling. 

“My sense was like well truth-telling looks like being willing to listen to survivors of Indian Boarding Schools who are willing to share their stories in like a talking circle format or in an individual conversation or meeting,” he said. “I think now that still is an aspect of that truth-telling and being willing to hear the truth but then there are these other aspects that really surfaced.” 

In addition to those interactions, and archival documents, Held said technology can also reveal the truth. One example is  Ground Penetration Radar (GPR) used to survey school grounds for unmarked graves. The committee has been working on utilizing both methods in the truth-seeking process.  

For many Native American families, trauma from government boarding schools doesn’t end with the survivor’s experience. Tashina Banks Rama is Chief Executive Officer at Red Cloud School and the daughter of a boarding school survivor. In 2006, Rama uncovered letters her father never received during his time at the Pipestone Boarding School. The school cut off his communication with family members.   

Rama said her family found healing after uncovering the truth of her father’s story. The experience has made her want to help other survivors and their descendants. 

“The healing can begin knowing that their family did try to reach out to them, you know, that there was an actual like coordinated effort to prevent families from reconciling,” Rama said. “I want those, I want records to be available and accessible to families so families can on their own start to being that healing journey.” 

Rama says her involvement at Red Cloud is a way she can advocate for her community. 

Black Elk is also a descendant of boarding school survivors on both sides of his family. One of his relatives was taken thousands of miles away from home to Carlisle Indian School

“Just to be thinking, my great-great-grandfather sort of being you know 16-years-old, going out to Pennsylvania, living with these strangers, working to be able to go to this school being just far away from everything you know at such a young age…it’s emotional to think about that. And to think about the impact of that on my parents and grandparents,” he said. 

For Black Elk and Held, discovering the truth is the first step to healing. The committee tries to meet people where they are in the healing process. 

“Some people in the community have personally experienced healing and in their own kind of place where they are in healing, they feel very comfortable talking about certain things,” Held said.  

“For another person maybe who’s on a different point in their own journey of healing, it’s not helpful right now to talk about an experience.  So I think it’s an intent to be attentive to where are individuals at kind of in their own journey, in their own healing and to honor that and respect that.” 

Retired journalist Tim Giago went to the Holy Rosary Mission for elementary and high school.  

“The things they did to try and destroy our culture, try to destroy our language,” he said. “I mean these were institutions that tried to totally take us out, take us away from who we are.” 

Giago recalled a particular moment from his time at the school.  

“One of my friends, 16-year-old young man, got an ear infection and he died. So, they assigned me and my friend, Red Elk, to dig his grave,” he said. “So, we were up at the Holy Rosary Missions cemetery digging his grave and I dug down about, we were about five feet down and I hit something with my pick and when I lifted it up over my head, it was a little child’s skull.” 

Giago has processed his experience through published work. His poetry and novels are part of his journalistic presence across the state.  

For others, talking about experiences does more harm than good. 

Artist Jhon Goes in Center was sent hundreds of miles from his family to attend St. Paul’s Indian School on the Yankton reservation. His healing has come from the resiliency of his Lakota culture and through his artwork.  

“A lot of people keep reliving their experience over and over, and yeah I’ve had those experiences, but pretty much, when you keep talking about them, thinking about them, get interviewed about them, it keeps a lot of people in victimhood,” he said. 

Goes in Center said boarding schools focused on menial labor training instead of preparation for higher education. The way history is taught now excludes a large portion of Native American involvement.  

“America is afraid of its own history,” Goes in Center said. 

Today, Red Cloud Indian School wrestles over how to reconcile with Catholic traditions that have caused so much damage to the Oglala Lakota community. 

At a Lakota Language camp at Red Cloud Indian School, students are immersed in Lakota and culture (2017, Courtesy of Red Cloud Indian School)

Father Held analyzes school archives to bring more information to light.  

“In coming to understand the full history, that out of that hopefully can come healing and new relationships between Red Cloud as a school and institution with the Oglala Lakota people,” Held said.  

“With we as Jesuits, new relationships with the Oglala Lakota people and a relationship of mutuality, a relationship of working together towards new things and the future. So, I think there is this freedom and hope in me alongside the fear that can sometimes creep in.” 

The Truth and Healing Committee has an important role to play at Red Cloud. To seek the truth and understanding between sometimes contending perspectives. Black Elk grew up with both Lakota and Catholic traditions. The key is to resolve how they can fit together.  

“We haven’t figured out what it fully yet means to be a Lakota Catholic Institution and how to get to a place where we can do that and nobody feels threatened or harmed by either of those traditions being present,” Black Elk said.  

“I think the only way to get there is by doing the very first step of truth and healing and that is coming to terms with the truth. Rather than the culture of silence that has existed until now.” 

A few resources surrounding the history of Native American boarding schools in the United States: 

US Indian Boarding School History 

A Federal Probe Into Indian Boarding School Gravesites Seeks To Bring Healing 

Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act