Lawsuit Alleges Abuse at Indian Boarding Schools

By Chet Brokaw
Associated Press, carried in Aberdeen News [Rosebud SD]
Downloaded July 11, 2003

ROSEBUD, S.D. - Sonny One Star says he learned not to cry, not to scream, when he was beaten and sexually assaulted four decades ago at the St. Francis Mission boarding school on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation.

The time has now come to speak up about the abuse, One Star said. He and other former students want to make the federal government and Roman Catholic organizations pay damages and help heal the wounds caused by the way Indian boarding schools were operated across the nation.

"Today, I'm ready for retaliation," said One Star, a traditional leader on the Rosebud reservation in south-central .

"The nuns and the priests, the ones who are still living, I just want to let them know I'm coming after them," One Star said. "It was fun for them back then, but I want to get justice. I want to get even."

One Star and five Sioux tribal members have filed a class-action lawsuit seeking $25 billion in damages from the federal government on behalf of all students who allegedly were abused at such schools. The schools generally were run by religious organizations from the late 1800s or early 1900s until the 1970s, when most were closed or transferred to tribal control.

Those involved in the lawsuit said some of the monetary damages being sought should be used to set up healing centers for former students.

The initial lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., contends the government failed to live up to the terms of treaties dating back to the 1800s that required federal officials to protect the Sioux and some other tribes from "bad men among the whites."

That lawsuit specifically mentions three schools that educated Sioux students in : 's at Marty, St. Francis on the Rosebud Reservation and Holy Rosary on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Other lawsuits will be filed soon in federal courts in many states against the government and religious organizations for alleged abuses at individual boarding schools, said Jeff Herman of , the lead lawyer handling the lawsuits.

The initial lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in , says the federal government set up the boarding school system in the late 1800s to try to wipe out Indian culture, tradition and language.

"From the very beginning, a kid 5 years old goes into a school and basically his culture is assassinated," Herman said. Many kids also were abused mentally, physically and sexually, he said.

Not all former students agree.

Gary Cournoyer said he got a good education and was never unfairly punished when he attended 's in Marty, the headquarters of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in southeastern . Students who fought or otherwise broke the rules sometimes had to stay in the dorm rooms during weekends, he said.

"I didn't see any kind of abuse," said Cournoyer, who attended 's from 1969 to 1982. "Any sexual things, I'd never seen or heard of."

Those taking the legal action contend that they and many other former students have repressed their memories of abuse, and those memories are now being recovered.

"I'm not in any kind of denial," said Cournoyer. "If I'd seen something, I'd say something."

A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department said federal officials will comment on the allegations only in court. The department's answer to the initial lawsuit was due in early June, but government lawyers have asked for another two months to file that document.

Abbott Thomas Hillenbrand of Blue Cloud Abbey in northeastern South Dakota, which provided Benedictine priests to St. Paul's for nearly 100 years, said it's hard to judge the allegations because the charges he has heard so far deal mostly with two priests who have been dead for many years.

"It's possible that it happened, and it's possible it didn't happen. I don't know," Hillenbrand said. "I think we have to take it seriously. I think if people were hurt in any way, it's our responsibility to try to heal that. It's part of the mission of the church to heal hurts and also to own up to the truth, whatever that may be."

Officials of the of the Society of Jesus, which ran the St. Francis Mission school on the Rosebud reservation and the Holy Rosary school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, also said they are investigating and want to provide pastoral care to anyone who might have been abused.

Gary Frischer, a consultant who has worked with Herman on other class-action lawsuits, said the legal action began last year when a former student from 's in Marty called him. The caller said Roman Catholic dioceses across the nation were settling abuse lawsuits, but nothing had been said about abuse in Indian schools.

Frischer said he has since made a number of trips to and has talked to about 1,000 people who likely will become plaintiffs. He estimates 300,000 former students were abused at the boarding schools, and expects 25,000 to 50,000 will wind up taking part in the lawsuits, which will deal with about 50 boarding schools nationwide.

Many students died because they were beaten or became ill and never received medical care, Frischer said.

The abuse was similar in all schools, Frischer said. Students between the ages of 5 and 7, particularly those whose parents were dead or lived far away, were the most likely to be hurt because they were unable to tell anyone about the abuse, he said.

One Star said when he was a first-grader, a nun would keep him inside during recess as punishment for speaking English poorly. He said she took him into a closet and hummed church hymns while sexually abusing him.

One Star said he later was beaten regularly with a wooden paddle and sexually assaulted by priests who grabbed some boys out of bed in the dormitories.

"You could hear a pin drop when they came after you because everybody was listening. Then they'd turn the music up loud so you wouldn't hear the cries, you know," One Star said.

Darrell Marcus, who also attended school at St. Francis, said a priest once kicked him so hard his genitals were swollen for days. He said priests also hit his bare bottom with a big paddle.

"There was blood on my shorts. How did I deserve that?" said Marcus, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council.

Sherwyn Zephier said he and other students were beaten with boards and leather straps at 's in Marty. Students also were forced to hold heavy books with their arms outstretched or to kneel with their knees painfully placed on broomsticks laid on the floor, he said.

"They did it in the name of God," said Zephier, who is now a teacher at the tribal school that replaced 's. "All that pertained to our culture was evil. They were trying to torture it out of us."

Zephier's sister, Adele, who also attended St. Paul's in the 1960s, said a priest fondled her and other little girls while dancing with them or holding them on his lap. Nuns who taught classes hit students and pulled their hair, she said.

"The nuns were really, really mean," Adele Zephier said. "They taught us we were pagans and heathens."

"I've never gone to church since I left this place," she said.

The former students contend the boarding school abuse caused many of the problems that plague reservations, such as alcoholism, domestic violence and broken families.

Mike Archambeau said his treatment at 's taught him to use violence to deal with problems.

"I would love to be a healed, happy man," Archambeau said. "Then maybe I can turn around and heal somebody else."

Christine Medicine Horn said she was singled out for punishment at 's because of her poor English. She said one nun shut her in an incinerator, and another threw her down a laundry chute.

"Whatever comes of this, I hope it's for the best so none of our younger generation will be treated bad like that," Medicine Horn said.

But Patrick Lee, former chief judge of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and now an administrator at , said he was unaware of any abuse when he attended Holy Rosary in 1942-1953.

"It didn't happen to me, and I never heard of it happening to anybody while I was at school," Lee said.

Lee, 67, said students talked about everything at the school, so he believes he would have heard if priests and nuns were abusing students at Holy Rosary.

Hillenbrand, the leader of Blue Cloud Abbey, said some of the allegations seem preposterous. For example, he has a hard time believing stories that priests hung children upside down in a tower at 's.

He said the monks he's grown to know at Blue Cloud are dedicated to serving God and living good lives, not hurting people.

The abbott also is bothered by the $25 billion in damages sought in the initial lawsuit. Money will not solve any problems, but anyone abused at a boarding school is owed an apology, spiritual help and other assistance to deal with the hurt and anger, he said.

"The more I read, I don't know whether it's a result of the money involved that people are coming forth or whether it's to get to the bottom of it for healing," Hillenbrand said.

Floyd Hand, an Oglala Sioux spiritual leader who attended the Holy Rosary boarding school, said any monetary award should not go just to individuals. Many former students are still alcoholics and would drink away the money, he said.

The former students need to get together and build a healing center to make sure they no longer pass on the abuse they learned at the schools to their children, Hand said.

Hand also wants to meet a priest who ran Holy Rosary and used to make fun of his grandmother because she only spoke Lakota, the Sioux language.

"I'm waiting for him," Hand said. "I may be a medicine man and a spiritual leader, but if I ever see him, I'm going to knock him on his ass."


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