South Dakota Boarding School Survivors Detail Sexual Abuse

By Stephanie WoodardJuly
Indian Country
July 13, 2011

The remains of the house in Sisseton, South Dakota, where Tekakwitha Orphanage’s director, Father John Pohlen, lived and allegedly abused young children, when he wasn’t raping them behind the nearby church altar.

The Dakota expression for child, wakan injan, can be translated as “they too are sacred,” according to Glenn Drapeau, Ihanktonwan Dakota and a member of the Elk Soldier Society on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. “To us, children are as pure as the holy moving energy of the universe, and we treat them that way,” he says.

When Native children arrived at Holy Rosary Mission, founded in 1888 at Pine Ridge to help in the conversion of the Oglala Lakota, nuns staffing the school described them as having good “morals” and giving “a tenth of the trouble white children cause,” Raymond A. Bucko wrote in Lakotas, Black Robes, and Holy Women (University of Nebraska Press, 2000). Nevertheless, corporal punishment was meted out at Holy Rosary—“apparently without scruple,” according to Bucko—and was an important part of the effort to cut the children off from their parents, their language and their culture.

Across the nation, in both the secular and church-run schools the federal government required Native children to attend from the late 1800s to the 1970s, the goal was assimilation—“kill the Indian to save the man”—seemingly at any cost. Court documents filed in recent lawsuits against the boarding schools in South Dakota allege that as recently as the ’70s children were beaten, whipped, shaken, burned, thrown down stairs, placed in stress positions and deprived of food. Their heads were smashed against walls, and they were made to stand naked before their classmates. Untold numbers of children died over the century during which the residential schools flourished: some while en route to the institutions or at the schools themselves; others died of exposure and starvation while trying to escape, according to

Native parents forced to part with their children under threat of imprisonment and even at gunpoint came to understand they might never see their youngsters again, and if they did, the children had often become strangers to their own people.

As a cost-saving measure, the federal government eventually turned much of the boarding-school system over to churches, primarily the Catholic Church, which used it to help expand its empire through the West. Churches, abbeys, convents and monasteries were built on or near reservations, and religious orders were founded and flourished.

Recent court settlements reveal that the education the church offered Native children featured not just brutal corporal punishment but also rampant sexual abuse. Some 400 Native ex-students in the Northwest and Alaska recently shared in a $166-million settlement with the Jesuits’ Oregon Province for childhood sexual abuse suffered at schools in that region. In Canada, approximately $1.9 billion was set aside for payments to survivors of its residential schools; more than 20,000 ex-students have submitted claims.

Since 2003 in South Dakota, 100-some former students of the state’s half-dozen so-called Indian Missions have sued the Catholic Dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City; the religious orders that ran the mission schools; and Blue Cloud Abbey, in Marvin, South Dakota, which provided priests and is the final resting place of several alleged predators. The former students charge that priests, brothers, nuns, and lay employees raped, sodomized, and molested them, often for years. Court documents, including testimony and church records filed during the lawsuits’ initial phases, reveal bizarre, violent, and humiliating sexual abuse, along with the horrific physical abuse described above.

In 2010, South Dakota legislators discussed the church’s difficulty defending against the suits and passed a statute—written by a church attorney and submitted as a “constituent bill”—blocking those over 40 from suing institutions (such as the Church for childhood sexual abuse, though they may still sue individual perpetrators. Since virtually all the Native plaintiffs are over 40 and some of the alleged perpetrators are dead, many observers, including Robert Brancato, director of the South Dakota chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, have accused the legislature of targeting the Native cases. “The law was designed both to make things difficult for Native Americans and to help the church,” said Brancato. In March 2011, a judge applied the statute to dismiss 18 of the boarding-school lawsuits, which have been appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Below, former students recall their experiences.

Howard Wanna, 60, is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, whose homeland straddles North and South Dakota. He has terminal lung cancer and has just celebrated what doctors tell him will be his last birthday.

Wanna and several siblings entered Tekakwitha Orphanage, in Sisseton, South Dakota, around 1956. Despite the institution’s name, there were few orphans among the approximately 150 American Indian children housed there at any one time. Some had been taken from their parents for mysterious reasons; others, like the Wanna children, were placed there by desperately poor parents, who believed the priests and nuns they revered would care for and educate their offspring.

When Wanna lived at Tekakwitha, the wooded estate-like complex included a Southwest Mission-style church; the Papoose House for children ranging in age from newborns to five-year-olds; dormitories for boys and girls aged 6 to the early teens, with nuns and priests living upstairs; and a separate house for the priest in charge, John Pohlen. Here is Wanna’s story:

“When I first arrived at Tekakwitha at age four or five, the nuns and priests seemed welcoming, as though they wanted me to think of the place as my home. This friendliness went on for several weeks. Then one day, Father Pohlen came to the Papoose House where I was living and took me by the hand. He led me to the church, where we went behind the altar to a little room that had nothing in it but a chair.

“Father Pohlen sat me down, unzipped his pants, took his penis out, and began to wipe it on my face and lips. I was terrified. I didn’t know what was happening. In later sessions, sometimes behind the altar and sometimes at his house, suddenly I’d be choking and something would be running out of my mouth. He’d also turn me around and rape me, hurting me badly as he used his hands to grip my hair, neck, or shoulders.

“He rotated among about five of us younger boys, which left me with such confused emotions. On days it wasn’t my turn, I was so grateful, yet I felt terrible that one of my little friends was suffering. I also dreaded the fact that my day was coming again soon. Worst of all, I had no one to turn to, not even God, because God’s representative on earth was the one hurting me.

“Soon a nun began to abuse me as well, placing me under her gown and rubbing my little hands between her legs. This was something the nuns did to other children there, too. It was horrifying, not just because of what she was doing but because it was dark and I couldn’t breathe. Other abuse included beating us with sticks, hoses, and even a metal shovel.

“The cruelty was strangely inventive. At bath time, we’d line up, a line of naked girls and a line of naked boys, which was embarrassing to begin with. We’d take turns jumping into a laundry tub and being scrubbed—scratch, scratch, scratch—with a stiff brush you’d use for floors. We’d then hop out of the tub with scrapes all over our bodies. Once, after I tried to run away, I had to wear a dress for a while, and when we went outdoors I was tied to a tree.

“Tekakwitha was a very quiet place. You’d think with all those children, there’d be noise and laughing. But so many of us were being abused and simply didn’t talk. We were too frightened. It was like a horror movie in which people walk by each other but can’t communicate.

“As the years went by, my abuse lessened, probably because I wasn’t a cute little toy anymore, but also because I became more outspoken. I remember being told I was a smartass. When I was 8 or 9—we had no sense of time, because at Tekakwitha there were no markers like birthday celebrations—my mother got wind of what was going on and came and ranted and raged. I heard they told her something like, ‘take the little bastards,’ and we left. My adulthood was one hell of a struggle. But I fought through my failures and obstacles, went to college, and owned a restaurant and a construction company.

“The church caused the drinking and other problems former students experience. As a result, the tribe must sponsor chemical-dependency, suicide-prevention, anger-management, and many other programs, which is an enormous economic burden. At Sisseton Wahpeton, we just had three suicides, all youngsters in their 20s, and this happens frequently. Why? It’s the result of how we elders were treated as children—an effect that continues through the generations.

“I often wonder how so many pedophiles ended up at Native American schools. Father Pohlen was not only a pervert; he also hired the worst of the worst, which meant none of the Tekakwitha staff would protect us from the others. How did he find them? Is there someone in the church you can call to request problem priests and nuns? Was there a dual plan to hurt Native Americans while taking care of the pedophiles? Was this genocide? It’s so confusing, but it’s also just plain evil.

“When the orphanage was demolished in 2010 [because of Environmental Protection Act issues], my relatives and I went to watch. Suddenly, during the demolition, we saw three eagles circling overhead, rising up and flying down low repeatedly for about 45 minutes. They had come to take home the spirits of the children. It was so awesome.

“I have sued the church over my abuse, but because of my cancer I’m going to die with this on my mind, well before any chance of receiving justice. The people we looked up to most as children failed us. God’s servants blocked our power and took away our spirits. But we’ll get ’em back. By telling our stories, we’re opening a door, and we’re not going to let it shut until we’re done with them. No amount of compensation can cure us or absolve them, but we want our day in court. We want our day in court.

“We want the public to hear what was happening to many Native American children in this country, while non-Native people lived peacefully in their cities and towns and on their farms. Millions don’t know what we went through, and they need a quick history lesson. It’ll be a hard one, but it’s a fact.”

In 1946, at the age of three months, Mary-Catherine Renville, 65, of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, was taken from her mother for reasons that remain unclear and placed in Tekakwitha Orphanage. After Tekakwitha, which went through junior high, she was sent to a boarding school in Nebraska. Here is Renville’s story:

“All I remember of my earliest years at Tekakwitha was being hungry and a punishment that consisted of being placed in a dark crawl space. When I was 6, they moved me from the Papoose House for babies to the main building so I could start school. The nuns there would take us to their private quarters and do things to our bodies that even at that young age I knew were not right.

“The next year, a teenaged boy raped me. He said if I told, he’d bring other boys, and they’d all rape me. I was so frightened, I never did say anything.

“When I was 8 or 9, Father Pohlen, the priest in charge, placed me with a Michigan family. I understood it was a tryout for being adopted by them. I have a memory of being told to go get Vaseline, then returning to the room to find the boys and the men in the family waiting for me. This lasted for a summer.

“I didn’t know where to turn or who to tell. Father Pohlen had placed me with the family, so I couldn’t confide in him, and the nuns were so cold. They didn’t care about our feelings and showed us no affection. They wanted our souls and to teach us to fear God. Sometimes they’d whip us, holding us with the left hand while using the right to beat us with a rubber hose. None of the adults in my life ever noticed anything about me: whether I’d sustained injuries because of the rapes or mistreatment or if I was afraid.

“When I was about 10, Father Pohlen placed me with a Spanish-speaking dentist, who wanted to teach me his language so I could speak it once he and his wife adopted me and took me to their country. Instead, he raped me and said he wanted to continue his ‘affair’ with me, though I mustn’t tell his wife. After several weeks, I was returned to the orphanage. Again, I never said anything to Father Pohlen or the nuns, other than that I didn’t want to learn Spanish or live with that man. I’d learned that to protect myself I shouldn’t say much.

“We did have good times. At Christmas, we each received a shoebox full of nuts and candy and oranges and another box with trinkets and a doll. Most of us girls traded the dolls for food. We did that because the mother superior used to force us to simulate sex with a large doll before abusing us, so we were scared of dolls. Can you imagine putting the fear of dolls into a child’s mind?

“The Nebraska boarding school where I went to high school subjected us to similar physical violence, though no sexual abuse. We all continually tried to escape. We weren’t trying to get home, because we didn’t know where that was. We were completely disoriented. We just took off and took our chances in the world, hitchhiking down the road. Then they’d find us and bring us back.

“As an adult, I’ve been a traveler. I’ve lived in 14 states, mostly waitressing, because it’s a job you can get quickly. I’d always move on, though. I think I was searching for family. I eventually had three children, who were taken from me or I gave up. I don’t know where my boys are, though I keep in touch with my girl. Now, I’m back living on my reservation, which sometimes feels like a foreign country, though I’m related to half the people here.

“What I want is to talk about Tekakwitha. They took away our sense of belonging to anyone, our opportunities to develop relationships. They kept us off balance by sending us here and there without warning. But they could never take away the truth: that what they were doing was wrong. I want everyone to know what happened to us there.”

As Sherwyn Zephier, 54, goes to work at Ihanktonwan Community College, in Marty, South Dakota, where he is the adult education director and teaches math, science, English, art history, and other subjects, he passes the derelict buildings of what was St. Paul’s Indian Mission. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was a student at the Catholic-run school, where children were required to board during the nine-month school year, even though many like Zephier were from the surrounding community, the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Here is Zephier’s story:

“The priests’ and nuns’ keys jangled as they walked, so we knew when they were coming. Everyone in the dorm would quiet down, because you never knew what they’d do. Sometimes they’d bring high school students or more priests and brothers to hold our arms and press our bodies against a metal pole in the center of the room. Then they’d beat us with straps and a two-by-four with handles, which they called the ‘board of education.’

One of several shuttered buildings of St. Paul’s Indian Mission, in Marty, South Dakota, home of the Yankton Sioux. “Nowadays, the mission looks like an abandoned prison, right in the middle of town,” said Sherwyn Zephier, a tribal member and former student.

“There were also regular whippings at noon. One day, my older brother Loren created a commotion at midday so just that once, we little ones escaped the whipping. Because we showered together in one large room, we could always see that many of us were bruised black, blue, and purple. The beatings were so frequent, we adapted to the pain and got used to living that way.

“The nuns were as vicious as the priests—real brutes. I remember getting caught in the barbed wire around the top of the little boy’s playground. I’d seen Loren go by and had tried to go over the fence to get to him. Once the nuns got me untangled, I got quite a beating. At night, they’d pretend they’d left us, then stand in the dark corners of the dorm room, eerie in their hooded robes.

“The school was essentially a prison, with every door locked and total control of the children. We went in supervised groups from one secured place to another: to lunch, play, church, the dorm, and so on. Even if you managed to get out of a dorm room or classroom, you couldn’t run far, because at the end of each corridor was a locked floor-to-ceiling gate. The windows were covered with bars or chain-link grates, and the campus had barbed wire everywhere: along sidewalks and even around the church itself.

“As children, we didn’t know their policy was to de-Indianize us. We only knew we enjoyed one another’s company and would play games, such as ‘migs,’ or marbles, that involved phrases in our language. Another student would inevitably run and ‘tell sister,’ and I would get a spanking. At the time, they never explained my infraction. Just recently, the reality hit me hard: it was because I had so frequently spoken my language with my playmates. I suddenly understood why those snitches, often from more assimilated families, ‘told’ and why I was punished so often.

“Another aspect of assimilation was taking away ribbon shirts and other culturally related clothes. Every year, I looked forward to wearing clothing my mother spent most of the summer sewing to make me look proud and colorful for school. But once I got there, those items were removed, and instead I wore clothes that were drab and not even mine.

“The child molesters would come and go, as the church rotated them among the Indian missions. The sexual abuse included something of everything, often targeted at particular children. We children stood by each other as best we could, but for a child, it was a disturbing, sickening place to be. I have often wondered, where did the nuns and priests learn those things?

“My class, 1975, was the last to graduate from St. Paul’s Indian Mission, which then passed to tribal control and became Marty Indian School. At our commencement, a medicine man, Pete Catches, was allowed for the first time to fill his sacred pipe on the altar and pray with us.

“There’s beauty in our traditional ways. There’s honor, honesty — no lies, no judgment, no exaggeration, none of that. It’s the true experience of life. There’s no interpreting of someone else’s words, and no one else interpreting your experience. No one can tell you what is good or bad. That’s where the Church confused a lot of our people, conditioning them to think the traditional way of prayer was evil, the devil’s way. And if you didn’t believe them, they’d beat you.

“After I filed my lawsuit against the Church with the blessings of my most revered supporter and hero, my father, I started talking about my experience to sisters, brothers, and cousins who had also attended St. Paul’s. It was a relief to sit with them — to share and to cry. We knew what we experienced was unfathomable to others.”


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