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Ghosts in the machines: An evening with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Paranormal Society

Published in Indian Country Today in 2011. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

I scrutinized the knee-high rubber boots with trepidation. I was having a glass of iced tea at Harvey Renville and Joy Lufkins-Renville’s farm on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate’s Lake Traverse Reservation, in northeastern South Dakota. They’d offered to lend me some seriously sturdy footgear for the evening’s adventure—an expedition with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Paranormal Society, or SWOPS.

     “Promise I’ll come back alive?” I asked, as I pulled on the boots and we sprayed ourselves from head to foot with bug repellent. The Renvilles appeared perfectly relaxed, despite being SWOPS newbies like myself, and I figured they knew something I didn’t. We drove toward Sisseton to rendezvous with SWOPS members at a tavern on the outskirts of town. As we clomped into the Buffalo Wallow Bar & Grill, jackets zipped up to our chins, hats pulled down tight, cameras at the ready, Harvey proclaimed, “Dressed for bear!”

Orbs including large, bright one at left follow paranormal society members.

     The group’s director, Tom Wilson, who’s also a DJ at Sisseton Wahpeton’s FM station, introduced me and the Renvilles to regular participants (and tribal members) Terri Wilson Renville (Tom Wilson’s cousin and a relative by marriage to Joy and Harvey) and co-founder Jimmy Strutz Jr., along with Mary Wommer, a radiologist for Indian Health Services and a former minister.

     Then Wilson announced, “Let’s rock and roll,” and we piled out of the Buffalo Wallow and drove in a caravan to the nearby site of the Tekakwitha Orphanage, a notorious Catholic-run boarding school for tribal children that has been cited in dozens of childhood-sexual-abuse lawsuits. It’s also a local hot spot for spirits, said Wilson. Few of the youngsters who lived there were actually orphans—most of them ended up at the residential institution via dubious means, some of which appear to have verged on abduction.

Tom Wilson.
     It was 10 p.m.—well past sunset on this moonless night—when we pulled into the orphanage grounds. The tribe recently demolished its dorms, church, outbuildings and connecting tunnels. All that’s left is the house where the priest who directed the place lived. We parked near the ramshackle house, whose walls glowed a faint scabrous yellow in the starlight. Tall dark pines pressed against the small building and crowded the surrounding landscape, giving it an ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere.

      Wilson explained the group’s methods, which have evolved through weekly visits to this and other sites, including businesses, public buildings and private homes. He told us to take lots of pictures, but not to try to set up the shots or even focus. Just shoot, he said, then review the photos to see what’s in them. As we wandered around snapping pictures—most of us sticking close to Wilson—he’d say from time to time he felt spirits gathering. We’d stop, and he’d turn on his digital voice recorder and ask who was present and how they were feeling. A few minutes later, he’d hit playback.

      Here’s what I observed: When Wilson said spirits were around us, I was usually feeling chilled, as though I’d swum into a cool spot in a lake. During playback of the dozen or so recordings he made that night, I could hear responses between his questions that I hadn’t heard with my unaided ear. These auditory occurrences are often called electronic voice phenomena. For example: A breathy child’s voice whispered, “Take me home.” Another hissed in response to a question about whether anyone was hungry, “Give me candy!” One voice introduced itself as what I think was “Madrid,” with the accent on the first syllable. I also noticed that if any of us had been talking in the background or moving around during one of these recordings, I heard that in the playback as well.

     That evening, Wilson played back earlier recordings made at Tekakwitha. In one, a voice murmured, “They don’t like me here,” and in another, we heard, quick and soft: “Please, take me with you.” In past sessions, said group members, someone calling herself Vangie, or Evangeline, has shown up.

     With the unaided eye, I didn’t see orbs (“spherical energy concentrations,” according to Wilson) as we wandered around the grounds, but when I reviewed my photos, they were dotted with them, including one big, bright-white moon-like orb that Wilson said SWOPS often finds at Tekakwitha—“possibly guarding the place,” he said. We looked at photos of earlier SWOPS sessions that seemed to show ghostly children who, according to group members, hadn’t been visible to the naked eye.

     Members speculate that children’s spirits may be trapped at Tekakwitha, and at one point Wommer urged them to move on, rather than hanging around, seemingly hoping for rescue. “Little darlings,” she said, “look for the light. Go there. Mommy and Daddy are there; brothers and sisters are there. You don’t have to stay here anymore. You can go to the light, darlings. Everything is good there.”

     After a couple of hours of tramping around, we returned to our vehicles. Suddenly, the cloud of enormous, voracious mosquitoes that had been flapping their wings against us all evening disappeared, and it was cool and quiet—like time had stopped, said Wilson, who described the feeling as that of air washed clean by a rainstorm. “Since we’ve been coming here, the spirits seem to have calmed down,” he said. “We also notice they’re quieter in the summer.”

     “That’s when they’re less active,” added Lufkins-Renville. “They travel in the spring and fall, and we can hear them flying by our house and knocking on the walls.”

     The next night, Wilson said in a later interview, SWOPS was back in action at a 19th century hospital turned antiques shop, recording a lively conversation with a voice that purported to be “Margaret,” whom the shop owner identified as the daughter of a long-ago hospital director. The owner explained that he had heard unexplained movements around the building and was glad to find out that it was just Margaret, still bustling around.

     Not all spirits are as engaging as Margaret. At another session, the group recorded a voice cursing and calling them names. Wilson protects group members from negative energy by burning sage and using the smoke to smudge all of them and each piece of equipment before and after sessions. He also warns them—and anyone else—not to do any of this on their own. “Not all spirits are friendly, and an elder told us dangerous ones can decide to follow you home,” he said. “I can tell you we’re very careful; we put away our equipment after each meeting and don’t take it out till the next time we’re together.”

     Bottom line, says Wilson: “Don’t try this at home.”

Text and photographs c. Stephanie Woodard.

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