'I know why I am the way I am'

Published in Native Sun News in 2011. This article was part of a project funded by the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Roderica J. Rouse, 52, an Ihanktonwan Dakota, was a student at St. Paul’s Indian Mission, renamed Marty Indian School when it was transferred to the Yankton Sioux Tribe in 1975. Rouse is one of more than 100 ex-students of the half-dozen Catholic-run boarding schools in South Dakota who have recently sued the Dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, Blue Cloud Abbey, in Marvin, South Dakota, as well as the religious orders that ran the various institutions, charging that priests, nuns, and lay employees raped, sodomized, molested, and brutalized them.

     The stories are horrifying, with some students suffering daily sexual assaults and strange forms of torture, as they were thrown down stairs, beaten with boards and whips on a regular schedule—noon and several times during the night—and much more. They lived in isolation with their abusers, with no other adults to turn to for help. 

     The cataclysm, which took place over a century, rolled through individual lives and also devastated entire Native communities, as generations of children were swept into a bizarre, sadistic world. Rouse’s lawsuit is currently being appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court; it was recently dismissed by Circuit Court Judge Bradley Zell, who applied a new South Dakota law that stops those over 40 from suing any but their actual individual abuser for childhood sexual abuse—and has been appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Here is Rouse’s story:
 “I saw a lot of physical abuse when I was a student at St. Paul’s Indian Mission—children being beaten and having their pants pulled down to be spanked—but as far as I remembered, nothing bad had happened to me. I told a lawyer that in 2003, when he visited here to talk to my uncle about his case. We shook hands and visited for awhile, and that was about it.

     “When I got home later that night, I was lying down and suddenly something tore through my body and shot out through my feet and hands and head. Then I remembered. Father Francis, the priest at St. Paul’s, had sexually assaulted me for three years, starting when I was six.

     “Just as suddenly, I knew why I am the way I am. I had a hard life growing up—abusing alcohol and drugs and having a baby early. I was wild and crazy, but I never knew why. That night, it all came back to me. I know why I am the way I am. I know why. I know why. It was out. I wrote down my story and felt 100 pounds lighter. It was over, and I could heal myself.

     “My life is totally different now. I can say I was not a good mother, but I am a really good grandmother, thanks to the knowledge of what happened. I’ve told that lawyer that if it weren’t for him, I’d be dead.

     “After I remembered my own story, I began to talk to other people, to see if they had stories to tell. I listened to hundreds of people talk about both physical and sexual abuse and never cried so much in my life. Once I brought up the issue, there was no reluctance on their part. They just wanted to get it out. Many were people I’d known all my life and had never realized they’d been mistreated. A lot of the guys were abused very, very badly. I even realized that a classmate and I were witnesses to each other’s sexual assaults.

     “Back when these things happened, and then over the years, no one ever confided in either the other students or even our parents. That’s because the nuns and priests told us at the time that we’d go to hell and burn if we told anyone what had happened to us.

     “Father Francis was a devil, and I’m sure he’s burning in hell if that’s where people like him go. What he did to little children—not just me—was terrible. And the Church had a hand in it. They placed people like him with children, and they tried to take our own religion away. Then for the judge to dismiss our cases using that law the South Dakota legislature just created to make it impossible to sue the Church if you’re over 40—I’m outraged, and everyone who ever attended a boarding school in this state should be as well.”

Text and photograph c. Stephanie Woodard.

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