'I want everyone to know what happened to us'

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

rom the late 1800s until well into the 20th century, the federal government compelled Native parents nationwide to send their children to boarding schools designed to assimilate them. Many of the institutions were run by the Catholic Church, which the government paid to "kill the Indian, save the man," in the parlance of the day. To date, more than 100 ex-students of the half-dozen boarding schools in South Dakota have sued the Catholic Dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, as well as the religious orders that ran the institutions, charging that priests, nuns, and lay employees raped, sodomized, molested, and brutalized them.  
Here is one woman's story; her case is still pending. A 64-year-old member of the Dakota tribe Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, she was taken from her family as an infant and placed in Tekakwitha Orphanage, a Catholic-run institution established in Sisseton, South Dakota, for the children of her people. Few youngsters there were orphans but had been, like her, removed from their families. The remains of a shrine is shown here, as well as the house of the priest who ran the institution and gave sex parties there; children were offered up as victims to visiting clerics.
"All I remember about life in the first building I was in at Tekakwitha -- the Papoose House for babies -- was being hungry and a punishment that consisted of being placed in a dark crawl space of some sort. Other than that, I was generally alone in my crib or bed.
     "When I was 6, they moved me to the main building to 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 boy who was 17 or 18 raped me. He said if I told, he'd bring other boys and they'd all rape me. I was so frightened, I never said anything to anyone.
     "When I was 8 or 9, Father Pohlen, the priest in charge, placed me with a family in Michigan. I understood it was a tryout for being adopted by them. There were boys in the family, and they and the men would partake of sex with me. I have a memory of being told to go get Vaseline, then returning to the room to find them waiting for me. This lasted for a summer.
     "I didn't know where to turn or who to tell. Father Pohlen had placed me there, so I couldn't say anything to him, and the nuns were so cold. They didn't care about our feelings or our mental state 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 and bruises because of the rapes or mistreatment or if I was afraid. I did have siblings at the school, but because I'd been taken so young and because the school had changed both my given and my family name, we never knew each other then.
     "When I was about 10, Father Pohlen placed me with a dentist who wanted to teach me Spanish so I could speak it once he and his wife adopted me and took me to live in his country. 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 by then 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 immediately 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 herself, so we were frightened of dolls. Can you imagine putting the fear of dolls into a child's mind?
     "Tekakwitha went just through junior high, and I was later sent to a boarding school in Nebraska. It had the same physical violence, though no sexual abuse. I was always trying to escape. We all did. 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 constantly 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."

Text and photograph c. Stephanie Woodard.

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