A search for truth – and children’s remains – at a former Indian boarding school

Native Americans are speaking out decades later about the abuses and indignities they endured at a school designed to “kill the Indian” in them.

Red Cloud Indian School's historic cemetery will be the site of a new search for unmarked graves as part of the school's effort to confront its past. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Red Cloud Indian School's historic cemetery will be the site of a new search for unmarked graves as part of the school's effort to confront its past. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

By Lisa Cavazuti, Cynthia McFadden, Maite Amorebieta, Yasmine Salam
Photography by Tara Rose Weston for NBC News
Nov. 16, 2022

PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. – Inching forward on her knees, Marsha Small scraped away at the earthen floor in search of a bone, a tooth, any human fragment at all. 

This grim task consumed Small and her team of archeologists for five days in mid-October. They were hunting for the remains of Indigenous children beneath a former Native American boarding school that represents a dark chapter in American history.

“My ancestors put me here,” Small, 63, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and a Montana State University doctoral student, said outside of Red Cloud Indian School. “And that’s why I do this.”

Marsha Small at the Red Cloud Indian School’s historic cemetery in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Marsha Small at the Red Cloud Indian School’s historic cemetery in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Beginning in the early 1800s, the U.S. government set up and supported more than 400 boarding schools designed to extinguish Indigenous culture and assimilate young Native Americans into white society. The goal, in the words of one of the first school’s founders, was to “kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

The schools often required the children to take on English names and give up their style of clothing and hair, as well as their traditional languages, religions and cultural practices. 

Children were forcibly removed from their homes. By 1893, the Bureau of Indian Affairs received congressional authorization to withhold food rations and supplies from American Indian families who refused to enroll or keep their children in boarding schools. 

The boarding school system was used as a “weapon” not only to break the children’s bonds with their families and culture but to take Indigenous peoples’ land, according to a Senate report released in 1969. 

The high school student choir at Holy Rosary Mission School (now known as Red Cloud Indian School), around 1945. (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University)

The high school student choir at Holy Rosary Mission School (now known as Red Cloud Indian School), around 1945. (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University)

Chief James Red Cloud addresses the 1958 graduating class of the Holy Rosary Mission School. (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University)

Chief James Red Cloud addresses the 1958 graduating class of the Holy Rosary Mission School. (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University)

Students were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the schools, and substandard health care, malnourishment and overcrowding contributed to rampant disease, according to an Interior Department report published in May.

At least 100,000 Native American children are estimated to have attended the boarding schools, which operated across 37 states with the last ones closing in the late 1960s. 

An untold number of children never returned home, their bodies often buried in unmarked or poorly maintained burial sites hundreds of miles from home. The total number of students who died at the schools could be in the tens of thousands, according to the Interior Department. 

"The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies, including the intergenerational trauma caused by forced family separation and cultural eradication, were inflicted on generations of children as young as 4 years old and are heartbreaking and undeniable,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American person to serve as a Cabinet secretary, said in June.

The search for unmarked graves at Red Cloud is part of the school’s “Truth and Healing” effort to address its past injustices. Red Cloud is the first former Catholic Indian boarding school in the country to break ground in a search for human remains.

Marsha Small speaks to the Red Cloud Indian School community in May about her efforts to locate unmarked graves of Indigenous children at former Native American boarding schools using ground-penetrating radar devices. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Marsha Small speaks to the Red Cloud Indian School community in May about her efforts to locate unmarked graves of Indigenous children at former Native American boarding schools using ground-penetrating radar devices. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

“We know so little about the institutions,” said Preston McBride, a historian who is currently studying disease in federal American Indian boarding schools located off reservations. 

McBride said that while causes of death varied among the students, tuberculosis was the single largest killer. Students also died from a variety of infectious diseases, accidents and wounds. He estimates at least 40,000 students are likely to have died while attending the schools and could be buried in unmarked graves across the country. 

“Boarding school policies caused diseases to flourish on each campus,” McBride said. “The schools were sites of militarized discipline, institutionalized malnutrition, systematic overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor medical care, and forced labor unsupported by a balanced or sufficient diet.”

His research also shows that Native American students in off-reservation boarding schools were many times more likely to die than their comparably aged white counterparts. 

“School-aged children, the healthiest demographic of any population, shouldn't die in the numbers that they did, even in an era before antibiotics,” McBride said. 

For many who endured the boarding school system, the federal government’s move to investigate and acknowledge the atrocities carried out against Native Americans has come too late and is moving too slowly. Canada has paid millions of dollars to former boarding school students and relatives there, and has set up a commission that described the system as “cultural genocide.”

“I want America to face up to its genocide,” said Alex White Plume, 71, a former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who attended two boarding schools in South Dakota but not Red Cloud. “American genocide is what it is.”

The schools often required that students take on English names and give up their style of clothing and hair, as well as their traditional languages, religions and cultural practices. (Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections)

The schools often required that students take on English names and give up their style of clothing and hair, as well as their traditional languages, religions and cultural practices. (Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections)

A lasting trauma

Holy Rosary Mission School was opened in 1888 by Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Nation. Two years later, the U.S. Army killed hundreds of Lakota men, women and children on Pine Ridge in what came to be known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. 

The school’s name was changed in 1969 to Red Cloud, after the Oglala chief, and it stopped boarding students about a decade later. Today, Red Cloud serves about 500 students from the Pine Ridge community in kindergarten through 12th grade and remains Jesuit-run.

Students at Red Cloud Indian School, reading in an elementary school hallway and in a class with Lakota culture teacher Jason Drapeaux Jr., in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Students at Red Cloud Indian School, reading in an elementary school hallway and in a class with Lakota culture teacher Jason Drapeaux Jr., in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

A mural of Chief Red Cloud painted on a building at the school. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

A mural of Chief Red Cloud painted on a building at the school. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Many former students still live in Pine Ridge, including Basil Brave Heart – a well-known Lakota elder and Korean War veteran. 

Brave Heart, who was raised in part by Lakota-speaking grandparents, began attending the school in 1939 at the age of 6. 

Now 89, he still remembers how it felt when his hair, which is considered sacred in Lakota tradition, was cut by older students at the instruction of school officials on one of his first days there. 

“It fell on the floor and they were walking on it,” Brave Heart said. “That to me was a deep spiritual violation and disrespect.”

Faculty frequently beat the students, Brave Heart said, especially for such infractions as speaking their native Lakota. He recalled a particularly cruel form of punishment that involved a rubber band. 

“I want you to bite this rubber band with your teeth,” the nun said, according to Brave Heart, “and I want you to pull it as far as you can and let it go.” 

Top, Basil Brave Heart on the high school football team (c. 1950-55); center, at his desk; and bottom, with the high school band (c. 1945-50). (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University)

Top, Basil Brave Heart on the high school football team (c. 1950-55); center, at his desk; and bottom, with the high school band (c. 1945-50). (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University)

He left school when he was 17 to serve in the Korean War as a paratrooper and later suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, which he believes were brought on by his experiences at school and war. 

And yet, Brave Heart said his grandmother’s teachings shaped his worldview and allowed him to forgive the federal government and the Catholic Church for their role in the atrocities committed against Native Americans.

“The wisdom that she taught me was to forgive the unforgivable,” he said.

Basil Brave Heart on his property in Pine Ridge, S.D., in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Basil Brave Heart on his property in Pine Ridge, S.D., in May 2022. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Like Brave Heart, Robert Strikes Lightning started attending Holy Rosary at the age of 6, in 1943. His parents sent him to the school, where he lived for nine months of the year, hoping that he would get the kind of education, and the opportunities it afforded, that they never had. 

But Strikes Lightning said his time there was marked by physical abuse. One priest frequently whipped students using a black strap that he hung on his office wall.

“Anytime we're in there being punished like that, don't cry out and don't cry. You take it, period,” he recalled. “No one escaped that whip.”

He said he was 13 when the same priest beat him for the last time with a sash lined with buckshot pellets. 

Top, Robert Strikes Lightning with other trumpet players (the priest is not the one accused of abuse) (c. 1950-55); bottom, on the boys basketball team in 1955. (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University)

Top, Robert Strikes Lightning with other trumpet players (the priest is not the one accused of abuse) (c. 1950-55); bottom, on the boys basketball team in 1955. (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University)

“He was a big and strong man,” Strikes Lightning said. “He said, ‘That's all you're going to need. You won’t be able to sit for a week.’ He was right. I had blisters on my backside and I couldn't sit.”

Despite the abuse he endured, Strikes Lightning said he also has positive memories of the school and is grateful for the education he received.

“They weren't all bad,” he said of the school’s priests and teachers. 

Many years later, Strikes Lightning said he passed one of the abusive priests while visiting home but stopped short of confronting him. “I couldn't do that. I still respected him,” he said.  “I’m not that way.”

Robert Strikes Lightning outside his home in Pine Ridge, S.D., in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Robert Strikes Lightning outside his home in Pine Ridge, S.D., in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Cecelia Fire Thunder, now 76, worked as a nurse before becoming the first female president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in 2004. 

She went to Red Cloud in 1953 as did her three sisters and says she made peace early with the reason her family sent her away to school. 

“My dad and my mom made a decision to put us here for economic reasons,” she said, sitting in the shadow of what had been the girls’ dormitory where she lived while at Red Cloud.

Fire Thunder said she was struck with a ruler whenever she was caught speaking Lakota.  

“We knew we had no power,” she said. “The nuns were power.”

Fire Thunder said she believes her experience at the school – the separation from her mother, the verbal abuse from the nuns and priests – had a serious impact on her ability to parent her children later in life. 

“I felt I was a bad mother,” said Fire Thunder, who is now an adviser to Red Cloud’s Truth and Healing Coalition. “I screamed and yelled and punished my kids. That’s what they showed us.”

Small, who is leading the search for unmarked graves at Red Cloud, first arrived there in May.

A ground-penetrating radar specialist, she gained recognition when she started using the technology as a student at Montana State, where she identified graves at Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, for her graduate project.

At Red Cloud, she spent a week demonstrating the radar technology on the school’s front lawn in anticipation of returning to survey the community’s cemetery later next spring.

“You have to treat all these grounds and every Indian boarding school cemetery as a sacred space,” she said.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, center, in a high school yearbook photo, and outside Red Cloud Indian School in May. (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University Library; Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Cecelia Fire Thunder, center, in a high school yearbook photo, and outside Red Cloud Indian School in May. (Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University Library; Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

It remains unclear how many children may have died while attending the school, but archivists are just now beginning to scour century-old records for clues. 

Letters written by nuns at the school in 1888, which are now held at Marquette University in Milwaukee, say at least seven students died in the school’s first two years. Most of them are said to have died of consumption, the disease now known as tuberculosis.

Small has yet to find any remains. Her search beneath the school’s basement was spurred by a former employee who came forward to school officials last year to report that he had seen what looked like three small graves in an unfinished basement in the 1990s.  

Small’s work is part of Red Cloud’s Truth and Healing initiative, which was launched in 2019.

“We have to accept that the system was evil, and we have to accept the history happened,” said Black Elk, a 2005 graduate of the school who is now the executive director of the initiative.

“And now, what do we do with that? How do we address it, overcome it, and ultimately be better?” 

Robert Strikes Lightning's family members prepare a fire outside their home in Pine Ridge. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Robert Strikes Lightning's family members prepare a fire outside their home in Pine Ridge. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Lakota Nation. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Lakota Nation. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

The Badlands Overlook is at the entrance of the Pine Ridge Reservation. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

(Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

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Robert Strikes Lightning's family members prepare a fire outside their home in Pine Ridge. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Robert Strikes Lightning's family members prepare a fire outside their home in Pine Ridge. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Lakota Nation. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Lakota Nation. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

The Badlands Overlook is at the entrance of the Pine Ridge Reservation. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

(Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

An emotional confrontation

In 1993, the Jesuits offered an official apology to the Lakota people for the ways in which the order has “at times been the source of some of [your] pain.”

Nearly 30 years later, the Jesuits in charge of Red Cloud are going further: They’re funding the effort to search for unmarked graves on its campus. 

The Jesuits have given the school $70,000 to help pay for its historic research, including Small’s use of ground-penetrating radar on campus.

And in August, the head of the Jesuits, the Rev. Arturo Sosa, visited Red Cloud and apologized for the religious order’s involvement in past abuses. 

“I think we have to say, ‘Well, it’s in our interest to figure out what our past was,’” said the Rev. Peter Klink, who served as president of the school in the late 1980s and then again in the early 2000s. “Otherwise, we can’t grow into the future that we hope we can grow into.”

The Rev. Peter Klink in front of Drexel Hall in May. Klink served the student community as president from 1985 to 1991, and then again from 1998 until 2010. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

The Rev. Peter Klink in front of Drexel Hall in May. Klink served the student community as president from 1985 to 1991, and then again from 1998 until 2010. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

The work at Red Cloud comes as the Catholic Church is reckoning with its role in the Native American boarding school system in Canada. 

The Canadian government created a formal Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 as part of the largest class-action legal settlement in Canadian history. Dozens of former boarding school students sued the federal government and church leaders in the early 2000s . Under the settlement, the Canadian government paid about $3 billion in reparations to approximately 80,000 former students. 

In July, Pope Francis traveled to Canada for a weeklong “penance tour” and issued a historic apology for the church’s role in the country’s “catastrophic” policy of Indigenous residential schools. 

“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said to applause.

The Catholic Church has also paid over $1 million as part of the settlement in Canada. 

But the pope has yet to officially apologize to Indigenous groups in the U.S. for the church’s role in supporting the boarding school system. Christian denominations operated about half of the Native American schools in the U.S., according to the Interior Department.

Pope Francis with a headdress presented to him by Indigenous leaders at Muskwa Park in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada, in July. (Patrick T. Fallon/ AFP - Getty Images)

Pope Francis with a headdress presented to him by Indigenous leaders at Muskwa Park in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada, in July. (Patrick T. Fallon/ AFP - Getty Images)

The U.S. government, meanwhile, is still in “phase one” of its investigation into the former boarding schools. The Interior Department is expected to release a second report that will provide an estimate of the total number of children who attended the schools in the U.S. as well as the identity, ages and tribal affiliations of students who died and the location of burials associated with the schools.

Interior Department officials also launched a yearlong listening tour, called the “Road to Healing,” that involves speaking to survivors and descendants to create an official oral history. In mid-October, Haaland visited Rosebud, a reservation in South Dakota near Pine Ridge, after stops in Oklahoma, Arizona, Hawaii and Michigan.

But for some community members at Pine Ridge, the U.S. government’s efforts continue to fall short. 

Eleanor Ferguson and Phillip Iron Shell, who are members of the Oglala Lakota Chapter of the International Indigenous Youth Council on Pine Ridge, believe the process of locating unmarked graves is moving too slowly.

Members of the Lakota Chapter of the International Indigenous Youth Council protesting on horseback outside Holy Rosary Church at Red Cloud Indian School in May while Marsha Small and her team demonstrated ground-penetrating radar on the school’s front lawn. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Members of the Lakota Chapter of the International Indigenous Youth Council protesting on horseback outside Holy Rosary Church at Red Cloud Indian School in May while Marsha Small and her team demonstrated ground-penetrating radar on the school’s front lawn. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

“We want our babies back. … We want to hold the school accountable,” said Iron Shell who, along with Ferguson, would like to see the Jesuits leave Pine Ridge altogether. 

The International Indigenous Youth Council has circulated a list of demands they’d like to see from the school, including financial reparations. 

One of the tribe’s most respected elders agrees. “I will not accept a cheap apology,” said White Plume, the former Oglala Sioux Tribe president.

In May, he confronted Bryan Newland, assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, during Newland’s visit to Red Cloud. 

“America should face up to the truth,” White Plume said. “The American genocide should be a topic that everybody discusses daily.”

For her part, Small has largely stayed out of the political fight. She’s poised to return to the school next spring to scan the historic cemetery for unmarked graves using her ground-penetrating radar devices. 

“I expect to find a lot of unmarked burials,” she said. “There's so much to be done.”

Masha Small gives a demonstration of her ground- penetrating radar machine at Red Cloud in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

Masha Small gives a demonstration of her ground- penetrating radar machine at Red Cloud in May. (Tara Rose Weston for NBC News)

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