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In a two-part collaboration with ICT (formerly Indian Country Today), we expose the painful legacy of boarding schools for Native children.  Listen to part two here.

These schools were part of a federal program designed to destroy Native culture and spirituality, with the stated goal to “kill the Indian and save the man.” ICT reporter Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe, explores the role the Catholic Church played in creating U.S. policy toward Native people and takes us to the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Under pressure from the community, the school has launched a truth and healing program and is helping to reintroduce traditional culture to its students. 

Next, Pember visits 89-year-old boarding school survivor Basil Brave Heart, who was sent to the Red Cloud School in the 1930s. He vividly remembers being traumatized by the experience and says many of his schoolmates suffered for the rest of their lives. We also hear from Dr. Donald Warne from Johns Hopkins University, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribe who studies how the trauma of boarding schools is passed down through the generations. 

We close with what is perhaps the most sensitive part of the Red Cloud School’s search for the truth about its past: the hunt for students who may have died at the school and were buried in unmarked graves. The school has brought in ground-penetrating radar to examine selected parts of the campus, but for some residents, that effort is falling short. They want the entire campus scanned for potential graves.

Dig Deeper

Listen to part two of this story:

Female students at Red Cloud Hall, circa 1910-1930, when the school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was known as Holy Rosary Mission. Credit: Courtesy of the Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University Holy Rosary Mission/Red Cloud Indian School records
Chief James H. Red Cloud, grandson of the famous Chief Red Cloud who allowed the Jesuits to set up a school on Lakota land, addresses the 1958 graduating class of Holy Rosary Mission and a Jesuit father. Credit: Courtesy of the Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University Holy Rosary Mission/Red Cloud Indian School records

Read related stories from ICT:

Buried Secrets: Red Cloud takes the lead in uncovering boarding school past

Red Cloud Indian School will dig for graves

The Catholic Church siphoned away $30M paid to Native people for stolen land

Deaths at Chemawa

‘Sometimes we hear the voices of children playing there’

Credits

Reporter: Mary Annette Pember | Lead producer: Michael I Schiller | Editor: Taki Telonidis, with Dianna Hunt | Additional reporting: Kathryn Styer Martínez and Stan Alcorn | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Kathryn Styer Martínez and Claire Mullen | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks to Meg Lindholm, Jason Tichi, ICT Editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT Editor-at-Large Mark Trahant and ICT Managing Editor Dalton Walker.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.

In the early 1990s, a guy named Justin Pourier was working at a school in South Dakota.
Justin Pourier:So I was a maintenance man and I started working on the boilers because I had some experience with diesel mechanics and stuff.
Al Letson:One afternoon, Justin is down in the school basement working on the heating system. He’s following a steam line through a labyrinth of dark tunnels. The school is over a hundred years old and the basement is dimly lit.
Justin Pourier:And I went in his door and when I opened that door, there was a dirt floor there, very poorly lit. I seen three… Not one, but three small graves in that dirt floor in that room. So right away I knew that wasn’t right. I knew I had to tell somebody.
Al Letson:Justin says he sees three small graves, mounds of dirt evenly spaced, marked with little crosses. He heads straight back upstairs to tell his supervisor.
Justin Pourier:And he got real mad and start… He cussed at me and said, “I don’t know. You shouldn’t have been bleeping nosing around down there and don’t be going where you’re not supposed to go.” So of course I argued back. I said, “Well you told me to trace that line.”

So just from his reaction, I didn’t really carry it any further. I knew what I seen and I just kept it, I guess, all these years.
Al Letson:For nearly 30 years Justin would be haunted by what he saw down there, but he didn’t tell anyone except his wife. He didn’t know who else to tell or where to start. But it kept eating at him. Who or what is buried in those mounds? Could it be students?

By 2022, he just couldn’t hold it any longer. So Justin reached out to some folks at the school. Which is why nearly three decades later on a cold spring day in May, he and a group of 10 people are making their way back down to the basement of the Red Cloud Indian School.
Justin Pourier:Those are Native children down there. Or if they’re… Hopefully their spirit was able to travel on to whatever is beyond this world for them.
Al Letson:Red Cloud School was started by Jesuit priests in 1888, who at the time called it the Holy Rosary Mission. For about its first 100 years, Red Cloud was a residential boarding school.

Kids, mostly from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, were forcibly taken away from their families and lived there for years at a time. There are many stories of kids who survived the difficult conditions at the school, and stories about some who didn’t, which brings us back to the basement.

Justin, a radar technician, and some people from the school are going to run a ground penetrating radar scan to see if the earth has been disturbed so they can determine if there are graves there.

A door behind the staircase opens to old steps, worn smooth with a hundred years of footsteps. They lead down to an unfinished basement space. The heating and air conditioning unit hums.
Justin Pourier:So we opened that door and then that’s where the graves were at that I seen. But now there’s concrete. There’s concrete over it. The back wall that was there is gone.
Al Letson:A pad of concrete now sits over the dirt floor where Justin remembers seeing the graves. The ground penetrating radar can go through concrete a few feet, so the technician is scanning the area to try and get a picture of what’s underneath.
Justin Pourier:I just felt when we went into side rooms that were the rooms that I seen those grave sites in, then we went into that area right there. I just felt a heaviness, an uneasiness. I said, “This is the place. Even though there’s concrete here, this is where those were.”
Al Letson:The hunt for unmarked graves of Native children isn’t just happening at Red Cloud School. Red Cloud is one of over 400 Indian boarding schools across the country. These schools were part of a program designed by the federal government to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Those were the actual words of one of the architects of a plan to destroy Native culture.

But Native identity proved to be more resilient than the government expected. Despite its best efforts, many Native people held onto their language and spirituality. And now, for the first time, the federal government is acknowledging its role in the boarding schools and the harm they caused.
Deb Haaland:For more than a century, tens of thousands of indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools run by the US government, specifically the Department of the Interior and Religious Institutions.
Al Letson:Deb Haaland is the Secretary of the Interior and member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Last year she launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
Deb Haaland:The federal policies that attempted to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continued to manifest in the pain tribal communities face today, including cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance of indigenous people, premature deaths, poverty and loss of wealth, mental health disorders and substance abuse.
Al Letson:The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative is creating a series of reports investigating the consequences of the boarding school system. Former students from across the country are sharing their stories.

And a warning. Some of them describe sexual violence and child abuse and will be difficult for some listeners to hear.
Ramona Klein:I remember being afraid to sleep at night, fearful of the matron’s son who walked the halls at night using a flashlight to spot me in bed. He touched me like no child should ever be touched.
Al Letson:Ramona Klein is one of many survivors who spoke at a hearing in May for a bill that’s making its way through Congress called the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. She went to a school at Fort Totten in North Dakota, starting in 1954 when she was seven years old.
Ramona Klein:I remember being hit by the matron with a big green paddle that everyone called the Board of Education, while I knelt on either a broomstick or a mop stick, with my arms outstretched from my body. I remember thinking, “You will not get the best of me.” And I was determined not to cry.
Al Letson:Tim Giago was a student at Red Cloud School during World War II, and went on to start Indian Country Today, the first independently owned Native American newspaper in the US.
Tim Giago:Those priests and nuns knew how to use a leather belt, and they used it frequently on the kids. So we experienced the abuse, physical abuse right from the very beginning.
Al Letson:His memories were still vivid even after 80 years.
Tim Giago:There were priests and there were brothers and some of the sisters that were sexually abusing the children there. My little sister was raped by one of the school employees. And that man had been there for 10 or 15 years, had a room right on the reservation, and he was taking little girls, all along.
Al Letson:Tim told a story to reporter Mary Annette Pember, and a few weeks later he passed away. Mary Annette is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, now known as ICT. She’s been reporting on boarding schools for over 20 years. Much of her work focuses on the role the Catholic church played in shaping federal policy towards Native people, and what the fallout of that legacy is today.

For the next two weeks we’re partnering with Mary Annette and ICT to explore how one Catholic school is trying to bring truth and healing to its community, and how complicated that is when history is an open wound.
Alex White Plum:I am not going to accept no cheap apology. The Catholic church needs to own up. We need to find the bodies of our great-grandpas.
Al Letson:We’re going to explore many questions that need to be answered by the church in order to get to the truth. Questions of land ownership and finances.
Alexis White Ha…:That means giving back all the land that the church owns back to the tribe.
Al Letson:Questions about dusty church records and the secrets they hold.
Audio:They’re hiding them and they don’t want show them. Or they did burn them because they don’t want proof.
Al Letson:And of course, questions about the children who were sent to these boarding schools and never came home. Who were they and how did they die?

Our journey with Mary Annette begins on the Great Plains of South Dakota.
Mary Annette Pe…:I’m driving across a great expanse of prairie on the way to Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It’s a beautiful spring day and everything is new and green. We’re on a back road. It’s a little shortcut I learned from the local folks here.

I’m not from Pine Ridge. I’m a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe tribe in Wisconsin, which makes me an outsider here in Lakota country. But I’ve done some reporting here over the years and I know some folks. I’m the daughter and relative of generations of boarding school survivors, and I share that common bond with folks here in Pine Ridge. I decided to come to Red Cloud because this school has started its own Truth and Healing effort and raised money for it.

Turning from the highway into the school’s parking lot, I descend a hill. The campus is tucked away, almost hidden. Seeing the school and the church with its tall, white steeple, I can’t help but recall memories of my own time at Catholic school.

Inside the school, students move through the cinder block and brick hallways making their way to class. In one classroom, portraits of Native leaders cover the walls. The kids, some in stocking feet, move freely about the room, their arms swinging. They can’t sit still. They’re ready to sing and dance.

Speaking Lakota could have gotten the kids up beating from the nuns and priests in the same classroom 60 years ago. Now, it’s being embraced by the school and a new generation of Lakota youth.
Jason Drapeaux:And I tell them, Whatever you do as a Lakota, be proud because our ancestors couldn’t do that. And when they did, they would sometimes get killed or abused.”
Mary Annette Pe…:Jason Drapeaux teaches Lakota Language and Culture here at Red Cloud School. He’s fresh faced and energetic. His passion for the culture is infectious and the children are drawn to him.
Jason Drapeaux:The first thing they took was their voice and their pride, so that’s what I want to give back right away. I want you to be proud. And I want you to use your voice. Because we used to get whipped, we used to get beat just by speaking or just by singing.
Mary Annette Pe…:There are about 20 kids in the class, fourth graders. Jason sings and drums, and they follow along.
Jason Drapeaux:So at the beginning of the year, nobody was singing and nobody was dancing. And now every time these guys come in, all they want to do is sing and dance now. What are some reasons why we sing? Anyone?
Students:To keep our Lakota culture alive so then it won’t fade into non-existence.
Jason Drapeaux:Yep. So we sing to keep our Lakota ways alive so it doesn’t fade into non-existence. What else? Why do we sing? And dance?
Students:It’s just a part of us that we can’t keep hidden away from other people.
Jason Drapeaux:To be proud?
Students:Yeah.
Jason Drapeaux:Be proud of it?
Students:Yeah.

Because the Lakota people did and they were not ashamed of what other people think.
Jason Drapeaux:Yep. So now we do that, too. Right? That’s how we learned. We’re just not sitting here singing. We’re sending our voice, we’re sending our emotions, we’re sending our love for our people in a prayerful way, even if we’re here at school. Right?
Students:Yeah.
Jason Drapeaux:So in the beginning, I talked about these things, but everyone was still just real shy. And now that we understand what a singer is and why we dance, then once they got past that, everyone stepped up and was brave. And now you guys got to witness what it has done to a class who didn’t sing or dance for months. Everyone who is dancing today, out of nowhere, they just start asking every day, “Can we dance? Can we dance?”
Mary Annette Pe…:The Jesuits, the Order of Catholic priests who founded Red Cloud, have changed their position on Lakota language since the old days, but for the older generations, the scars of that repression run deep.
Maka Black Elk:There’s legitimate grievances, and concerns, and history that is certainly divisive, and also, at the very minimum, incredibly wrong.
Mary Annette Pe…:Maka Black Elk is a person who’s been put in charge of the Truth and Healing process here at Red Cloud.
Maka Black Elk:And the Jesuits, I think, are coming to terms with that. Especially the older Jesuits who started to be a bit more culturally sensitive and more culturally aware.
Mary Annette Pe…:Maka’s a big man. Long black hair and a welcoming smile. He’s from Pine Ridge and graduated from Red Cloud School in 2005. Then he taught here for five years, Lakota Studies, World History and Geography.
Maka Black Elk:And so this school started to shift in the ’60s and ’70s, to start teaching Lakota for the first time, ever. Teaching Lakota history and culture, and making sure that those things are included.

So there are some changes that happen over time. But I think we all agree that, especially prior to that era, from the ’50s and before, the project was specifically assimilative in a destructive way and there’s no excusing that.
Mary Annette Pe…:Yeah. What’s the best way to address that, do you think?
Maka Black Elk:Well, I think what we’re trying to do is, first and foremost, acknowledge that. When I first became an employee here and the 125th anniversary came and went without any acknowledgement of our boarding school history, right? That’s painful for people.

So acknowledgement is the first thing. The easiest thing we can do is to say, “Yes. This history happened. And there is pain in that history and we don’t deny that.”
Mary Annette Pe…:In some ways, Maka was born for this job. He’s Lakota on both sides. His mother traditional, his father a practicing Catholic. Maka is also Catholic, but has lots of ties to the traditional community here on Pine Ridge.

So yeah, he’s right in the middle of this and has been ever since he was hired as the Executive Director for Truth and Healing in 2020.

It’s a big job with no easy answers. Maka hopes to mend the relationship between the school and the Native community by getting to the bottom of what happened here.
Maka Black Elk:There are things that we can do as an institution to help individuals maybe achieve a greater sense of healing by acknowledging their experiences, by keep listening to their stories, by providing things that might help individuals to overcome those experiences and that painful history.

But it’s always an individual’s journey, and every person has the power to pursue and achieve healing on their own. And we can’t make anyone get there.
Mary Annette Pe…:What all these kids went through at Red Cloud and afterward, is central to the journey Maka is talking about. Today the students are happy to be singing their songs and dancing, but it used to be different.

I want to hear from the elders, people who survived the harsher times at Red Cloud when kids didn’t go home to their parents at the end of the day.
Al Letson:When we come back, a former student who went to Red Cloud 80 years ago is still grappling with what happened there.
Basil Brave Hea…:A lot of my friends that went to school there drank to cover up that pain. A lot of them committed suicide. A lot of them ran away and went to war.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.

Today we’re on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota with Mary Annette Pember from Indian Country Today, now known as ICT. She’s looking into the legacy of Red Cloud, the Catholic school that’s been on the reservation for over 100 years.

This afternoon, she’s on her way to visit a former student who lived there decades ago.
Mary Annette Pe…:One of the first survivors I sought out is Basil Brave Heart. He started boarding at Red Cloud a very long time ago before World War II, back when it was known as Holy Rosary.

Basil lives on the western side of Pine Ridge, about 17 miles from the school. The reservation is huge, almost four and a half thousand square miles, about twice the size of the state of Delaware.

There’s this lump in a road. Holy… It’s a res dog. And he’s seeing us coming and getting up to see if he knows us first. And then he gets out of the way. It’s typical of reservation dogs. A lot of dogs here in Pine Ridge, as there are on most reservations.

Where Basil lives, there are clusters of houses, little trailer homes, some with satellite dishes outside. Some young fellows are riding around mowing a lawn. A lone horse stands out in the grass.

Good to see you.
Basil Brave Hea…:Good to see you.
Mary Annette Pe…:You’re still kicking, eh?
Basil Brave Hea…:I’m 89.
Mary Annette Pe…:Get out.

Basil has big flags flying outside in the yard, including a Lakota nation flag and a black POW/MIA flag. There’s a mural of a horse with lightning coming out of its mouth on the outside wall of his garage.

Basil’s in his late 80s. Seated in a whimsical garden his wife planted, his eyes are sharp. He’s a veteran and wears a cap emblazoned with a Korean war patch.
Basil Brave Hea…:My name is Basil Brave Heart, Oglala Lakota Tribe here in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It was honor to share my experiences at, at that time, Holy Rosary Mission.
Mary Annette Pe…:You boarded at the school at Holy Rosary, didn’t you? Can you tell us about what years that you did, that you attended?
Basil Brave Hea…:It was in the late ’30s, early ’40s. My grandma, Mary Red Hair, was one of the first female students there at… She enrolled in 1888.
Mary Annette Pe…:And in the decades that followed, his father, his brothers and sisters, his own kids and grandkids all went to school there, too. Basil was just six years old when he was brought to live at Red Cloud.
Basil Brave Hea…:I was in a state of shock, traumatized. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t cognitively understand what abandonment meant, but I knew what it feels like being left at a school. I felt taken away from my parents. It was very traumatizing. You block your emotions. And I always wonder, was that the beginning of PTSD? I can say, “Yes.”
Mary Annette Pe…:Basil squeezes his eyes as he transports himself back to those days. His memories emerge slowly, lending his words in arresting, monumental quality. Listening to him creates a mood of ceremony. One memory that stands out for Basil is what they did to kids when they first got there.
Basil Brave Hea…:They cut our hair. That again, was to me, a very spiritual violation because in our culture, only maternal grandmother had the right to cut my hair. So when they started to cut my hair and let it fall to the floor and stepping on it, I felt disrespected.
Mary Annette Pe…:I understand it was also very strict at Holy Rosary and that they used corporal punishment, which is not something that, normally, Lakota parents do. That must have been very difficult for you, as well.
Basil Brave Hea…:Yes. Part of our school was a militarization of how we were supposed to behave.
Mary Annette Pe…:Basil says the beatings began when he arrived at the school and continued for years. He remembers lashings with straps and paddles for the smallest thing, and he was forbidden from speaking his language. It was devastating to have that taken away.
Basil Brave Hea…:It’s the language that the culture defines our atmospheric relationship to the divine creation. It’s through the language that we have a deep vibrational, what we call [foreign language], which refers to a unnameable, indefinable, infinite divinity that is uncreated.

When you take the language away from the culture, and I’m speaking specific of a Lakota culture, you take away the way we communicate. Those memories are embedded.

And I know now PTSD migrates into your DNA. That’s why we had generational historical trauma, and that’s why a lot of my friends that went to school there drank to cover up that pain. A lot of them committed suicide. A lot of them ran away and went to war. And this is really crazy. I didn’t know the difference between a safe and an unsafe place.
Mary Annette Pe…:They’re talking about Truth and Reconciliation. What would you like to see them do?
Basil Brave Hea…:Well, there probably is more than just one way for Lakota people to embrace reconciliation. What is that? Are we asking the church to own their shadow? Are we asking the federal government to own the Doctrine of Discovery?
Mary Annette Pe…:Basil’s last question about the Doctrine of Discovery is a big one. The Doctrine of Discovery is a pretty obscure church document that goes back to before the Renaissance, but has a lot to do with how Native people were treated by European explorers.

It gave settlers the justification for claiming land simply because the people living there were non-Christian. Indigenous peoples in the Americas were slaughtered, enslaved, brutalized, and forced from their ancestral lands. Starting in the 1600s, Christians, including the Catholic church, created schools to strip Native kids of their language, culture, and identity, and turned them to Christianity.

Centuries later, after the US was founded, the federal government wanted to solve what it called the Indian Problem. For a solution, it looked to Christian schools as a model for creating a bigger, federal system of Indian boarding schools.
Audio:The government schools are constantly being built and hospitals added. We bring them in, clean them up, and start them on their way to civilization.
Mary Annette Pe…:The federal government ran some of the schools, but many were run by churches. The government gave churches land that belonged to tribes to build and operate boarding schools, including Holy Rosary.

We found that the Catholic church was given more than 10,000 acres of tribal lands throughout the US for its missions and schools. More than 7000 acres of that land is still owned by organizations connected to the Catholic church. Churches were also given access to tribal funds to help pay for schools, money that had been given to tribes through treaties with the US government.

So this history, why does it matter today? I ask Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior. He was on Pine Ridge when I was there.

The history of the boarding schools, it happened so long ago. Why should people care? And why is it important?
Bryan Newland:Well, it wasn’t just long ago. We know that the boarding schools operated up until the 1960s. We know that many people alive attended these boarding schools, and this is not just some gratuitous look at the past. This is recounting and an accounting of the United States federal government’s operation of these schools, why we did it. As a country, we have to understand the history of these schools, how they affected people, so we can address their legacy impacts today.
Mary Annette Pe…:Stuff that happened decades ago is still affecting lots of people, to this day, in very real ways. Native Americans have suicide rates that are nearly double other Americans. And death rates due to alcohol are more than five times as high.

I wanted to understand how boarding school history connects to all of this. So I talked to Dr. Donald Warne. He’s Co-Director for the Center for Indigenous Health and Provost Fellow for Indigenous Health policy at Johns Hopkins University. He’s also a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Tribe at Pine Ridge.
Dr. Donald Warn…:We see very good evidence that there’s an intergenerational impact of toxic stress.
Mary Annette Pe…:And can you maybe give some examples of what those impacts are?
Dr. Donald Warn…:Yeah, so we see toxic stress leading to high levels of stress hormones, which, obviously, would have impact on mental health. So higher rates of depression and anxiety and post-traumatic stress. And then, not surprisingly, higher rates of self-medication, things like alcohol intake and other substance use. But what we also see is higher rates of chronic disease, higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.
Mary Annette Pe…:And so that trauma would’ve been really the result of being displaced from family and then also displaced from language and culture. Is that correct?
Dr. Donald Warn…:Being directly exposed to abuse and neglect, obvious, is very bad. But in addition to that, disconnection from family and support systems has an impact on wellbeing. And then much of the purpose of the boarding school systems was to, essentially, get rid of the culture and try to just integrate indigenous children into the broader society without any regard for the long-term impact on self-identity, self-esteem, and overall wellbeing.
Mary Annette Pe…:Could you talk a little bit about how epigenetics plays in that? Even though people who may not have attended boarding schools, but their parents may have been survivors, how that would might have been passed along to them?
Dr. Donald Warn…:Yeah. We do see some preliminary evidence that when people are under toxic stress conditions, it changes their DNA. And it can change how genes are expressed or translate into making proteins. And we can see changes to DNA that have an impact on gene expression because of toxic stress. And there’s some preliminary evidence that shows that these epigenetic changes are occurring because of things like boarding schools and adverse childhood experiences, but also that those changes can be passed from one generation to another.
Mary Annette Pe…:The science of intergenerational trauma has developed a lot in recent years. Studies have shown how the DNA of Holocaust survivors was changed by their experiences and passed down to their children on a biochemical level.

There’s a 2019 study from the University of Colorado showing boarding school survivors have 44% more chronic physical health problems than those who did not attend. The children of boarding school survivors had 36% more chronic health problems. For Native people, that translates to a lot of lives cut short.
Dr. Donald Warn…:When we look at outcomes… I have the most recent data in North Dakota from the decade of 2009 to 2019, so the decade prior to the pandemic. So that the average age of death for American Indians in North Dakota is about 59. The average age at death for the white population in North Dakota is about 79. So we’re looking at an at least 20-year difference in average age of death in that decade for American Indians as compared to the white population. And there’s multiple reasons for that, but much of it can be linked to unresolved trauma including boarding schools.
Mary Annette Pe…:There’s a lot that remains unresolved. There’s the boarding school trauma and its impact on Native communities, and the land and resources taken by the church and federal government. There’s never been reparations for that.

And then there’s the bodies buried on school grounds. The lost children, the little ones who died at these schools, never to be seen by their families again. That matters to people. How can you even begin to talk about truth and healing when there are kids buried in unmarked graves on school grounds across the country?
Al Letson:When we come back, the hunt for unmarked graves at the Red Cloud School continues.
Marla Pourier:And we went down into the basement and he saw a whole bunch of bones of kids and skulls.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.

For years, people from the community of Pine Ridge have suspected there are children’s bodies buried in unmarked graves on the campus of the Red Cloud School. And like the former maintenance worker we met earlier who believes he saw three graves in a school basement, they want answers.

Are there kids in unmarked graves? And if so, who were they? And how did they die? Mary Annette Pember from our partners at ICT is looking into what Red Cloud is doing to find those answers.
Mary Annette Pe…:We know for certain there are a lot of people buried at Red Cloud School. There’s an official cemetery here with tombstones and markers that Maka Black Elk shows me one day.
Maka Black Elk:We’re going to scan that…
Mary Annette Pe…:He’s in charge of the school’s Truth and Healing project.
Maka Black Elk:… scanning.
Mary Annette Pe…:Now, what’s this up here across the road?
Maka Black Elk:This is the newer cemetery. See. We’ll go to the right.
Mary Annette Pe…:Okay. No, I’m just going to…
Maka Black Elk:Yeah, this is the historic cemetery.
Mary Annette Pe…:Oh, I see.
Maka Black Elk:And then this is the newer… So this is where people are buried recently.
Mary Annette Pe…:Priests are buried here. So were nuns and others from the community who wanted a Catholic burial. There are Native kids buried here, too. Kids who died of disease and other causes, as well.

But some people are convinced that there are other kids buried here outside the cemetery in unmarked graves on school grounds. Red Cloud graduate, Marla Pourier is one of them. She remembers what a classmate told her back in the ’90s.
Marla Pourier:This is where the old church was. And my friend was taken downstairs by this priest who kept us late after school. He’s my classmate. And he went down into the basement and he saw whole bunch of bones of kids and skulls. There’s so much down there. They hid it very well, but it’s under there. It’s just overwhelming to even have that knowledge.
Mary Annette Pe…:But not everyone agrees there are unmarked graves on campus. Maka remembers a community meeting a few years ago when one former student spoke up and dismissed the talk of graves.
Maka Black Elk:She’s like “One, I think that’s ridiculous. And two, if you scan all parts of this campus, you might find random stuff because back there behind the historic brick building, that’s where we used to bury garbage back in the day. And then we had a chicken coop that burned down one time and so they just buried over that area. And so there’s probably a lot of chicken bones there. And then we had pigs over in this area and when the pigs died, they would bury the pigs over there. So sure, you’re going to find bones, but they’re going to be of pigs and chickens and there’s going to be garbage. But that’s all you’re going to find.”
Mary Annette Pe…:Finding out the truth is crucial for people here and it’s important to Maka if he’s going to help the community find healing.
Maka Black Elk:That’s one of those tensions I think that exists out in the community, of people who were here as students, as boarders, who are saying, “No, that never happened.” Others who are saying, “Well, I’ve heard stories and rumors. And there were legends when we were kids, but we never knew if they were true or not.” And then others who say, “No, it must have happened here because this was a boarding school. And that’s what happened at boarding schools.”
Mary Annette Pe…:This is what happened at boarding schools. We learned more about it in the first investigative report from the federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in May. So far, investigators found that kids were buried at more than 50 Indian boarding schools. They added up more than 500 deaths of American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian children. These are early estimates. The real number of deaths, according to the report, could be in the tens of thousands.

It’s unknown how many are buried at Red Cloud and how they died.

It seems like the implication is maybe kids were killed and then they were buried clandestinely. So it seems like there’s some belief of that.
Maka Black Elk:Those rumors exist, for sure. There’s no way of knowing where they come from, or identifying who they were. And it’s possible that we have some kids. I won’t deny that it’s possible. That’s part of why we need to do that research. It’s part of the truth telling process.
Mary Annette Pe…:As part of that process, Red Cloud is bringing in technology to help figure out if there are unmarked graves at the school. Ground penetrating radar, or GPR, can scan underground and show where soil has been disturbed.

Maka has made arrangements for a GPR demonstration over an area where the school plans to put a new building. It’s a chance to show people from Pine Ridge what ground penetrating radar is, and what it does, and what it doesn’t do. It will also ensure that they’re not building on top of graves.

It’s early in the morning on a typically brilliant sun-drenched day on the prairie. Today is demonstration day at Red Cloud School. Maka is standing with a small group in a circle on the lawn and outside the chapel. He greets the crowd.
Maka Black Elk:[foreign language] to all of you for coming this morning to be a part of our demonstration this day.
Mary Annette Pe…:After months of planning and discussion, they’re finally going to start scanning the grounds.
Maka Black Elk:We felt that this is really important to bring the community together to learn about GPR. But we always start, of course, in prayer.
Audio:[foreign language]
Mary Annette Pe…:The GPR demonstration is being done by a northern Cheyenne woman named Marsha Small. After the prayer, she leads the crowd into the school gym for a slide presentation she’s put together. A few dozen people seat themselves in folding chairs, after grabbing some snacks that have been laid out on a table.
Marsha Small:My research foci is historical trauma as it relates to Indian boarding school policies and the Indian children who remain in the Indian boarding school cemeteries.
Mary Annette Pe…:The crowd listens. They seem to be quietly reserving judgment.
Marsha Small:I also utilize geophysical instruments to locate the children in a noninvasive and non disturbing way. Including in my research…
Mary Annette Pe…:The GPR tech is a guy named Jarrod Burks who works with Marsha, and after a while she hands him the mic.
Jarrod Burks:So this is what I do for a living. I travel around the country, and sometimes around the world, looking for things that have been lost, especially graves. We spend a lot of time looking for graves.
Mary Annette Pe…:Marsha and Jarrod spend a lot of time going over the scanning process. They have slides with history, technical considerations. They get very detailed and people are glazing over as time passes.

When the presentation ends, the crowd follows them to a grassy field outside the gym. Jarrod gets ready to run the equipment over the ground different.
Jarrod Burks:All right. It’s ready.
Mary Annette Pe…:The machine resembles a small dolly cart loaded with electronic stuff. An LCD monitor on top shows the terrain in a graphic display.
Jarrod Burks:That’s a profile of the ground right below the center of that thing. And as we push it, things, if there’s anything down there, start to emerge. We’re seeing, basically, layers of the soil right now.
Mary Annette Pe…:The GPR scans down as deep as six feet. They push the scan around the lawn as people look on.
Jarrod Burks:That’s really bad.
Marsha Small:Since we’re by a tree, there might be roots radiating out.
Jarrod Burks:Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. Can you see that upside down V-shape in there?
Marsha Small:Yeah.
Mary Annette Pe…:To complicate things further, tree roots, utility lines, there’s plenty of stuff below ground that could look like a grave on the scan.
Jarrod Burks:That is probably a root from that tree. And the root’s coming out this way and we’ve gone across it that way. So it shows up.
Mary Annette Pe…:We won’t know today if there are any hits. They will need to take the scans back to their lab to assemble a three dimensional picture that will show if any disturbance, like a grave, is under the soil. It could take a few months.

When the demonstration is over, there’s a closing ceremony with Bryan Newland, Head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Bryan Newland:People understand that the boarding schools were part of a twin policy of taking land from Indian people and assimilating Indian people. And the reason for the assimilation was so that Indian people wouldn’t need so much land if we were all assimilated.
Mary Annette Pe…:Brian is Ojibwe, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community. He was a leader in creating the boarding school investigative report. His point is really important. Forced assimilation was part of the scheme to grab Native lands for white settlers.
Bryan Newland:This is a powerful moment in history that we’re at, and I’m very grateful to all of you for your work to bring it about. So [foreign language]. Thank you.
Mary Annette Pe…:The presentation is over, but before the crowd breaks up, a rangy guy with long white hair steps forward.
Alex White Plum:Thanks for bringing the assistant secretary down here in front of us.
Mary Annette Pe…:His name is Alex White Plum. He’s a longtime Lakota activist.
Alex White Plum:I wish you would not use the word healing. But we’ve got to address genocide. We’re here looking for the bodies of our ancestors. And we’re not going to go healing until genocide is addressed by the United States government. And we’re meeting on the Roman Catholic Church land in the middle of treaty territory.

I am not going to accept no cheap apology. The Catholic church needs to own up. We need to find the bodies of our great-grandpas and it needs to pay back rent. And we’re not going to heal until we see some type of justice by the United States, and we need to have justice towards this Roman Catholic church that’s invaded into our territory.

[Foreign language]
Mary Annette Pe…:The mood of the crowd shifts with Alex’s words. People seem energized by him.

All of a sudden, some young folks ride up on horseback, triumphantly disrupting the organized event. They ride in a circle around the church, yelling out in a traditional war cry.

A drone flies overhead. They have a sign that reads, “We are the grandchildren of the Lakota you weren’t able to remove.” They lean the sign up against the wall of the church. Three men sing the American Indian Movement song while the riders circle the church.

When they’re done, I walk up to some young women who’ve gathered here to support them. Alexis White Hat is an activist from the nearby Rosebud Reservation.
Alexis White Ha…:Finding out that a lot of the things that we all encounter individually, like addiction, abuse, those all stem from somewhere. And we had to find where that stems from. And we learned that behaviors that we learned, the patterns, it comes from boarding schools.
Mary Annette Pe…:These young folks have made boarding schools their focus. They helped get remains of students returned home from the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, and now they’re looking at Red Cloud.
Alexis White Ha…:If my child had went somewhere else and never came back, I would spend the rest of my life mourning them. And them not being able to come home… I feel like as the next generation of leaders, we can do that for them.
Mary Annette Pe…:Another group member chimes in, Jayden Rose Whiting.
Jayden Rose Whi…:And also, keeping these children’s lives remembered. They were prisoners of war when they were sent to those schools. They didn’t know what was going on.
Mary Annette Pe…:Then Alexis brings up what for her and a lot of Native people is the elephant in the room when it comes to boarding schools.
Alexis White Ha…:The government needs to address what they’ve done. We’ve talked with some Canadian relatives and they told us we should start pushing for… How did they describe it?
Mary Annette Pe…:Reparations?
Alexis White Ha…:Reparations. That means giving back all the land that the church owns back to the tribe and to the people that originally were there.
Jayden Rose Whi…:We’re still here. Our culture is still here. We’re still alive.
Al Letson:Next time on Reveal, part two of our investigation into Indian boarding schools with ICT. What Mary Annette uncovers in church archives about Native land and funds that were taken away from the tribe and given to the school. And what we discovered about kids who died on school grounds.
Speaker 22:We are sorry for that history, the dark history, for the first half, I would say, of this institution.
Al Letson:Also, what some outspoken members of the community think of the Truth and Healing process at Red Cloud.
Speaker 23:We need more people involved to bear witness to what’s happening because are we going to let the church investigate itself?
Al Letson:Maria Annette Pember from ICT reported today’s show. Our lead producer is Michael I. Schiller. Taki Telonidis edited the show with help from ICT’s. Dianna Hunt. Thanks to ICT Editor, Jordan Bennett-Begaye, editor-at-large Mark Trahant, and managing editor Dalton Walker. Special thanks to Kathryn Styer Martinez for additional reporting and production help. And to Meg Lindhome, Jason Tishi, Stan Alcorn and Sue Oh.

We’d also like to acknowledge Tim Giago, founder of Indian Country Today for his work in drawing attention to boarding school issues for decades. He died in July, just weeks after we spoke to him.

To see photos from Red Cloud School and to find links to ICT’s digital stories about boarding schools, go to our website, revealnews.org.

Nicky Frank is our fact checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy “The Great” Mostafa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo: J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando “My Man Yo” Arruda. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

Michael I Schiller

Michael I Schiller is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His Emmy Award-winning work spans animation, radio and documentary film.

“The Dead Unknown,” a video series he directed about the crisis of America's unidentified dead, earned a national News and Documentary Emmy Award, national Edward R. Murrow Award and national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award.

His 2015 animated documentary short film “The Box,” about youth solitary confinement, was honored with a video journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, a San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award and a New Orleans Film Festival special jury prize, and it was nominated for a national News and Documentary Emmy for new approaches.

Schiller was one the producers of the pilot episode of the Peabody Award-winning Reveal radio show and podcast. He continues to regularly produce audio documentaries for the weekly public radio show, which airs on over 450 stations nationwide. Schiller is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Stan Alcorn is a former senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His radio work at Reveal has won awards including a Peabody Award, several Online Journalism Awards, an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, and a Best of the West Award, as well as making him a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He previously was a reporter for Marketplace, covering business and economic news – from debit card fees levied on the formerly incarcerated to the economic impact of Beyoncé's hair. He has helped launch new shows at Marketplace, Slate, and WNYC; contributed research to books by journalists at Time and CNBC; and reported for outlets including NPR, PRI's The World, 99% Invisible, WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company, High Country News, Narratively, and Digg.

Nikki Frick is the associate editor for research and copy for Reveal. She previously worked as a copy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held internships at The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and Washingtonpost.com. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an American Copy Editors Society Aubespin scholar. Frick is based in Milwaukee.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Brett Myers is an interim executive producer for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.