Conference helps heal effects of boarding schools - scanned article
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Conference helps heal effects of boarding schools
"Survivors" gather to shed lingering trauma decades old

by Chris McKim
Dakota Journal, May 20-27, 2005

BEAR BUTTE – The Boarding School Healing Project held a two-day conference at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's Bear butte Lodge May 14 and 15.  Willetta Dolphus, Project Coordinator, said the purpose of the conference was education and healing.
    Dolphus, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe from Eagle Butte, said the Project started two years ago.  It has a national steering committee and similar endeavors are underway in other states.  The Bear Butte conference was the first of its kind in South Dakota.  It was attended by close to 20 Native Americans who went to boarding schools when they were young.  Calling themselves "boarding school survivors," they participated in talking circles, educational workshops, and sweats.
    "Our hope is to bring attention to this part of history so we can understand it, and thereby understand why things happen to us today, so we can make changes for ourselves in our lives," said Dolphus.
    "For example," she continued, "in the fall of the year, for boarding school survivors, a loneliness nets in that we can't identify.  We know something is wrong but we don't know what.  Fall triggers a reaction that boarding school survivors are still suffering from.  We want to do healing.  We are mostly middle-aged now – most of use went to boarding schools in the 1950s and 1960s – and we finally want to gain some peace in our lives."
    She spoke about her own experiences attending Stephan, a Catholic boarding school, on the Crow Creek reservation.  The school is now operated by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe under BIA funding.  Dolphus' parents sent her to first grade there in 1953.  She attended Stephan through the tenth grade, with the exception of grades three through six.  An older sister and younger brother also attended Stephan.
    "Most parents send their kids to boarding schools at that time," she explained. "Parents thought kids were getting a good education.  They had large families and thought their kids were economically better off at boarding schools than at home.  Also, they were Catholic and they wanted their kids to get a Catholic education."
    Dolphus' father was Catholic and her mother Episcopalian.  She was raised Catholic, but said at home on the reservation, Catholicism was combined with Lakota spiritual beliefs.  This was not so at the boarding school.
    "We had a fear of their God.  We were told He knew everything and would strike us if we were bad.  This was foreign to us.  Our concept of God was different."
    She said they had to attend prayers and mass twice a day and three times a day during Lent.  During Lent, the statutes were draped in purple cloth.  "I still get anxiety attacks when I see the color purple," she said.
    She also spoke about the loneliness she felt at school.  "We were just around other children; the only adults were nuns and priests.  No mothers, grandmothers to comfort you.  Family interactions were not encouraged.  There was no interaction between boys and girls, even relatives.  We couldn't talk to our male cousins.  We ate in different parts of the cafeteria, and our classes were in different parts of the building.  One time I didn't see my little brother for a couple of weeks and I got word he'd been sick and was in the infirmary.  Our families weren't encouraged to come visit us.  When they did, they couldn't come in the school.  We would have to stand out by their car and visit them."
    Although families may have thought their children were better off economically at boarding schools than on the reservation, Dolphus said, "We were always hungry.  There was never enough to eat.  Everybody I've surveyed said the same thing.  We got commodity food – government rations.  The youngest kids ate last.  I remember pans of cold potatoes with an inch of grease on top.  We always had cornmeal mush or Cream of Wheat for breakfast.  There wasn't much meat and no fresh vegetables – they didn't have a garden at the school.  The food was bland.  The only good thing was the homemade bread."
    One remnant of the boarding school experience that still lingers, she said, is the unconscious urge to hoard leftover food.  "We are now identifying things we do today that were survival skills then."
    At Stephan, the children had to do chores.  The girls worked in the kitchen, bakery, and laundry.  Dolphus said she had to spend all day Saturday ironing.  Even the girls who worked in the kitchen and bakery couldn't sneak extra food, she said, and if they did, they would be punished.
    Asked more about punishment, she said one thing she remembered was having to kneel on grains of rice if she did something she wasn't supposed to, such as talking after lights were out at night.  "Sometimes the nuns would forget about you, so you'd finally fall asleep kneeling there, and lay down.  In the morning, you'd have cuts on you from the rice.  You didn't dare call out to the nuns to tell them they'd forgotten about you.  There were a lot worse punishments, like being hit by a board.  I usually did everything I was supposed to do so I wouldn't get hit."
    She said it was usually the boys who tried to run away, and if they were caught and brought back, their heads were shaved and they were made to wear dresses for days on end to humiliate them.
    Dolphus said she could have refused to go back to Stephan in the seventh grade and after, but she didn't.  One good thing at the school was the connection she felt with the other students who would be returning in the fall, saying her friends had become like her sisters.
    Also, she didn't tell her parents about the negative aspects of the boarding school.  "Kids didn't tell their parents.  I never told my parents of the abuse or being hungry.  This rings true of every survivor.  I didn't want to cause them to worry and I don't think they would have believed me anyway because the Church portrayed the school as being so nice.  They tricked parents into sending their kids there."
    As part of the Boarding School Healing Project, Dolphus is interviewing boarding school survivors.  She tape-records their responses to open-ended questions.  So far she has interviewed 18 people in ages ranging from 21 to 82.
    For more information about the Project, contact Dolphus at (612) 964-6914 or by e-mail at