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The letters are casual, even chatty, from officials of St. Francis Mission, on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota, to Catholic Church superiors. The mission ran one of many boarding schools to which Native American parents were required to send their children from the late 1800s until the 1970s, when most of the institutions were closed down or transferred to tribal control.
“All goes along quietly out here,” one priest wrote in 1968, with “good religious and lay faculty” at the mission. There are troublesome staffers, though, including “Chappy,” who is “fooling around with little girls — he had them down the basement of our building in the dark, where we found a pair of panties torn.” Later that year, Brother Francis Chapman was still abusing children, though by 1970, he was “a new man,” the reports say. In 1973, Chappy again “has difficulty with little girls.”
Some documents are more discreet than explicit. In 1967, two nuns at St. Paul’s Indian Mission, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, also in South Dakota, had excessive “interest in” and “dealings with” older male students, says a report to Church higher-ups. (St. Paul’s, pictured below, was renamed Marty Indian School when the tribe took it over in 1975; 2008 graduation tipis are shown in the foreground.) Another nun has “too close a circle of friends, especially two boys.”
What ex-students describe as rampant sexual abuse in South Dakota’s half-dozen boarding schools occurred against a backdrop of extreme violence. “I’ll never forget my sister’s screams as the nuns beat her with a shovel after a pair of scissors went missing,” said Mary Jane Wanna Drum, 64, who attended a Catholic institution in Sisseton, South Dakota, for the children of her tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.
Izzy Zephier, 62, a Yankton Sioux tribal member, recalled a Sunday-evening ritual at St. Paul’s Indian Mission. “Those who’d tried to run away were stripped, lined up, and given 40 lashes each with a thick rubber strap,” he said.