WAGNER, S.D. – Sherwyn Zephier remembers how priests would come to the dormitory at night and call out names of students. The students would then be beaten with a two-by-four with the names of the board of education written on it; and if the students cried loud enough they would stop the beating and have the student sign the board.
He said he knew of no reason for the beatings in a recollection from a Catholic boarding school in South Dakota. Zephier recalls many incidents and they are recurring more frequently.
Zephier now teaches at the school he attended for 12 years, now the school is run by the Yankton Sioux Tribe and is called Marty Indian School instead of the St. Paul’s Marty Mission. Zephier attended St. Paul’s from 1963-75. The next year, the school was turned over to the tribe.
A lawsuit has been filed against the federal government in U.S. Court of Claims in Washington. The class action suit has yet to be certified but thousands of names of American Indians who suffered similar physical and sexual abuse in boarding schools are accumulating .
Six members of the Yankton Sioux tribe, who act as lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit, allege that treaty violations occurred when many American Indian children were removed from their homes and forced to reside and sometimes die at the boarding schools run by religious denominations sanctioned by the federal government.
The stories are numerous and familiar. American Indian people, seniors and adults talk about beatings at the hands of clergy of both sexes and by attendants at the schools – sometimes American Indian themselves. Beatings with wire coat hangers, punishment that nearly starved children and isolation to correct ‘non-acceptable behavior’ were common.
All performed in the name of teaching the American Indian how to be civil, and to “kill the Indian and save the child” as was put by Captain Richard Henry Pratt in 1878 when he advocated for the creation of Carlisle Indian School, the most famous of all boarding schools.
“All my life I’ve never wanted to think about these things, I pushed them as far back as I could,” said Adele Zephier, Sherwyn’s sister. She claims she was physically abused by nuns and sexually abused by a priest while attending St. Paul’s Marty Mission School in Marty, S.D.
Jeffrey Herman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said he has taken many cases of sexual and physical abuse and the fact that it was filed now, decades after the abuse occurred is not unusual. He said most people repress that memory and when it comes out they take action.
“It is common to see victims not take action until they are adults. Some are just recalling for the first time,” Herman said. He likened it to the most recent attacks by victims of priests in the Catholic Church.
The majority of boarding school abuses, as remembered by the students, occurred between 1880 and the 1930s when the practice of assimilation stopped officially. However, according to the stories of thousands of American Indians who attended the schools after the 1930s, the assimilation practices continued and the abuse did not subside.
The complaint states that treaties, especially the Laramie Treaty of 1868 that involves the Great Plains tribes, professed to educate the American Indians in American schools. A clause in the treaty, the “Bad Man” clause states that if any man among the whites or other people subject to the authority of the federal government should commit any wrong against an American Indian that person should be arrested and punished, and it also allows for reimbursement.
It is that “Bad Man” clause that is the basis for the lawsuit against the federal government. “It has been interpreted over the years as being valid,” Herman said.
The complaint states that after treaties were broken, Indian lands seized and the economies of the Indians destroyed, the final element in destruction of American Indian culture was the boarding schools where children would be assimilated and learn the ways of the dominant culture, all sanctioned by the federal government.
Personal accounts reveal that families, mothers, fathers, grandparents and siblings wept for years after their children were forcibly taken from them and put into boarding schools where they would not to return home for summers or for any other reason, until after graduation.
Children were punished, beaten for carrying medicine bundles and for speaking their first language. These accounts have been public knowledge for many decades, but the lawsuit complaint points out the facts.
“Essentially, the educators at the boarding schools had carte blanche authority to commit acts of violence and abuse against Indian children,” the complaint states.
The abuse, the plaintiffs argue, occurred when most of the children were between the ages of 6 and 10 in order to break the students in to the system and “drive the devil out” of them.
Zephier said he recalled just two weeks ago an incident that occurred on the playground at St. Paul’s Marty Mission. He remembered when playing marbles one day with other boys, that one of the boys was a little short of marbles to fill the pot when he lost, and the boys spoke in Nakota, after which they were punished with beatings.
He also said he saw, through a keyhole, an older male student being sexually molested by a nun. He was discovered and forced to kneel on a broom handle and say the rosary, “which I didn’t know. I couldn’t walk after that and the rest of the kids were told I was a sinner. That was mental anguish,” Zephier said.
“I don’t want any children to go through what I went through,” he said as a reason for coming forward now and filing the lawsuit.
Not all students at St. Paul’s in Marty recall such bad memories. One student who was in his early teens when Zephier was in first grade said he doesn’t recall any such beatings or physical abuses. Wishing to remain anonymous he said they did hear about one nun who was promiscuous with junior and senior boys.
“It was a very liberal school. They even let you smoke. But if you were in sports you had to run extra,” he said.
His mother, now deceased, also attended St. Paul’s Marty Mission and had nothing but glowing comments about the school, he said.
“It was one of the few schools where very little abuse occurred, that we knew of. We had heard that St. Joseph’s was very abusive,” he said. St. Joseph’s is still a boarding school in Chamberlain, S.D. No other person would go on record with Indian Country Today and talk about the history of St. Joseph’s school.
Many of the students that attended boarding schools are reluctant to talk about their experiences in much detail. It’s embarrassing, many say.
Adele Zephier said she was sexually abused by a priest who put his hands under her dress, fondled and penetrated her. She was also physically abused by the nuns, one of whom would pick her up by the hair, shake her, and lock her in a closet for hours, she said.
Roderica Rouse, another plaintiff, said she was also physically and sexually abused.
Lloyd B. One Star, another plaintiff went to St. Francis Mission School on the Rosebud Reservation. He said he was physically beaten and sexually abused from the ages of six to 10. He said the abuse included oral sex and sodomy, and he admitted being threatened by the priests to not tell anyone. After telling his parents he was tortured continuously for a week with head slapping and paddling, he said.
Edna Little Elk, plaintiff, attended St. Francis School from 1921-24. She said she was locked in an attic for days because she did not speak English, was beaten and stripped by both nuns and priests and she actual witnessed her cousin, Zona Iron Shell, beaten to death in front of her.
Christine Horn, attended St. Paul’s Marty Mission and claims she was thrown down a three-story laundry chute, stuffed in a trash can and locked in an incinerator for not speaking English.
Lois L. Long, another plaintiff, was left-handed. She was accused of Satanism and to cure her, her left hand was tied, which caused permanent physical injuries. During baths, she said, the nuns would fondle her in an attempt to “wash the devil out.”
The lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Claims against the federal government is only one phase of the entire process. The next phase will include a tort action suit and in phase three, a lawsuit will be filed against the church, Herman said.