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Indian School's Dark Legacy

Kathleen Roberts Feb 8, 2007

Indian School's Dark Legacy By Kathaleen Roberts -- Journal Staff Writer Albuquerque Journal

A nationally syndicated columnist and an Oglala Sioux, Tim Giago was born on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation and attended Holy Rosary Indian Mission for 10 years. The priests, nuns and prefects were supposed to mold the students into model citizens fit for mainstream America.

Instead, Giago says, they left a legacy of physical, emotional and sexual abuse with devastating repercussions. His recent book, "Children Left Behind: The Dark Legacy of Indian Mission Boarding Schools" (2006, Clear Light Publishing Corp., $14.95) unveils a cycle of abuse that affected generations.

There was "Omaha," an angry boy who rode around in a red wagon because his feet had to be amputated after he ran away from Holy Rosary and got caught in a blizzard.

"Basil" was forced to bite down on a rubber band by a prefect who stretched it to its limits, then released it with a vicious snap because he spoke Lakota.

Then there was "Gabby," who snuck home after the accidental death of his father and brother in a fishing accident. Soon captured, he was greeted with a razor strap and beaten until bruises sprouted across his legs and buttocks.

Shirley, Giago's sister, was raped by the school maintenance man, he writes. After the publication of his first book of poetry, "The Aboriginal Sin" in 1978, about 10 of her friends approached him with similar incidents of sexual abuse.

"We were supposed to be under the supervision and protection of these priests and this man had been raping little girls for years," Giago said in a telephone interview from Rapid City, S.D. "It did terrible things to their lives. My sister became an alcoholic. Most of them were drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes."

Like many victims, as adults they often became the victimizers in turn, perpetuating the abuse on their own children.

Giago wasn't spared, either. One night, when he was about 10, he knocked on a prefect's door because he was sick and needed medicine.

"He got me a couple aspirins and he rubbed his face all over my body," Giago said. "I struck out and hit him right in the eye."

Giago decided to expand "Aboriginal Sin" into a memoir as he watched many of his friends die as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. Some died in prison; they were innocent boys when he knew them.

Today, former boarding school residents approach him after he speaks, often with tears in their eyes, to tell their own stories.
"There needs to be a process of healing between the church and all the thousands of children who went through that system," he said. "You can't take innocent kids in a situation where they're abused physically, emotionally and sexually and not expect them to come out lost."

When Giago returned to Holy Rosary, now Red Cloud Indian School, after his first book was published, no one wanted to talk about the past. Yearbook photos suddenly disappeared. His school records vanished. So he collected affidavits from former students confirming his enrollment.

"I ran into a total brick wall," Giago said. "The denial there is frightening. They said, 'We've had a lot of students who enjoyed it here.' ''

Things are better at the schools now, he acknowledged. There are American Indian teachers and native languages are taught.

But it will never erase the memories, or erase the irony of being forced to assimilate while being rejected by mainstream culture, Giago said.

"We weren't like everybody else and we experienced it in every border town," Giago said. "I remember going into a restaurant with my father and sister and being told they couldn't serve us. They wanted us to become a part of society and then we were denied entrance."

Giago credits good parents and hard work for saving him. He read and wrote to escape and to survive. He says he isn't anti-Catholic, although he will never step inside a church again. The experience drew him back to traditional Lakota ways.

"We found some of the most beautiful ceremonials our own cultural spirituality," he said. "When I sat and listened to the elders, it changed my life completely."