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Ahead of memorial walk, families remember ancestors who died at Rapid City Indian Boarding School

Ahead of memorial walk, families remember ancestors who died at Rapid City Indian Boarding School

Eyes to the ground, Phyllis Young slowly walks along block 62 of Mountain View Cemetery in Rapid City.

Young, a Lakota and Dakota woman from Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, eventually pauses at one of the small, simple rectangular headstones.

"This is it right here," the 69-year-old said as she bent down and used a finger to trace the barely readable, faded letters engraved into the gray rock.

It says Jennie Pretends Eagle. There's no date.

Young, who was visiting the grave for the first time on Thursday, had seen Jennie's name on census rolls and knew she was her grandfather's brother's daughter.

But until recently, she had no idea Jennie, who she calls her grandmother, was buried in Rapid City.

“I know nothing of my grandmother," Young said.

That changed a few weeks ago when her daughter was contacted by Heather Dawn Thompson, a volunteer who has been researching the children who died at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. Thompson was curious if the family was related to Jennie since she knew their family name was Wanbli Kunza, Pretends Eagle in Lakota.

Young eventually learned that Jennie attended the boarding school and was buried at the Mountain View Cemetery after she died in 1918 at the age of 18.

"In 1918, we were not allowed to speak our language. We were not allowed to practice the rites of passage. So we are here today, not only for my grandmother Jennie but for all of the children," Young said while standing over the grave.

Now, Young and her extended family will have the chance to honor Jennie and the dozens of other Native children who died at the boarding school during a memorial walk in Rapid City on Monday, Native American Day in South Dakota.

Other descendants of those who died at the school will also be in attendance. Violet Catches, a 68-year-old Lakota woman from Cherry Creek on the Cheyenne River Reservation, will be there to remember Mabel Holy, her mother's aunt.

After surviving the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, Mabel was later taken to the boarding school, where she died at age 18 in 1901.

"I think it will be kind of part of a grieving process, maybe a relief," Catches said of what she expects from the memorial walk. "It's also putting this grandmother Mabel, we call them unci (grandmother in Lakota), to rest ... so it helps all of us. Us physical beings, and them being the spiritual beings."

The memorial walk is being organized by volunteers and sponsored by Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors (MOA), a local group that has researched the boarding school. The event will recognize the hundreds of Native children who were taken from their families by the U.S. government and sent to the boarding school — and the dozens who died there.

So far, Thompson and other researchers have identified 44 children who died at the school. They came from the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana and were infants to 19 years old at the time of their deaths. Seven of the youth's names and/or tribes are unknown.

Thompson said many other children died there, but it's hard to track them down because the school purposely failed to keep death records and alert families when their loved ones died.

That lack of record keeping and communication is evident in Mabel's story. When her brother wrote a letter to the school asking where his sister was in 1928, the school responded that they had no information, Catches said.

Thompson said the children died of multiple causes, ranging from contagious diseases to malnutrition. Two died after they ran away and were hit by a train while following the tracks back to their homes.

The boarding school, which consisted of multiple buildings, was opened in 1898 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on a 1,200-acre property that includes what is now Sioux San Hospital as well as other parts of West Rapid. It closed in 1933.

Thompson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said the boarding school is not just a piece of history, but represents real families and their stories. She said many Native families in Rapid City are descendants of children who attended the school.

Young also connected the school's past to the present.

"There’s a new consciousness on the generations and the inter-generational trauma and pain related to all of the social pathologies of today," she said. "You carry it on even though the children of today didn’t experience boarding school. They know the effects.”

Young said Indian boarding schools were about taking away Native children's culture, and many of the youth were later sold or adopted to non-Native families.

It "has destroyed three generations of our people and the bonding that is required between child and parent is lacking," she said.

Catches linked Mabel and other children's experience at the boarding school to her time at a mission school.

"The nuns washed my mouth out with soap really hard whenever I spoke our language. So I experienced some of what she may have had to endure," she said.

Catches said she remembers her uncle's late mother talking about a relative named Mabel who was taken far away and never came back. But she didn't know much about her until a year ago, when Thompson posted a photo of her headstone on Facebook, searching for her ancestors.

Now Catches is trying to find Mabel's tribal enrollment number and her birth and death certificates. She's also searching for information on what happened to Mabel's sister Julia, who also attended the boarding school.

Catches said she hopes the memorial walk will help educate people about Native history, and lead to more Native families finding their missing ancestors.

"We found someone that meant a lot to our family who are now also deceased, and they were loved, they were cherished," she said.

The memorial event on Monday begins at 9 a.m. with welcoming remarks at Sioux Park. People should bring folding chairs and meet on the east side, near Baken Park by the playground.

At 10 a.m., attendees will begin the one-mile memorial walk from Sioux Park to the Sioux San Hospital. Transportation will be provided for elders.

The prayer service starts at 11 a.m. at the hospital campus, at the top of the hill in an open green area that looks like a soccer field. Seating will be provided for elders.

Young said she plans to return to Jennie's grave on Monday so her family can give her proper burial rites.

She said she will leave a child-sized dress and pair of moccasins so Jennie looks her best as she is greeted by her ancestors in the spirit world. She'll also leave a star quilt, chair and wasna, a traditional Lakota dish made of bison meat and berries.

"We’re giving her the pomp and circumstance of her passing and singing her name," Young said.

Like Jennie and Mabel, other children who attended the Rapid City Indian Boarding School are buried at Mountain View Cemetery. But some are in unmarked graves near the Sioux San Hospital. To contact the committee planning and raising money for a memorial at the unmarked burial site, call Lindsay Huffman at 605-209-5366.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at

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