Rachel Janis, 22, is among the third generation of Indian boarding-school survivors on the Rosebud Indian Reservation helping to reclaim their ancestors’ remains. (Photo: Jenna Kunze for Native News Online)
BY JENNA KUNZESEPTEMBER 01, 2022
This is the third in a three-part series following intergenerational impacts the United States’ nearly 200 year policy of Indian boarding schools had, and continues to have, on some tribal members on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota today. This story was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's 2021 Data Fellowship.
ROSEBUD INDIAN RESERVATION—They were just kids when they learned about the Native children, their ancestors, who never came home from Indian boarding school more than 100 years before.
Seven years ago, a group of Rosebud Sicangu Youth Council members were traveling back from a conference in Washington when the tribal leaders chaperoning them suggested that the group make a side trip to see a bit of their history: the site of the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
In 2015, the grounds of the institution—where the U.S. government forcibly assimilated roughly 7,800 Indigenous youth from scores of tribes between 1879 and 1918—still held the remains of about 200 kids who died there of sickness, abuse, and neglect. At least nine of the graves belonged to Rosebud tribal members.
When they returned home to South Dakota, the students had one question for their tribal council: Why are our relatives buried so far from home?
That question spurred a council-backed movement that concluded last summer, with the repatriation of those nine ancestors back home to be reburied on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Now, young adults on the Rosebud Indian Reservation continue to lead the efforts to bring home lost ancestors buried at the former boarding schools—all while coming to terms with the ways in which their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ experiences at those schools affect their lives today.
PICTURED: Janis (orange shirt, second from right) in 2021 at the Carlisle disinterment ceremony in Carlisle, Pennsylvania with members of the Rosebud Sicangu Youth Council. “Healing for me is uncovering trauma, whether you experience it or your parents or your grandparents experienced it,” Rachel Janis said at the time. “When I was younger, I didn’t understand what I was going through. When we first came to Carlisle, although I never experienced boarding schools, I think that was another stem of where that might have come from." (Photo: Jenna Kunze)
In late May, Rachel Janis, 22, sits at her office desk at the Sicangu Youth Council on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. In her hand is a highlighted list of 25 Indian boarding schools in South Dakota—her “life’s work.” She’s surrounded by Native decor, including an “Indians Allowed” sign—the exact opposite message from that of a hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota’s second-largest city, which banned Natives from staying there in March.
Janis was 15 years old during the initial visit to Carlisle Indian School. At the time, she—like her peers—knew very little about boarding schools because her elders rarely talked about their experiences. She didn’t even know that her grandparents had survived boarding schools, or that the collective traumatic experience could be an explanation for some of the problems she observed in her community.
“You know the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? I was raised surrounded by elders,” Janis says, moving her curtain of hair from one shoulder to the other. “But when you’re a child, you don’t think: ‘Something really bad must have happened to her or him for them to act that way.’”
It wasn’t until she was confronted face to face with their history at Carlisle that she began to feel a powerful awakening.
“I didn't know there was more than one [boarding school],” Janis told Native News Online.
“When I learned about boarding schools, [I also] learned about historical trauma. It started making sense, how I feel personally.”
Carlisle was just one of over 400 Indian boarding schools operated or funded by the U.S. government from 1819 through 1969, an initial investigation by the Department of the Interior released in April found. Thirty of them were in South Dakota.
That initial report accounted for more than 500 child deaths at just 19 schools. The Interior Department expects further investigation to find that the number of recorded deaths amounted to “thousands or tens of thousands.”
The Sicangu Youth Council is working on an investigation of its own. Janis is now one of five youth members researching the history and records of the boarding schools that operated in South Dakota. Their goal is to search for Rosebud relatives who might have died at any of those institutions, and to continue efforts to bring each child home.
“It’s also about holding the government accountable,” Janis explains. “Because it may have happened in the past, but the after effects are still happening to us today.”