The Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota began as the Holy Rosary Mission in 1888, 10 years after Lakota Chief Red Cloud approached the Jesuits about opening a school. The school recently celebrated its 125th anniversary on October 18 with a tour of the school.
As the Holy Rosary Mission many children suffered the same abuse common at other Indian boarding schools. The school has come a long way, and in the last few decades has worked hard to fulfill Red Cloud’s original dream. It was notable that no one on the anniversary tour attempted to whitewash the school’s past.
A painting in the Red Cloud Heritage Center announces the school’s ability to house up to 400 students at a time. Perhaps the most profound stop of the school’s tour was the dormitory where as many as 100 little girls or more stayed for nine months at a time. The room is now a convent, and 2008 graduate Rilda Means, the tour guide, said she believed this was the first time the room has been open to visitors.
With a sweeping gesture, a nun from the convent pointed out the original details of the dormitory, now divided into several smaller rooms. “This was their world. They lived here 24/7,” the nun said sadly, noting the children only went home at Christmas and for the summer.
The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s brought about changes at the school. The name was changed to Red Cloud Indian School to reflect the student’s heritage, and the school began to close down its dormitories. In 1967, more than 20 years before Congress passed the Native American Languages Act, the school began to teach the Lakota language.
From the harsh beginnings of assimilationist tactics to the Lakota language and culture classes today, Red Cloud Indian School has come a long way. While religion still plays a part in the school, very little religious imagery is seen in the buildings. As Means explained, “In order to graduate, we have to take theology, Lakota language, and Lakota culture. It’s very balanced.”
A challenging economics class, a well-equipped science department, and a highly competitive basketball team still don’t top the Lakota language program, which students say they love and can take seven hours a week. The class has allowed students to speak Lakota with their grandparents and consider themselves well on the way to fluency. One student taught the visitors how to say, “Whatever,” in Lakota. Hint: Look on the board in the video as the student writes, “Tuwala.”
Upcoming graduates participate in local Lakota Language Bowls and competitions, and some have traveled to Washington for internship programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—STEM. Students at Red Cloud have received more Gates Millennium Scholarships than any other school in the country. The arts are heavily represented, and the majority is focused on Lakota culture. Even the religious images are depicted through Lakota culture, and most of the teachers and staff are Lakota.
Henry Red Cloud, nephew of the recently passed Chief Oliver Red Cloud, toured the school during the celebration and was impressed with what he saw. Looking left to right, in classrooms and up and down the halls, he repeatedly said, “This is really good.” Having attended the Pine Ridge High School, he noted many of Red Cloud’s offerings would have been a welcome addition to his own education.
According to the school’s website, 90 percent of funding comes from public donations. However, the donated $12.5 million not only support the Red Cloud Indian School, Heritage Center and Gift Shop, but also the operation of six Catholic churches across the reservation.
The Heritage Center has an impressive collection of new and traditional Oglala art, and curator Mary Bordeaux, Lakota, has been cataloguing the school’s collection of 10,000 items purchased or gifted to the school throughout many decades. The current exhibit at the heritage center includes a number of war bonnets and leader shirts.