History, stories of Tekakwitha boarding school and orphanage


SISETON, SD (KELO) – As US Home Secretary, Deb Haaland launches Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative; and the remains of nine Native American children return home to the Rosebud Sioux tribe of the Carlisle Boarding School.

For more than half a century, the Tekakwitha Residential School and Orphanage operated in Sisseton, South Dakota. Native American children attended school from the 1940s to the 1970s.

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that the buildings were demolished and the land turned into a park.

“This is where the papoose’s house was, where they kept the babies,” said Allison Renville, SWO PIO. “And connected to the papoose house was a system of tunnels that led to this property here, which was the, it was the tallest and longest building. It was the dormitory, classrooms, and living quarters of some of the clergy.

Father John Pohlen founded the Catholic boarding school in Sisseton.

Photo courtesy of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate

Before it opened, Lillian Owen remembers going to three churches in town.

“Every other Sunday, you know, he went to one of them. That’s how he knew the people, how we lived, ”Owen said.

When she was nine, Owen said Pohlen would take her and other children to a Catholic boarding school in Stephan, on the Crow Creek Reservation. Children traveled more than 200 miles to get to school in the back of a covered truck.

“There we got up, six o’clock every morning,” Owen said. “Every morning we went to church, that’s how we learned. Rain, blizzard, snow, whatever, we’re always going.

By the time she started fifth grade, Pohlen had built the Tekakwitha boarding school and orphanage in Sisseton. Owen was one of the first students.

“He wanted, I think his idea was that instead of going over there two or three hundred miles, he wanted the kids to be here, you know, with their parents. That’s how he started this school, ”said Owen.

After graduating from Tekakwitha in 8th grade, Owen returned to Stephan, South Dakota for high school. After this graduation, she returned to work for Father Pohlen at Tekakwitha Hospital. Pohlen also asked Owen and other girls to clean his house.

“That’s how he teaches us to stay clean, to keep things clean,” Owen said. “So it was my turn so I went and in her room we had to make the bed, change the sheets.” Oh, he was the cleanest priest I had ever seen. We even had to iron his shorts.

Owen remembers Pohlen as a good man.

“You know people think, you know, he’s mean to kids,” Owen said. “He’s not. He’s not at all, I could say it a thousand times and he’s not.

“There are a lot of reports on capital punishment where, you know, they’ve been ‘licked’. Several elders told me that was what they called the punishment, ”said Renville.

But Owen’s experience is not shared by many others who attended Tekakwitha.

Photo courtesy of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate

“And that they would be lined up against the wall, if they weren’t taken privately and paddled really hard where they would have bruises and marks up and down their leg,” Renville said.

Allison Renville is the Public Information Officer for Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. While asking the elders if they would like to be interviewed for this story, many preferred to tell their story anonymously.

“A lot of our members who have suffered through these times, you know, they are elders now and unfortunately due to the stigma behind sexual abuse in American culture it is difficult for them to come forward and they m ‘told these stories anonymously, “said Renville.

Renville listened to their stories and shared six with KELOLAND News. These anonymous elders were in Tekakwitha between the 1950s and 1970s.

A woman said she was abused by the nuns and forced to perform sexual acts on them using toys they were given for the holidays. Another remembers children being left in cribs crying “for what seemed like an eternity” because no one would come to see them.

A man said he was dyslexic and the nuns whipped his hands and eyes and accused him of faking his disability. He also spoke of sexual abuse that allegedly took place in the toilet at the hands of priests.

Other women remember having to wear specific clothes and have their hair cut to look the same.

“Honestly, when you hear what some of our tribal members went through, I don’t even know how they still stand,” said Dionne Crawford, representative of the Lake Traverse Council. “I don’t know how you could go through the things that some of our people went through and still breathe. It was so complete. The oppression on these individuals was so total.

Pohlen died in 1969. Over the years his ordinance has denied any knowledge of abuse, saying it was almost impossible to determine if the abuse allegations were accurate, as it was so long ago and children were so young.

The land where Tekakwitha was located has since become a park where the children of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate can play and events, like the one in January of this year, can honor the children who suffered in the boarding school and orphanage.

Tekakwitha was also an orphanage. It was reported that children there were adopted into families for prices of $ 10 or $ 15 and the names on their birth certificates would be changed.

William Fish’s father, Daniel, was one of those children.

“My grandparents had my dad in August 1948 and it was a really hot summer that summer,” said William Fish. “They were building a house, I was told, and they didn’t want a baby literally going from house to house while their house was being built. So they put him in the orphanage thinking they would come and get him in three or four months. And when they came back to get him, he was gone.

Her father went to a family in Watertown for $ 15 and the name on her birth certificate was changed.

When I think about it, I think, is it really how much the life of a child cost in 1948?

William Poisson

William says his father was lucky because the family he went to was well respected and kind to him. William himself is close to this family. However, his father passed away when William was only 11 years old, never knowing his Native American family and culture.

Honestly, I just wish he would have at least met them.

William Poisson

It wasn’t until the 1990s that William began to piece together his biological family history with the help of a BIA agent.

“You go from a night where you have six, seven, eight cousins ​​to three hundred. You know what I mean? It was crazy. It was like something you would see on the unsolved mysteries, ”he said.

Some of the nuns associated with the Tekakwitha Residential School and Orphanage were members of the Sisters of the Divine Savior of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They sent this statement to KELOLAND News by email:

The Sisters of the Divine Savior are and continue to be committed to the prevention of child abuse in all its forms. In 2010, we were shocked and very saddened to learn that former residents of Tekakwitha School claimed to have been sexually abused there. We know very little about what really happened at the school so many years ago, as some of the charges are nearly 80 years old and almost all of the sisters who served there between 1940 and 1973 have died. .

During the time our sisters served at school at the behest of the OMI Fathers, as well as at other schools and establishments in our history of service, these complaints of sexual abuse are the only reports of this type that we have received. We continue to ensure that all of our sisters in ministry receive training to improve understanding of their responsibility in protecting minors, preventing sexual abuse, and reporting requirements. We prayed for everyone involved in this case and for all victims and survivors of abuse. Beyond prayer, we re-established a missionary ministry in Sisseton a few years ago to provide service directly to this community.

– Jan Penlesky, communications director of the Sisters of the Divine Savior

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