North Dakota family grapples with generational pain inflicted by Native American boarding schools
A family's story on how churches and the United States government affected generations of Native Americans through nearly 150 years of the boarding school system.
Editor's note: This is the sixth story in an occasional series on Native American boarding schools and their impact on the region's tribes.
FORT TOTTEN, N.D. — One of Rose Wilkie’s earliest memories is the day she arrived at Fort Totten Indian School in 1955.
At the tender age of 7, the youngest of nine children was humiliated.
“We were just little girls, and we had to take all of our clothes off, walk naked down this hall into the showers. There, they deloused us. I don’t know what it was. It smelled like kerosene. We were just little girls and modest and tried to hide ourselves,” said Wilkie, now 70, a registered member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
“I didn’t look at anybody, being that I didn’t want anybody to look at me," she said. "We didn’t have bugs when we went there, but we sure did when we went home."
At the same reservation, extreme poverty sent Duane “Jimmy” Brunelle, now 78, to Fort Totten Indian School, as well. A relative of Wilkie's through marriage, boarding school was a mixture of sporting achievements, three square meals a day, ghosts and demons.
In an old fashioned ice room at Fort Totten, a place where some claim young girls were molested, Brunelle's name and others were carved into the wood. They remain there to this day.
Neither Wilkie nor Brunelle are angry about their years spent away from their families, but the generations before them rarely discussed their experiences.
The family’s younger generation may not have had their heads shaved like some documented cases in the more than 400 American Indian boarding schools across the nation. They may not have had to walk naked to the showers.
The last two generations of the Wilkie family also were not beaten for speaking their tribal languages, Michif, a mix of Cree, Chippewa and French, but that’s because they had been “colonized.” They never learned the words.
One thing the younger generation is certain of, however, is that boarding schools helped catapult them and other American Indians into drugs, alcohol and a growing line of broken families.
“It’s no wonder we have struggles in our Indian communities and Indian Country when we think about all of these kids going to boarding school,” said Rae Wilkie Villebrun, a relative of the Wilkie family who is the superintendent of Minnesota’s Nashwauk-Keewatin Public School District.
Villebrun did not attend boarding school, but she wrote her dissertation for her doctorate degree on the subject. The fact that not everyone who attended Native American boarding schools was beaten, raped or went hungry does not “negate the negative,” she said.
“It was kind of like a prison. Kids were cleaning, cooking, out on the farm, all of these jobs — they weren’t always learning academics,” Villebrun said. Through dozens of interviews she conducted, she noted that “Indian people are very good at finding the positive in the negative.”
Subjects boarding school administrators forced students to learn included sewing, farming, cleaning and other blue-collar jobs, which were attempts to “keep Indians in their place,” Villebrun said.
Her grandmother, now deceased, was tricked into going to boarding school, she said. Her grandmother left a recording of her experience and at 5 years old believed she was getting on a bus to buy candy with her brothers and sisters.
“I can imagine being a 5-year-old and having somebody come to your house and pick up your siblings. And when you’re 5, you don’t know. You just feel like you’re getting left out,” Villebrun said.
She didn’t see her parents for a year, Villebrun said, at one point pausing to push back tears while discussing the memory of the conversation.
“She was angry. She said she was mad that her mom and dad didn’t come to get her, didn’t come to see her. I think about what that might have been like for a 5-year-old,” she said.
Sending generations of Native American people to boarding schools helped exacerbate problems seen on reservations today, she said, including drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse and, for some, not knowing how to raise a family.
Freedom and trauma
Villebrun’s cousin, Tracey L. Wilkie, 54, was sent to Flandreau Indian Boarding School in South Dakota at 14 years old because she was becoming “boy crazy,” she said.
“Kill the Indian, save the man,” said Tracey Wilkie, echoing the nation’s sentiment toward the country’s Native American people in 1879. The phrase was first credited to Richard Henry Pratt , the military officer who founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
“I didn’t feel they were forcibly trying to kill the Indian and save the man, but by then we had already been colonized,” Tracey Wilkie said.
When she was young, her parents threatened boarding school as a type of “boogeyman,” conjuring images of sick children, physical and sexual abuse, she said.
“I’d hear elders speaking about their experiences at boarding school and the different types of abuse that happened there, so I was always afraid to go,” Tracey Wilkie said.
Her mother’s boarding school experience was full of beatings and bed-wettings, she said.
At first, the horror stories petrified her, but she soon discovered something she’d never felt before: freedom from supervision.
Marijuana was easily accessible. Alcohol was brought in by a staff member; she doesn’t remember the name. Girls could go into the boy’s dormitory, and some became pregnant. Less than two years after she left Flandreau, Tracey Wilkie also found herself pregnant.
“It was pretty common for us to be walking around smoking pot. I remember with the Southern Comfort thinking I would get in trouble because I couldn’t walk, and I even ran into two matrons who didn’t say anything,” she said.
“I cried for the first two weeks, but later I realized the freedom I had: I no longer had to watch five siblings,” she said.
Some classmates found the pressure to be too much and took drastic measures to end their time at the school.
“It was pretty common hearing stories of the girls in the rooms that died by suicide or who died after consuming too much alcohol. Ghost stories," Tracey Wilkie said. "I remember one of the rooms they showed me where the girl had hung herself in the closet.
“Boarding schools weren’t good for me, and they weren’t good for my family. I was unsupervised and not making good decisions for a 14-year-old,” she said.
Such newfound freedoms led to her rebelling in later years. She moved into low-income housing, paying $13 a month for rent in Shell Valley, a place named after her great-grandfather Chief Little Shell.
A different fear took physical form when she heard about a haunted place just outside the school’s boundary.
“I remember hearing stories about bodies being buried years ago in this field. I remember it was behind the canteen. I never even went close to it,” Tracey Wilkie said.
Trauma has been passed down from the generations before her, and she sees the pain she passed on to her own children today, one of whom was the last in her family to be sent to a boarding school.
She’s not sure how to fix it.
Denise Lajimodiere, author and researcher, and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said American Indian boarding schools are the nation’s “best kept secret.” She has spent more than 12 years interviewing survivors and researching historical records, a process she said is “tedious, painstaking.”
While walking the grounds at Fort Totten, Lajimodiere discussed accounts of what she has learned, about how her grandfather was bent over a barrel and whipped with a hose or how priests molested young girls in the ice room.
“We have quite a few stories to tell about this place,” she said. “Some have good stories to tell, too, but after hearing years of stories, now we need to find these unmarked graves.”
The Fort Totten Indian School was built as a military base in 1867 and became an Indian manual labor school in 1874.
In 1900, the school transferred to the Office of Indian Affairs and remained a boarding school until 1935. From 1935 to 1939, it was a tuberculosis sanatorium run by the federal government before it returned to being a boarding school.
Missionaries, like the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, ran some of the first schools and were supported financially by the federal government. Later, federal agents took control, but at places like Fort Totten, religion was never separated from curriculum, said Mildred Hill, historian for the state’s historical society.
Hill listens to stories of many Native American people who come to visit and believes she can hear the whispers of some who attended.
“In the dead of winter, I can hear little boys drumming or boys singing in Lakota all night long,” she said.
“This is where my father and grandfather were,” Lajimodiere said when she entered the boy’s dormitory. “Even though people say they may have had a good time here, what they fail to see is that it was forced assimilation."
A paddle inscribed with the words “The Killer” struck fear into many young hearts at Fort Totten Indian School. If a student talked in class up to five times a week, their punishment was three cracks by The Killer.
“I never cried. It made me angry. I think because I was mad and embarrassed," Rose Wilkie said. "The first time, I was barely in school a week and I got caught talking in church."
Her family forgot many Native American traditions. They believed in Catholicism. An education bent to keep Native American people stuck in manual labor kept the Wilkie family in poverty at home. And when Rose Wilkie’s father died, life only became more difficult.
"There were nine kids and my mom. We always had good food. And then after my dad died, I missed the beef roast and pork chops. We ate a lot of bologna," Rose Wilkie said.
When Brunelle was 6 years old, his parents dropped him off at Fort Totten Indian School.
“I was scared and lonely, but I forgot about my parents in about a week,” he said. He was a good student, straight As, a basketball star. He remembers many of his teachers' names.
“The reason I remember these names is because I pray every day for the teachers at Fort Totten. I still do to this day,” Brunelle said.
He slept on the top of an Army bunk and said he was frequently visited by spirits, some he believes were demons.
Once, he asked a priest about the visitations. The priest replied that demons only attack strong people, he said.
“I could feel something there,” Brunelle said.
Years after he graduated, he went back to Fort Totten to collect a small rock as a memento, but the memories of demons made him throw it back, he said.
He recalled seeing black, shimmering shadows, sometimes with devil tails swishing back and forth. At night, clanking noises kept him awake, and at the time he attributed the sounds to steam heat moving through the pipes.
“Later, I found out that there must have been so many souls there that died without last sacraments. There are so many lost souls there,” he said.
Rumors of a “jail for bad Indians” circulated among the students, he said. One night, his bed shook so badly he sought refuge in the nearby restroom and stayed there the entire night.
“Most of the time, being sent to boarding schools was because your parents couldn’t afford to keep you. If someone called you a 'no good stinking Indian,' you started to learn to hate,” Brunelle said.
When asked about what the United States could do to help repair the damage, he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Apologies? They can stick them where the sun don’t shine. It’s not fixing anything and it’s so limp and lame. Apologies don’t solve anything," he said. "In my mind, they could pray and do penance somehow. Alms."
About the 'Buried Wounds' series
In May 2021, an anthropologist discovered unmarked graves likely belonging to 200 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. This disturbing finding drew attention to the United States’ role in forcibly assimilating thousands of Indigenous children through its own boarding school policies.
From 1819 and through the 1960s, the U.S. government oversaw policies for more than 400 American Indian boarding schools across the nation, including at least 13 in North Dakota. Many of the children who attended schools in North Dakota and elsewhere were taken from their homes against their will, stripped of their culture and abused physically, sexually and psychologically.
Little research has been done on exactly how many schools existed in the U.S. and the extent to which the federal government knew about the conditions of each school. The U.S. Department of the Interior under Secretary Deb Haaland is investigating the history and legacy of federally run boarding schools.
The Forum has launched its own investigation into boarding schools in North Dakota and other parts of the country by interviewing survivors, reviewing public records and exploring the impact these schools still have on North Dakota's Indigenous population today.
The first installment in the series about the Sisseton and Wahpeton children who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School can be found here.
The second installment about the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara children who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School can be found here.
The third installment about Christian denominations reckoning with their role in Native American boarding schools can be found here.
The fourth installment about delays in repatriating the remains of two Sisseton and Wahpeton boys from the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School can be found here.
The fifth installment about American Indian tribes and the state partnering to search for unmarked graves of Native boarding school students can be found here .