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Tim Giago: The great escape from the Indian mission school

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: boarding schools, oglala sioux, south dakota, tim giago

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Native Sun News

My friend Pete Cummings and I had never seen any movies about great escapes so we had no prior knowledge about how to approach such an event.

We were sitting side-by-side on the swings in the Little Boy’s Playgrounds when the idea occurred to us. I told Pete that I was going to run away from the Holy Rosary Indian Mission Boarding School and I asked him to join me. Our parent’s had moved to Rapid City from the Pine Ridge Reservation to find jobs so we both had families there.

We decided we would go North through Oglala and on to Highway 79 which led directly into Rapid City. We thought that Friday would be the best day to do it. We always took our weekly showers on Friday and we were issued new clothing for the week. Everybody was pretty busy on shower day so we thought it would be much easier to slip away. For the rest of the week we stored what food we could squirrel away and hid it in Pete’s locker in the Little Boy’s Gym.

Immediately after our showers and change of clothes we headed for the Little Boy’s Playgrounds, slipped under the fence at the far North corner of the playgrounds and crept along until we felt we were out of view from the Mission buildings. We then jumped up and took off heading north. After about an hour or so we spotted a lone horse rider in the distance. We found a clump of bushes and hid in them hoping the rider would pass by without spotting us.

The rider had the eyes of an Indian scout. His name was Brave Heart and he saw us long before we ever saw him. He rode up to the brush where we hid and said, “Come on out boys. We need to go back to the Mission.” We pleaded with him, but he assured us that everything would be alright and we would be safer at the Mission than out here with a winter storm coming on.

Mr. Brave Heart put us both on the back of his horse and that is how we rode on to the Mission grounds right up to the front door of Red Cloud Hall. The Jesuit priest and school principal, Father Edwards, stood in the doorway rubbing his ham-like hands together looking as if he was preparing for a feast. He was: he was planning on feasting on Pete and me.

Father Edwards herded us into his office in the Little Boy’s Gym. We stood there shaking in fear as he went through a drawer on his desk and extracted a black, leather belt. He taunted us. “Now what do you think I should do with you boys for running away?” Pete could barely speak but managed, “Give us enough demerits so we won’t be able to go to the movies the rest of the year.” Father Edwards smirked.

First he went for Pete and that wasn’t easy because he had to chase him around his desk for a couple of minutes before grabbing him by the collar. What followed next caused me to close my eyes and listen to the slap of the belt and the screams of Pete. He stood in the corner sobbing as Father Edwards beckoned me. I looked for a way to escape but there was none. Father Edwards pushed my head down on his desk and began to beat me with the belt. I didn’t want to scream out so I bit down on my lips and tongue until I tasted blood, but Father Edwards beat me all the harder for my silence. I finally gave in to the pain and cried out. The beating continued. And in what seemed like forever, the lashing finally stopped.

As the good father lectured us about running away we both stood there with tears running down our cheeks and still feeling the stinging pain of the belt. After we were finally told to leave I found it difficult to walk. I made my way to the infirmary and asked Sister Ivo to look at my back. She pulled down my trousers and gasped as she saw the red welts, now turning purple on my backside all the way to the upper legs. She said, “Who did this to you?” I told her Father Edwards did it and she bit down on her lip and never said another word, but I swear even to this day that I saw tears in her eyes.

My physical wounds healed after a bit, but the psychological wounds of that beating never healed. From that day forward I stayed as far away from Father Edwards as I possibly could in the close confines of the Indian boarding school.

Years later, when I was editor of the Lakota Times, I had to go to the Indian Health Service Hospital in Pine Ridge, the place where I was born, for a small operation that required I be sedated. When I woke up in the recovery room I heard a voice praying over me. I opened my eyes and in shock and disbelief the face of Father Edwards loomed over me. At first I thought I was having a nightmare, but soon discovered it was real.

Father Edwards is dead now and his claim to fame, if one can call it that, was in an introduction he made at a meeting of the South Dakota Indian Businessmen’s Association in 1975. He said, “I’ve whipped more Indian asses than any white man in history.”

He could have added that he terrorized and belittled more Indian boys also.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and editor of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today. He can be reached at

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