Education | National

Native Sun News: Loss of land and culture at boarding school

The following story was written and reported by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

The Rapid City Indian School (1889-1933) was one of the residential schools established to fulfill the US Governments compulsory education policy around the turn of the century.

Rapid City Indian School: Loss of land and culture
By Karin Eagle
Native Sun News Staff Writer


RAPID CITY — The Rapid City Indian School opened its doors to many of the Northern Plains Indian children in 1898 joining the more than 20 Indian boarding schools established to educate and assimilate the Indian children taken from their homes.

Children standing alone and afraid as their parents drove away in their wagons and not knowing if they would ever see them again; this is the image of the compulsory education model created and implemented in the late 1800’s as part of the Government’s Indian Policy. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas Jefferson Morgan (1889-93), believed in and promoted a universal compulsory education and assimilation for Indian children.

With the belief that this practice would help solve the “Indian Problem” Morgan began to encourage the establishment of reservation boarding schools, off and away from the reservations.

In the book “The Rapid City Indian School, 1898-1933,” Scott Riney strives to help bring understanding of the Indian boarding school experience. Many of the students brought to the schools were more likely to adapt to their removal from home than others; and some even used their experience to find a certain amount of success despite the trauma associated with boarding schools.

In more recent decades, as the generation of Indian Boarding School students began to speak up about their experiences in the aftermath of their removal, the public conscience has been alerted that those successes and failures came at a very high price.

Using various school records, correspondence, government documents, and oral histories, Riney's topical study presents an overview of how the Rapid City Indian School served the interests of the federal government as well as Indian people.

Riney defines an off-reservation boarding school as "the government's most powerful weapon against tribes and tribal cultures.” Isolated from their families and traditions, Indian children were supposed to learn the English language and Christianity as well as Anglo-American lifestyles and trade skills to prepare themselves for assimilation into American society.

In recruiting Indian children on the reservations of Wyoming, Montana, and western South Dakota, the Rapid City Indian School drew more students with the notion that an off-reservation school was more distinguished and capable.

According to Riney’s book, some chose to come to Rapid City because they wanted to be with their friends; others attended because it had employed their family members. For many of the students, the school’s proximity to their homes and families was a key element. There are many photographs in archived collections that show entire families who chose to leave the reservations and camp as close as allowed to the boarding school properties, in an attempt to remain present in the children’s lives.

For thirty-five years, between the years of 1898 and 1917, the Rapid City Indian School educated children in grades fourth through eighth grade. From 1917 to 1933 the grades ninth and tenth were included.

In an almost military precision, the student’s days were regulated by bells and steam whistles, calling them to attention between their academic learning and their vocational training.

The school, while being less strict in that most students were allowed to keep their own clothing and have more contact with their families, was still not sufficiently lenient enough to prevent student "deserters."

A student who ran away from the school for whatever reason incurred severe punishment. These punishments were more in keeping with the more stringently run schools like Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

Riney compares many of the punishments meted out to runaways as to those handed out by the U.S. Army. Once recaptured, the children reportedly had their heads shaved. Other accounts from former students describe how they were chained together and forced to march across the campus until they had covered the distance they had run away.

When they were not subjected to marching, they were confined in a school jail or forced into labor which ranged from splitting firewood while wearing a ball and chain to working the entire summer on campus when their friends had gone home for vacation.

While Riney points out that the superintendents of the Rapid City Indian School failed to understand why Indian children ran away from the school, he himself does not provide any specific reasons for their turmoil except that "it was an act of resistance." Most runaways would probably say it was an act of extreme loneliness.

The Rapid City Indian School, while technically an educational institution, took fair use of the students in the vocational training programs to assist in the daily operations of the school. This lent credence to the fact that many of the students were never urged to seek a higher education.

Superintendent Jesse F. House (1904-1922) observed that despite the proximity to other educational institutions such as the South Dakota School of Mines and the Rapid City Business College, the Indian students were not encouraged to pursue a higher education.

"Vocational instruction" was often little more than manual labor. Unable to afford clothes for their students the school instructed female students to sew boys' trousers for their male classmates and to make their own clothes.

Riney concludes that the Rapid City Indian School was more like an extension of the control exerted over Indians living on the reservations. Additional information about Scott Riney’s research and study of the Rapid City Indian School can be found in his book “The Rapid City Indian School, 1898-1933,” reference Scott Riney; The Rapid City Indian School, 1898-1933; University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-8061-3162-7.

With so many accounts of the trauma that resulted from Indian boarding schools across Indian Country, there are many stories that lead from the actual sites of the schools. Stories exist of success and prosperity; stories of torment and persecution.

The stories that resonant the most among the descendants of the children removed from the homes are the ones of sadness, confusion and an eventual loss of identity. Now, in the new age of technology and communication, there are new stories arising from the ashes of the now defunct Indian School.

The Rapid City Indian School now occupies the land where the Sioux San Indian Health Service (IHS) now serves, and a few of the historical markers still remain. However, the story of that school continues as long as the questions remain; what has happened to the land where the school sat, how did the City of Rapid City, the State of South Dakota, church groups and private individuals gain the rights to that land, and were the conditions of any transfers followed to the letter.

Native Sun News presents this first of a series of stories that will present the facts in hopes that the questions that haunt the grounds of The Rapid City Indian School are answered. It is a complex story of underhanded dealings that cost the Native Americans of South Dakota valuable property that might have been reverted to the tribes through the Department of the Interior.

(Editor’s Note: Karin Eagle will continue her exploration of the Rapid City Indian School and the loss of land in the next two issues)

(Contact Karin Eagle at

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