Charles Trimble: Taking responsibility for upkeep of our cemeteries

Charles “Chuck” Trimble. Courtesy photo

Who is Responsible for Upkeep of Graves?
By Charles "Chuck" Trimble

I read on an article written by the “Editorial Board” of Native Sun News in which the entire board (which curiously writes exactly like their boss, Tim Giago) expresses horror that Holy Rosary Mission (Red Cloud Indian School) has allowed its cemetery to become so unkempt and overgrown.

First of all, I know that the Mission does not and never has promised families or individuals who bury their loved ones in that cemetery that it will see to the upkeep of the graves. I know this because my mother is buried there as are several relatives. By the way, it is not the “school cemetery” but the parish cemetery. It is not like the cemeteries at Carlisle or Hampton or any other federal Indian institution or asylum, where the cemeteries were for the children or inmates who died at the institution. Those were on government land and were the responsibility of the government.

As in cemeteries throughout the country, except for national military or other government cemeteries the upkeep of the graves is paid for by the families who purchase the burial plot, or the families tend to the upkeep themselves. As anyone who has buried a loved one in a public or private cemetery knows, there is a large up-front payment for the plot and for future upkeep of graves. No one pays those costs at the Mission or in church cemeteries throughout the Pine Ridge reservation. Further, at the Mission cemetery and others throughout the reservation, people are not required to purchase burial plots, but they do take the responsibility for upkeep of the graves.

At Red Cloud Indian School and at the parishes throughout the reservation, the families have always taken care of the graves. I remember at my hometown of Wanblee, people would get together to take care of the graves and to decorate them on Memorial Day – Decoration Day as we called it back then. In high school at Holy Rosary I was assigned to work in the carpentry shop and I remember making crosses and painting them for graves up on the hill.

My schoolmate Gary Adams and I were good at lettering so we painted the names and dates on the crosses. The families would come down to pick up the crosses and pay us boys whatever they could afford, although some did not pay us at all; but it was the families or loved ones who made sure the cross was made, because they understood that it was their loving responsibility to do so.

As with many others who have moved away permanently from the reservation and are no longer able to maintain the graves, they do get forgotten, and the crosses do rot and disappear. And whole community parishes disappear as well, and the churches and cemeteries are often abandoned.

Giago writes “We believe it is a crime against the Lakota people buried there that no care has been taken to replace the rotted or lost crosses.” Is it a crime on the part of the Mission or the survivors of those buried there? The plots were essentially given to the families to bury their dead loved ones. And no one forced the families to bury their loved ones there.

Several years ago I wrote a column on teaching tribal youth a work ethic, and suggested a tribal restoration corps of youth who could, among other things, help restore cemeteries throughout the reservation. They could work in collaboration with the state historical society to utilize ground penetrating radar to locate and mark graves on a plot map, and research church and family records to identify the persons buried there. This would not disturb the graves or offend the spirits. Perhaps Mr. Giago can use one of his several non-profit corporations to help raise the funds to do this.

However, this may not be a priority issue with the Oglala oyate, who may not feel it is a national embarrassment, as the NSN Editorial Board infers. I think it is more a case of the NSN’s boss Tim Giago digging deep (no pun intended) to find an issue with which to whip Red Cloud Indian School, as he has been doing for so long.

Finally, if he is willing to raise nearly four million dollars to reward a Washichu scoundrel for holding hostage the sacred grounds at Wounded Knee, he can certainly raise enough to replace wooden crosses all across the reservation.

Charles E. Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was the principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He can be reached at

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