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Native Sun News Today: Survivors of Indian school abuse lobby for changes in law

Sex abuse legislation pushed
9 little abused girls speak out
By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Today Correspondent
nativesunnews.today

PIERRE – A childhood sexual abuse advocacy group in South Dakota wants to change the laws which will help bring justice to survivors of boarding school-era abuses.

The abuse suffered at the hands of church-sponsored boarding schools during the mid-20th century continues to haunt families and has become a major component of intergenerational trauma. Lawsuits have come and gone with little success for the organizations (churches) responsible for the staff and overall well-being of the student population; ages ranged from 5-18 years in age.

One such group of young girls who claimed to have been abused at St. Paul’s Indian Mission School (now Marty Indian School) located in Marty, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in southeastern South Dakota.

The Charbonneau sisters were from North Dakota when they were sent nearly six-hundred miles to St. Paul’s Indian Mission to attend boarding school. Their parents had believed the American educational system would be the best thing for their nine daughters. Beginning in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, the parents had sent their children to the boarding school not knowing that they were being abused at the hands of church officials and boarding school staff.

Four of the sisters of 9 Little Girls attended the Native American Day Parade in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last month to bring awareness to the abuses and lack of justice for victims of boarding school staff and church personnel. From left: Francine Charbonneau Soli, Louise Charbonneau Aamot, Geraldine Charbonneau Dubourt and Barbara Charbonneau Dahlen. Photo: 9 Little Girls

None of the nine sisters had spoken of the traumatic experiences they had while attending the boarding school. The abuse has left emotional, mental and spiritual scars for five decades before the group had finally opened up about their abuse. This was after losing their parents. Explaining the abuses in graphic nature to one another began the path of healing and exposure for those responsible. Over the last few years, the nine sisters have dealt with the trauma in their own way.

In 2018, Michelle Echols (cousin to the nine sisters) had created the advocacy group 9 Little Girls with the sisters and one of their daughters, Jencie Dahlen. The group had been created to bring awareness and to pursue justice and healing.

Echols is the author of the bill to be brought before the South Dakota state legislators this year during the Ninety Fourth Session of the Legislative Assembly. She is familiar of the experiences of boarding school as her great-grandfathers had began attending boarding school in the early days.

“My grandparents and many of my Tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa from North Dakota, attended Marty/St. Paul’s Indian Mission School. I was born at Marty and attended school there as a young child. My father was the Director at the school during the transition of the school from the church’s hands to Tribal control,” said Nichols.

The 9 Little Girls are raising money on GoFundMe as part of a campaign to change South Dakota laws and protect survivors of child abuse.

The nine sisters are Echols cousins. She claims they have been fighting for their rights as child sexual abuse survivors for several decades. After leaving the reservation to attend college, Echols had gone on to attend law school. It was after law school that the sisters had asked her to join them in the fight for justice; not only for themselves but for others who have been abused in mission boarding schools.

“I learned everything I could on the topic,” said Echols. “At that point, the cases of Native American boarding school survivors had already been decided by the state Supreme Court. In 2015 or so, I drafted an Amendment to the laws in South Dakota and the sisters presented it each year to legislators.”

The law Echols wrote was SB196. This was the proposed amendment to the childhood sexual abuse statute. In 2018, Echols had traveled to Pierre for the first time to lobby for the bill and find support from legislators and other state leaders.

Although not successful in getting the bill passed in 2018, Echols feels that these efforts were “successful in bringing more awareness to the issue than ever before. We were also able to establish relationships with more legislators.”

“This year we have so much more support. The public’s understanding of the issue has changed. There has been a worldwide uprising of survivors. We have the support of brothers and sisters around the world and among all the states,” she said.

Echols says there are countless numbers of survivors in this state and around the country and many more who know survivors. She feels that everyone has been impacted by these abuses in some way. “And the church has now acknowledged past wrongdoing. That is such an important step towards healing and reconciliation for the survivors and, also, the Catholic Church itself,” she said.

This issue is not a dead issue when it comes to laws meant to protect survivors and administer justice to the abusers; whether it is criminal or civil. As the generations most affected by the physical, sexual, mental, emotional and spiritual abuses ages, the historical trauma continues to be a part of the family unit. Children and grandchildren continue to unknowingly carry the burden caused by the alleged abusers; as they try to understand the quiet moments of their elders.

“Legislators understand everyone’s need to move forward. The survivors need healing. They, and many others, have lost faith, not just in the Catholic Church, but in God, our Creator,” said Echols. “So, the church also needs healing. It is in moving forward together that reconciliation can occur. And overall faith may be able to be restored. There can be beauty from these ashes.”

The St. Paul’s Indian Mission School is now known as the Marty Indian School. It's located in Marty, South Dakota, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. Photo: Ammodramus

The 9 Little Girls, along with Dahlen and Echols, have recently approached several legislators for sponsorship of the bill in this year’s legislative session. They have also had several reach out to the group of advocates looking for more information.

“Tamara St. John from the House of Representatives will be taking it through the House with others for us. She is a fantastic leader, strong, as well as a bridge builder. She has great experience in working on cases with child sexual abuse survivors, particularly at the Tekawitha Indian Mission,” said Echols.

“We have not yet announced who is carrying it in the Senate quite yet," Echols said. "We will be making the announcement shortly.”

NATIVE SUN NEWS TODAY

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