The Holy Rosary Mission church on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Raymond Bucko, SJ

Tim Giago: Boarding school survivors deserve long overdue compensation

Notes from Indian Country
Compensation for boarding school victims long overdue

The sex abuse scandals perpetrated by Catholic priests became big news when the victims were white children. This same abuse happened on Indian reservations throughout Western America for more than 100 years and there was not a peep out of the national media, the Catholic Church or the government.

Thousands of Native American children were abused sexually, psychologically, and culturally by the Catholic Church and by the other religious denominations sent out west to “civilize” and acculturate the Native American children.

The abuse left cultural scars on the children that they carried with them for a lifetime. Many of the children left the Catholic boarding schools not knowing who they were and how they were going to live a life after their identity had been stripped away. Their culture had been denigrated and their spirituality branded as paganism. They were taught this nearly every day of their school year. The damage done by the religious organizations created a historic trauma that still haunts Indian Country. I don’t speak from hearsay or as a third-person observer, but instead I speak as an abused boarding school survivor. I was there; I saw it, I felt it, and I recovered from it.

Every Indian culture in the Western Hemisphere was free of child and spousal abuse before the advent of the white man. These were byproducts of acculturation. When the Bureau of Indian Affairs stepped into the picture their contribution was to divide and rule. They introduced tactics like using food, land and the knowledge of existing rivalries to further divide the people.

When Native American adults who had been sexually molested at the Catholic Indian missions and boarding schools decided to file suit, South Dakota passed a law, HB1104 that reads:
“Any civil action based on intentional conduct brought by any person for recovery of damages for injury suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse shall be commenced within three
years of the act alleged to have caused the injury or condition, or three years of the time the victim discovered or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or condition was caused by the act, whichever period expires later. However, no person who has reached the age of forty years may recover damages from any person or entity other than the person who perpetrated the actual act of sexual abuse.”

This law effectively negated any child who had been abused at the boarding schools from ever filing a lawsuit simply because this statute of limitations prevented it.

Why not take the lawsuits to federal court? Yes, why not? Or better yet, why should those Native Americans that were impacted by sexual abuse at the Catholic mission schools have to sue at all. Why can’t the Catholic Church, out of compassion, guilt and sorrow, just compensate those Native Americans that have been abused while under their control? Here’s what happened in Canada when the Native Indians sued the Churches.

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

The 9 Little Girls abuse survivor advocacy group wants justice and healing for the many who suffered during the boarding school era.

The government of Canada agreed to share with the Anglican Church of Canada the cost of settling over 12,000 claims filed by Native Indians about systematic physical and mental abuse at boarding schools funded by the government and run by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches. 

Under the agreement, the Anglican Church would have its liability capped at $16 million (U.S.) so it is not forced into bankruptcy. 
The government will pay 70 percent of the claims up to the point the liability costs reach $16 million, and 100 percent if the liability costs total more than $16 million.

Of the claims filed so far, the Roman Catholic Church, which ran most of the schools, was named in 73 percent of the claims, the Anglican Church in 18 percent, the United Church in 8 percent and the Presbyterian Church in about 1 percent.

The abuses that took place in the Church boarding schools in South Dakota happened primarily in the 1940s and 1950s. There are still Native Americans living today that were victims of that abuse. And many of the children of these victims also share in this historic trauma. There was St. Francis, St. Joseph’s, St. Stephan’s, Marty Mission and Holy Rosary Mission to name a few of the religious boarding schools in South Dakota.

The United States government has to own up to the fact that these hundreds of instances of the abuse of Indian children also happened on their watch. There has never been an apology from any of the Church organizations or from the federal government.

The Canadian government considered itself as responsible for the child abuse as the different Church groups in Canada. They owned up to it and they, along with the Churches, compensated the Indian victims. In fact, it was the Canadian government that pushed the Churches to act.

When many of those Democrats now running for the office of President of the United States talk about reparations for the descendants of black slaves they should also learn about and examine the terrible tragedies that befell innocent Indian children. If anyone deserves reparations it is the Native Americans. The United States should pay for its sins against African Americans and Native Americans.

U. S. Aid to the country of Israel in the year 2015 was $138 billion. That was just for that one year and the U. S. gives that much or more to Israel every year.

Sure the Jews of Israel suffered, but so too did the Native Americans. The holocaust that happened to the Jews happened many times over during the holocaust that nearly eradicated the indigenous people of North America.

The President of the United States, also a face carved on Mt. Rushmore, Teddy Roosevelt, said in 1889, “The settler and the pioneer have justice on their side: This great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages.” 

It was this frontier mentality that forced Native children into boarding schools and paved the path that led to their abuse for more than three generations. Whether by lawsuit or governmental guilt, compensation is long past due.

Contact Tim Giago at

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