Indianz.Com > News > Tim Giago: Racist law harms survivors of Indian boarding schools
The Holy Rosary Mission church on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Raymond Bucko, SJ
Notes from Indian Country
When is an honor not an honor?

South Dakota legislators appear to be in conflict with themselves. They are introducing a Concurrent Resolution to acknowledge and honor the Native American children who were survivors of the boarding schools in this state.

Here is that resolution [House Concurrent Resolution 6014]:

WHEREAS, beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Native American children were often involuntarily sent to boarding schools far away from their families and communities; and

WHEREAS, these vulnerable children observed and suffered physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse; were forced to deny or abandon their cultural heritage and relinquish their spirituality; and were often punished by being physically restrained, beaten, and isolated in inhospitable surroundings; and

WHEREAS, these children, their children, and now their grandchildren and great grandchildren, bear the devastating legacy of the boarding school era and of the assimilation policies that established and sustained the boarding schools; and

WHEREAS, this historical, intergenerational, and often unrecognized trauma continues to undermine and negatively impact Native American individuals, families, and communities;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the House of Representatives of the Ninety-Sixth Legislature of the State of South Dakota, the Senate concurring therein, that this Legislature hears the voice of each Native American who survived the brutality of the boarding schools and acknowledges the atrocities that occurred; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that this Legislature solemnly recognizes the individual and collective suffering that so many endured as a result of policies to place and keep Native American children in the boarding schools; honors the survivors, their families, and their communities; and celebrates the courage, strength, and resiliency of the survivors.


And yet the Legislature in 2010 passed a law that does not allow childhood sexual abuse survivors over age 40 to sue Churches or organizations. Marci Hamilton, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania who runs an organization advocating for removing the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse, told lawmakers that South Dakota is the only state since 2002 to put restrictions on the statute of limitations. The bill to undo that was once again defeated by lawmakers who did not want to open churches and organizations up to lawsuits for past abuse.

The only way the South Dakota legislators can “honor” the survivors of boarding schools is to rescind this racist and ridiculous law that blocks former boarding school children who were abused from suing the schools that allowed that abuse.

Most boarding school survivors of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse at the boarding schools learned to live with it and survive on their own and it was only after many of us reached a certain age and began to recall and reflect upon that abuse that we even considered suing the schools where it all happened. It was a lawyer representing one of those notorious boarding schools, St. Joseph’s at Chamberlain, who introduced the bill that now prevents those former students from suing schools like St. Joseph’s.

Tim Giago. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

The children of Canadian boarding schools sued the government of Canada and the Churches and won several billion dollars for their abuse and suffering. Now that opportunity no longer exists in South Dakota.

I am a survivor of the Holy Rosary Indian Mission Boarding School. I do not want to be honored. I want the South Dakota legislators to rescind the law that prevents me and other survivors the right to sue the schools that allowed and perpetrated that abuse.

It was only after I wrote an article lauding the former boarding school students of Canada for the success of their lawsuit and encouraging South Dakota boarding school survivors to do likewise that the South Dakota legislators rushed the law through that would prevent this from happening. Who did they think they were protecting?

The Catholic Church and the other religious organizations who ran these boarding schools for many years deserve to be punished, not protected. Hundreds of Indians children left these schools confused as to who they were, stripped of their Native language, traditions and culture by Church groups hoping to make them over in their own image.

The horrible experiences many of these former boarding school students went through trying to find their own identity was costly in lives literally and figuratively. I witnessed many terrible things from imprisonment to murder among some of my former boarding school classmates.

It wasn’t pretty then and it isn’t pretty now so please forgive me if I do not jump for joy at the prospects of being honored for surviving. The law that prevents former boarding school students from suing because of a statute of limitation must go. There are no limitations on the suffering these boarding school students endured.

I want our legislators to rescind the law that prevents me and thousands of other former boarding school students from suing the schools where the abuse took place. We would rather have that freedom than to be falsely honored.

Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota) is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association and of Indian Country Today. Contact him at