Looking at America's dirty little secret

05/25/2011 02:45 pm ET
  • Tim Giago Founder, Native American Journalists Association

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2009 Native Sun News

November 23, 2009

There seems to be a consensus among several tribal elders that there is trauma impacting Native Americans as the residue of the boarding school era. They believe that anyone speaking publicly about the sexual abuse of Indian children at Indian mission and Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools better have thick skins because they will be publicly chastised for expressing those views.

Several tribal members from Montana decided that it is not too late to do something about it. They formed a committee and set about planning a conference in which they would bring Native American speakers, psychologists, health care providers, teachers, leaders of women's organizations, and survivors of sexual trauma together.

Elrae Potts said, "We had a meeting to discuss the terrible things Kevin Peniska, who was just sentenced to 110 years in prison, did while pretending to be an advocate for Indian children. This is the worst kind of hypocrite and what further damage did he do?" To the committee, Peniska's actions angered and disgusted them, but it also opened the door to bring the dirty little secrets of the Indian boarding schools out of the closet.

She continued, "J. R. Redwater, Don "Mack" McCloud, Dan Carpita and me felt that something had be done now, because the time to do something is now. We had only a short time to plan and we had to find a forum and all of a sudden the opening was found in Rapid City, South Dakota at the Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn, the hotel right next to the Civic Center where the Lakota Nation Invitational Basketball Tournament takes place every December."

She said that all of the members on her committee had been speaking out about the historic abuse of Indian children and had traced the roots of it to the impact the boarding schools had on their grandparents or their parents. Members of the committee had been criticized by other Native Americans for speaking out about the abuse.

Potts holds a Master's Degree in Social Work and works for Youth Homes, Inc., and she remembers the spark that set her off on this issue. "There was a play at the University of Montana called, 'Strength of Indian Women,' and when I saw that it really woke me up." The play was produced by a woman from Canada named Vera Emanuel. Emanuel had witnessed the trials in Canada where the Anglican Church and other churches, including the Catholic Church, were sued by the indigenous people who had experienced traumatic sexual abuse at the hands of residential school teachers, priests and school officials. They sued and won $1.4 billion.

During a conference call with Redwater, McCloud, and Carpita, the committee decided that the actions of Peniska and other deviants needed to be publicly renounced. They contacted Jennifer Jensen and the Rushmore Holiday Inn, and with her help it took less than three months to plan and schedule the conference they called HOPE, Healing for Our People Everywhere. The subtext on their poster was, "Seeking the Courage to Heal."

I will give the welcome address and Cecilia Fire Thunder, first woman to ever serve as the President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Bea Shawanda were named as two of the keynote speakers.

Potts and the committee did not want the conference to be one that was totally somber and depressing so they are bringing several Native American humorists and standup comedians to liven up the proceedings. For those in the know, Nakoa Heavy Runner, JR Redwater, Chance Rush, Mylo Redwater and Bunky Echo Hawk will bring their special sense of humor to show the participants that a serious discussion and conference can be held and there is still a place for laughter.

There are far too many Native Americans and clergy in denial over the traumatic impact the boarding schools caused that damaged generations of Indian children throughout their lives. Potts and her committee feel that the time is ripe to take these issues out of the dark and put them in the sunlight.

Potts was particularly amazed and happy that all of the presenters and entertainers decided they would not accept one thin dime for participating in the conference and many of them have to travel a couple thousand miles to be at the conference. "And they are all doing it out of the kindness of their hearts," Potts said.

I believe it is long past the time for major media outlets to learn about one of America's dirtiest little secrets. The conference should be an educational eye opener for them. CNN, MSNBC, FOX and even the local media should put away their preconceptions and attend.

The conference will be held at the Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn in Rapid City from December 18 to 20 and if you wish to attend call or email Elrae Potts at: or call her at 1-406-880-2303. She said everybody is welcome especially those who believe this dark issue is overlooked on their reservation or community.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at