10/01/2012 08:55 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Sister Ivo and the Mission Boarding School Epidemics

We didn't know where she came from because in the 1940s many of the nuns and priests at Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota came from a foreign country.

Her name, unfortunately for her, was Sister Ivo. Yeah, you guessed it: the Lakota boys immediately named her Sister Evil. But it was just a nickname because she was really a gentle and kind nun/nurse.

Sister Ivo ran the infirmary at the Mission and she reminded me of the little Gypsy in the original movie, The Werewolf with Lon Chaney. She even had an accent similar to the Gypsy lady who spoke in a spooky voice about the "sign of the pentagram."

Aside from taking care of the boys and girls when they became ill, Sister Ivo is best remembered by many of the former students for how she administered two medications we will always remember: Cod liver oil and Castor oil.

We didn't know at the time that these two ghastly medicines were intended to keep us regular. The cod liver oil most of us could handle without barfing, but the Castor oil was another story. The medicine was administered by Sister Ivo. She poured it from brown bottles into a table spoon and then stuck the table spoon with its nasty ingredients into our mouths. I saw more than one boy let loose after the table spoon was pulled from his mouth.

The two "oils" were given to us about once per week and it was always administered in the morning after breakfast. Since our morning meal usually consisted of yellow, cornmeal mush, describing the color of the floor of the dispensary, especially if the medicine happened to be Castor oil, was easy. As I said, it seemed that most of us could handle the cod liver oil, but the Castor oil was always a real challenge.

The Mission boarding school was subject to epidemics throughout the school year. The school was pretty isolated in that it was four miles from the nearest community, but illnesses like the measles, mumps and the dreadful itch were quite common.

When the epidemics hit Sister Ivo took charge. The infirmary was not that large so most of those struck down with measles or mumps were confined to the dormitory. For some odd reason some of us did not get the infections and we still had to get up at the crack of dawn, dress and go to morning mass. We actually envied those boys lucky enough to get sick and lucky enough to stay in bed while we marched to church in the freezing winter mornings.

Making matters worse for the "well boys" was the fact that we had to be servants to the bed-bound boys. We had to bring them their meals and standby while they ate and then dutifully haul their dirty dishes away.

When the "itch" epidemic struck it did not spare too many boys or girls. It was like a rash that appeared on the body and the name matched the disease. Sister Ivo had a potion she used. It was a yellow-looking salve that smelled like sulfur and in fact was sulfur. And so all of the boys treated with this yellow potion went around smelling like rotten eggs. Having to pull your pants and shorts down in front of Sister Ivo, a nun, while she rubbed this stinky lotion on your body was doubly embarrassing.

Living in such close proximity offered the boys a chance to see many illnesses. There was one boy with epilepsy and I know I was quite taken aback the first time I saw him go into a grand mal seizure. There were the usual broken bones among the active boys and we even witnessed a boy get bitten by a snake. Luckily for him it was only a bull snake and not a rattle snake.

One time we found a small, gray kitten. We hid it in the outhouse on the little boy's playground. A Jesuit priest named Father Edwards found the kitten. To him it was like contraband. He ordered all of us to line up in company ranks and held the kitten by its neck in front of us. He took the kitten by the tail and swung it in the air and bashed its head against a tree killing it instantly. We were shocked, frightened and hurt by this act of cruelty. What kind of lesson was that for adolescent children?

And so we grew up with the kindness of the nun we called Sister Evil and the sadistic presence of a Father Edwards and eventually we left the Mission boarding school trying to find ourselves. Many of us never did.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. His book, Children Left Behind, is available at and it is about his school days at the Indian Mission boarding school.. He can be reached at

© 2012 Unity South Dakota