‘American Genocide’ podcast shares how Indigenous youth are helping to inspire a Native boarding school reckoning

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For a group of outspoken Indigenous youth leaders like Eleanor Ferguson and Phillip Iron Shell (Oglala Lakota), raising awareness about the documented abuse in former Native American boarding schools has become a mission — not only to help heal their communities but also to heal themselves.

International Indigenous Youth Council at Red Cloud (Photo courtesy of IIYC Oglala Lakota Chapter)
International Indigenous Youth Council at Red Cloud (Photo courtesy of IIYC Oglala Lakota Chapter)

American Genocide: The Crimes of Native American Boarding Schools is a podcast that launched today, April 26, from IllumiNative, a female-led social justice organization dedicated to empowering Native peoples. On that podcast, IllumiNative’s founder and executive director Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) and the director of communications and storytelling Lashay Wesley (Choctaw) talk to Ferguson and Iron Shell about one school in particular, Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota people.

Run by the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church, Red Cloud (formerly known as Holy Rosary Mission School) represented one of the more than 400 government- and church-run schools that fell under the federal Indian boarding school system of the late 19th/early 20th centuries and whose purpose was to “culturally assimilate” Native kids.

However, “assimilation” served as a euphemism for the “kill the Indian and save the man” mentality of that time period, which saw more than 100,000 Native children forcibly removed from their families to attend schools whose administrators punished them physically, emotionally and mentally for something as simple as speaking their Native language.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) launched a formal initiative in 2022 investigating the abuse and neglect experienced by Native children under the boarding school system.

“It is a heavy issue,” Wesley tells In The Know by Yahoo. “But when you have young people who are so self-aware of how that has impacted their families and they’re really reflective and doing their best to learn their language and understand those Lakota lifeways and live that every single day, that’s such a drastic contrast to what the school was trying to do. And that has been like the most inspiring thing to listen to.”

“Nationwide, people are pissed off. Like they want to f—ing take action immediately. And sorry’s not good enough,” Ferguson, a representative of the International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC) Oglala Chapter, tells Echo Hawk and Wesley.

“We’re straightforward with it. We’re not f—ing around,” echoes Iron Shell, another IIYC member. “We’re here to get shit done.”

‘Did this happen here?’

The inspiration for the American Genocide podcast stemmed from a variety of events, according to Wesley.

“We were seeing the conversations happening around what was happening in Canada,” she says about the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of a residential school in British Columbia. “And there were a lot of people that were talking to Crystal who were saying, ‘Did this happen here?’ They didn’t know that it had happened or occurred in the United States.”

Not only that, but Red Cloud itself came under intense scrutiny in recent years for possible unmarked graves. In an effort to acknowledge and potentially reconcile its dark history, the Jesuit-run school launched a Truth and Healing commission run by Maka Black Elk (Oglala Lakota), who has acknowledged the difficult questions that the church must answer.

“It’s a time for the Catholic Church also to face some very difficult questions about its role in colonization,” Black Elk, who’s also Catholic, tells Echo Hawk and Wesley.

He has since commissioned the search for graves, an effort to which the Jesuits have given $70,000; and the FBI as well as scholar Marsha Small (Northern Cheyenne) and her archaeology team have also joined the effort.

“We had no idea where this would end up when we first started — all we knew was that this story had to be told — and what we uncovered is far bigger than any of us could have imagined,” Echo Hawk says in a statement.

While Black Elk acknowledged the pain inflicted at the school, he has bristled at the approach from youth council members Ferguson and Iron Shell, who have staged protests at Red Cloud and issued a series of demands.

“I think they feel like they’re doing a good thing,” he says about their approach. “I don’t know if they know that it hurts others.”

‘Our people struggle’

In the process of their own investigation, Echo Hawk and Wesley talked to school administrators and elders as well as Ferguson and Iron Shell, who are in their early 20s. While there was a mix of experiences — with elder Bryan Brewer saying he had “some good positive memories, but I think those good memories are overshadowed by the negative things that happened to us” — the two young activists were rawer in their assessments.

“Our people struggle,” Ferguson says during a meeting that’s recorded on the podcast. “Our people struggle to stay afloat.”

She and Iron Shell originally pressed for the need to check for unmarked graves, but ultimately they’re looking to get the land back for the Oglala Lakota people.

“I’m glad we started doing this stuff with the boarding school,” Iron Shell says in the same meeting, touching on the generational trauma he’s faced. “All of us can trace things back to the boarding school ’cause it was just passed down to us.”

The collective power of Native peoples

For the activists, who don’t have the direct experience of attending the boarding schools as their relatives have, it was a moment in 2016 that showed them the impact of what raising their voices could do for a cause — in that case, it was the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline construction on the Standing Rock Reservation.

“Overwhelmingly, the thing that really drove their activism was what happened at Standing Rock,” Wesley says. “A majority of them had been at Standing Rock when they were very, very young teenagers. And to see that collective power of Native peoples when we come together was really important for them.”

Exploring that collective power, in addition to an overall awareness of what happened at these schools, is just the start of what Wesley and Echo Hawk hope to communicate through their podcast. But it also goes deeper than that.

“It’s also about the children who are growing up, dealing with this intergenerational trauma,” Wesley says. “And that’s the thing that I hope people take away the most, is that it is about the young people who carry on this history and wanting to have justice just as much for them as well.”

The first two episodes of the six-part series launched today, April 26, with subsequent episodes airing every Wednesday through May 24.

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