Rosebud Reservation, S.D. The day the Rev. Kenneth Walleman came to the front door, Lloyd "Sonny" One Star went to get his gun.
"I couldn't keep my composure. I kept shaking," said One Star, 46, a leader of the Sioux tribe on this reservation. "I was going to kill him."
Walleman was a former administrator at St. Francis Mission, the Jesuit boarding school One Star had attended through his youth -- a priest, One Star says now, who sexually abused him for years.
Walleman fled before he could state his business that day a few years ago, but he might yet face the wrath of Sonny One Star -- and that of other former students. After years of keeping their silence, hundreds of American Indians are giving accounts of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the priests and nuns who ran a dozen missionary boarding schools across South Dakota through most of the 20th century.
Allegations of priestly sexual abuse in parishes have rocked the Catholic Church in the past year. But what the former students say occurred at the reservation schools into the 1970s was more systemic: They say physical abuse was a routine part of school discipline; that sexual abuse was commonplace; and that both forms of abuse were committed against children in the round-the-clock, unsupervised care of school staff members.
Some former students have filed a $25 billion class action lawsuit in Washington against the federal government, which paid the church to house, feed and educate American Indian children. Since the lawsuit was filed in April, their attorneys said, the number of plaintiffs has expanded to include hundreds.
A series of lawsuits involving the same allegations of abuse is expected to be filed by mid-June against the clerics and dioceses responsible for the schools, according to Jeff Herman, the plaintiffs' Miami-based attorney. The schools reverted to American Indian control in the 1970s.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said it would not comment on ongoing litigation. Church officials said they were investigating One Star's allegations, which are included in both the filed and planned lawsuits, but would not comment further in view of the expected lawsuit. Walleman's superiors in the Society of Jesus said he was not available to comment.
"The people who ran these schools were trying to kill a culture," said Charles Haines, a biology professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. He has been researching the history of the boarding schools for years.
Children taken from homes
In the 1880s the federal government mounted a campaign to assimilate American Indians as they signed treaties promising peace. The government set up boarding schools on reservations nationwide, and American Indians asked the church to run others. One popular credo of the time was, "Kill the Indian, save the man."
In the 1920s and '30s, federal agents took Indian children from their parents' homes and placed them in the boarding schools. In later years, according to government documents, the government withheld rations from American Indian families unless they sent their children to the schools.
The government has acknowledged its campaign destroyed communities and cultures. Referring to the agency's effort to "destroy all things Indian," Kevin Gover, then assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, said in a speech in 2000: "Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually."
Haines said, "The Catholic schools were actually worse" than the federally run schools. By the 1950s and '60s, he estimates, using government figures, more than half the children on reservations in South Dakota were attending the boarding schools, a few hundred at each school at any given time.
"This was an all-pervasive environment -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said, adding, "These weren't really schools -- they were labor camps." Early in the 20th century, students worked at construction at schools, and as servants and farmhands for white families.
In Canada, former students at Indian boarding schools have made similar allegations of physical and sexual abuse; lawsuits against the government and churches that ran the schools have resulted in millions of dollars' worth of settlements and a $240 million government "healing fund."
Both the government and the churches have apologized for the abuse. But in the United States, it was not until the pedophile priest scandals emerged that former students came forward, telling their stories to class action advocate Gary Frischer.
Despite some gestures of reform, such as ending child labor in the mid-1950s, the abuse persisted into the '70s, former students said. In more than a dozen extended interviews at three reservations across South Dakota, former students gave similar accounts of maltreatment by their guardians at three boarding schools.
Physical, sexual abuse
Priests and nuns, the former students said, routinely whipped them with razor straps and beat them with paddles, sometimes until their shorts were bloody. At times, they said, older children were made to hit younger ones. For such infractions as wetting the bed or speaking in Lakota, their native language, children were locked in closets for hours, made to kneel on boards or forced to eat lye soap.
One former student has alleged a nun threw her down a three-story laundry chute for speaking Lakota, and several others said they witnessed a child hung by his feet from a bell tower as punishment for running away.
Predatory priests and nuns typically targeted children as young as 6 for sexual abuse, former students said. Full-blooded American Indians were often singled out, as were orphans who had no parents to check on them.
The abuse, the former students said, typically would cease when the children were old enough to fight their abusers.
Floyd Hand, a medicine man on the Pine Ridge reservation, said his nose was broken by a priest at the Holy Rosary school in the 1950s. "We were prisoners of that school," he said. "It was a prison camp."