Belly slides and Christmas gifts

Native American youth sledding down a hill.
Sledding in full force at St. Joseph’s Indian School.

The past few days our Lakota students have been out sledding in force, but today the sun came out and began melting our snowfall into the dry and thirsty ground. They’ll have to wait until the next storm before the hills again allow for good sledding. But that didn’t deter kids from having fun at recess.

Today’s winter coats are warm indeed, but the plastic outer material is slick enough to make sleds optional. I watched the children belly slide head first down the gentle slopes leading to the playground, laughing all the way! I’m sure the teachers don’t mind the students burning off a little excess energy before coming back to the classroom to focus on reading, writing and arithmetic.

I had to pick up a package a friend sent for Christmas, so I wandered over to Central Receiving, where all the boxes that come to St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus wind up. Glenda and Cathy have worked as a team for many years. This time of year gets a little hectic for them, but they seemed in good cheer as they opened and sorted piles of clothes, toiletries, toys and games, books and school supplies and knick-knacks  of all kinds.

Central Receiving at St. Joseph's Indian School.
Glenda and Cathy sorting piles of clothes, toiletries, toys and games, books and school supplies, and knick-knacks of all kinds.

Some of the boxes are from people who are taking part in our Holiday Wishes Christmas program. Those presents will be distributed after Christmas break when the students return in January. Items like hair conditioner, socks and basketballs are always in demand, and go onto the shelves so our houseparents have easy access to them. We have several requests for help with Christmas presents for needy children on nearby Indian reservations and are putting aside hats and gloves, stuffed animals, coloring books and crayons to brighten their holiday.

Glenda and Cathy have also put aside a lot of nice things for our Christmas store on Saturday. There, our children shop for presents to take home to their families. I saw a stack of five crock pots sent in by one generous donor who specified they go reservation families. Baby and toddler clothes are also very popular as kids think about younger brothers and sisters back home. We are blessed with many generous donations that we in turn can share so they are put to good use.

The value of giving back

Holiday breaks give me a good excuse to go to church on the nearby Indian Reservations. On Thanksgiving Day, I drove north to Fort Thompson, where a crowd of about 70 gathered to give thanks at mass. Afterwards Sr. Charles, who has worked in the parish and among the Dakota parishioners for over 30 years, cooked three turkeys so anyone in the community who might otherwise be alone, or have a hard time putting together a festive meal, could celebrate the holiday.

Friday was a very quiet day around campus and the office. I got a good start on a lot of the upcoming Christmas correspondence, and tied up loose ends from last week’s travels.

 I checked on the break home to see if they needed anything, but everything was going well. A few more high school students came back on Friday so they can take part in basketball practices, but otherwise things have been quiet. The small group went to St. James parish in downtown Chamberlain for their community Thanksgiving dinner, and stayed afterward to help clean up.

Our homes try to involved the students in service projects like that throughout the year, and teach them the value of giving back generously.

A school bus that will house a video educating visitors about the history of Indian Boarding Schools.
A school bus that will house a video educating visitors about the history of Indian Boarding Schools.

Today, I visited Split Rock Studios in St. Paul Minnesota. They are constructing the displays for our Historical Center. Many are nearing completion and hopefully installation will begin in January. I saw the construction of a school bus that will house a video educating visitors about the history of Indian Boarding Schools. A table made from one of our oldest cottonwood trees that was felled in the building project sat next to a replica tree whose leaves will be filled with alumni memories from their days at St. Joseph. Artifacts like old desks, wheel barrows and dance regalia will help tell the story as well.

What jumped out the most for me was to see photo cut outs of some of our Lakota students, and a few larger than life murals created from images I see around me each day. We hope to have a grand opening in late spring or early summer.

Guest Blogger: Delores

I am Delores, a Family Service Counselor (FSC) and have been at St. Joseph’s Indian School for 15 years.  I used to work with the middle school girls but, for the last 12 years, have worked with the youngest boys at our school.

Our FSC roles change during the summer.  During the school year, we serve as counselors and are the main contact person for the families.  Summer gives us a chance to be out of our offices with kids and families.  We make home visits to our current students and their families.  They are excited to see us as we become their second family while they are here during the school year.  We usually find the kids freshly showered with their cleanest clothes on, often waiting for us to drive up.

In July, their attention starts to turn to returning to St. Joseph’s. They are interested in what is going on here, who their houseparents and teachers will be, and if I have visited their friends yet.  We get to reconnect, talking about last year and looking forward to the new school year.

We also go to interview children who want to come to school here.  It is a time where we get to hear about the child’s life – the good things and the challenges.  They are usually very excited about becoming a student at St. Joseph’s.  Some are full of questions about what school is like and have a twinkle in their eyes as they imagine experiencing all the things they’ve heard about.  It’s always enjoyable for me to meet new kids and their families.  At times I am interviewing boys whose mothers used to be my students in middle school!  A reminder that we do become their family!

And off I go to plan my visits …  I wish you all the best of summer during this July!

Interaction and pride of community

The weekend began with the Feast of the Sacred Heart  – a day of celebration for my religious order, the Priests of the Sacred Heart. St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus was somewhat quieter because it is a holiday for most of our employees. But since the work of child care goes on, we still saw plenty of activity on campus.

Our recent eighth-grade graduates wrapped up their three-week transition program preparing them for their fall entrance into Chamberlain High School. I joined the group in the school assembly room where their parents or guardians gathered for a meal, and to learn more about the High School Program. With the help of students as readers Shana (HS Director) reviewed the expectations and privileges which are different for our older students.  Freshman year is a crucial year in working toward student retention and success. Students who struggle and get behind in 9th grade dramatically increase their odds of dropping out of school. Shana and her staff have developed a Three Way Covenant with our parent partners. We lay out the promises and support of our staff, and ask for students and their families to each do their part to keep these young people on track.

In the evening, the other SCJs working on the Indian reservations in Lower Brule and Fort Thompson stopped by the house for a time of socializing, then we went out for dinner together to continue the fellowship. Fr. Guntoro, an Indonesian SCJ preparing for missionary work in China, is visiting for a couple of weeks. He has also worked in the Philippines and India.

Town was literally buzzing Saturday with the sound of hydroplane boats racing on the Missouri River. From the banks in front of St. Joseph’s we could see the racing boats traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph. They kicked a spray of water high into the air, and the roar of the engines could be heard miles away. The river, also known as Lake Francis Case at Chamberlain, was filled with boaters enjoying the weather and the unique action, which has visited our city annually for the past three years.

I took Lauren, one of our summer interns for a tour of Crow Creek and Lower Brule Indian reservations, and was joined by two girls from our High School Program. Erica is a local from Fort Thompson, and was an excellent tour guide, pointing out many local things that even I didn’t know. She stood on the powwow grounds and described the pageantry, interaction and pride of community that takes place at powwows. Being a teenager, she was also honest in saying that it was a good place to check out the cute boys!

We drove out to the Crow Creek community, which is several miles off the already lonely highway. Lauren noticed that although there were houses, no stores and not even a gas station existed in the community. Some of the rural communities don’t have good access to the basics, and some families even lack reliable transportation.

She got an immediate idea of how problematic that can be.

In Lower Brule, we  stood in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark near a place called The Narrows, and looked out onto the majestic Missouri River. The tribe has reconstructed a Mandan earth lodge which gives visitors a sense of how some of the plains tribes who settled more permanently along the river lived.

Sunday was a sad day as we bid the final farewell to Al and Sue, two former St. Joseph’s houseparents who died together of carbon monoxide poisoning. They were on vacation on their houseboat and asleep when the boat engine apparently malfunctioned. The turnout for the memorial service was quite large and a good support to their children and grandchildren. Their kids took some consolation in that Al and Sue died peacefully, in their sleep, together and doing something that they love. At the same time it is intensely difficult to face the death of one parent, let alone both at the same time.

Several former students came back to town to say their farewells. Many alumni who live close by were there. Kami, Kayla and Gina made about a four-hour trip from the northern part of the state to be in attendance, which said a lot about the difference Al an Sue made for them. Houseparents at St. Joseph’s are very involved in the lives of the young people here, and alumni often call and keep in contact, asking for guidance and advice. The whole community grieves their loss.

Guest Blogger: Julie H

Hello!  Can you believe that summer is in full swing?  Things here at St. Joseph’s Indian School, although it is summer, continue to move along swiftly!

My name is Julie and I have been here at St. Joseph’s Indian School for over 10 years.  I currently work as a Family Service Counselor.  During the school year, I stay busy seeing students for individual counseling, group counseling, and enrichment activities.  But what does a counselor do in the summer when most of the kids are gone?  Well, that is a good question!

As a Family Service Counselor at St. Joseph’s Indian School, part of my duties in the summer include traveling to see the students and families with whom I work during the school year.  We visit with the students and families to make sure their summer is going well and to see if there is anything we can help with while the students are at home.  Most of the time, this is just a check in and a great time to visit with students and families.

So far this summer, I have been to Eagle Butte to visit with one of my students.  This week will take me to on two or three more trips and the rest of the summer is filling up with travel as well!  Though many of our students are from the nearby Indian reservations of Fort Thompson and Lower Brule, we also travel as far away as Pine Ridge and Nebraska to visit Native American students.

Another thing the Family Services Counselors do during the summer is work on student admissions. Of course, we need to fill the first grade class with new students and other grades may have openings as well.  Part of the admissions process includes going to the prospective student’s home to meet them and their family.  A short interview is conducted to gain some background information on the student, and this is a great time to start building a strong relationship with the student and their family.

Interspersed with all of the travel, the Family Service Counselors work on getting consent forms signed for the next school year, finish up paperwork and start preparing for the kids to return.  Summer is also a good time to attend workshops to keep us up to date on the current trends and best practices in counseling.

The best part of the summer is getting to go out and see our students and their families, as well as meeting new families.  Although most of the kids were ready for summer to get here, they sure seem happy to see us when we visit! 🙂  And many times the first question they ask is,

“When do I get to come back to St. Joe’s for school?”

I hope you all have a blessed and safe summer! – Julie H

Pilgrimage to Rome

In Our Lady of the Sioux Chapel, we have a prominent stained glass window of Kateri Tekakwitha from the Mohawk and Algonquin tribes who lived near Auriesville, New York. On October 21, Blessed Kateri will become the first member of a North American tribe to be canonized and made an official saint in the Catholic Church. Bishop Paul Swain of Sioux Falls gave this exciting news to two Native American Deacons with St. Joseph’s connections. Deacon Bud Jetty (Spirit Lake tribe) is a member of our Board of Directors. Deacon Steve McLaughlin (Standing Rock Sioux) works with the SCJs on the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Indian Reservations ministering to the pastoral needs of the people there. Bishop Swain told the two excited men the diocese would sponsor them on a pilgrimage to Rome being organized by the Rapid City Diocese and the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions so they can participate in this landmark ceremony.

I also heard that Fr. Tom Westhoven, SCJ, plans to be there as well. For many years, Fr. Tom was St. Joseph’s Director of Development. Now retired, but still very active, he has been asked to chaperone a pilgrimage for the same exciting event being organized on the East Coast. His group will leave October 19. For anyone who might be interested, information on that trip is available by emailing

Delightful days of Mission Awareness

We finished several delightful days of a Mission Awareness exchange with our SCJ sister schools and programs located in Mississippi. Twelve adults and eight students from the South spent time touring and learning about South Dakota and sharing part of their culture and heritage with our students and staff. The group began their tour in the Black Hills and Rapid City, and made the pilgrimages to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse on Saturday. Driving here on Sunday they came via Wall Drug and the Badlands. More than anything else, the group was tickled by seeing prairie dogs scampering around the Badlands.

Monday and Tuesday the Mississippi youngsters rotated around our classrooms to present information about their part of the country. One group presented on famous Mississippians, like Brett Favre and Oprah Winfrey. One section was on entrepreneurs, like the founder of FedEx, Fred Smith. In the 2nd grade classroom Kathryn remarked,

“Entrepreneurs is a big word for second graders. Those are people who have a great idea, and make it into something important. Can you think of any entrepreneurs?”

While most were puzzled, one student’s hand shot right up. “God” he wisely said.

A second group put together a musical presentation that taught our Native American students about Blues and Gospel music. One of their eighth grade students sang beautifully for us. Our students made percussion instruments out of corn, rice and beans and shook them in time with the beat. One group showed our students about the agricultural products the Mississippi River Delta is famous for, and yet another introduced our students to famous people involved in the Civil Rights movement.

We split our staff into two groups, so that each morning half of them could attend presentations about the pastoral ministry, educational programs, housing efforts and social services that go on in their part of the country. I saw many of our staff nodding heads and agreeing that working in economically disadvantaged areas, many of the issues are the same. Our staff was impressed and appreciative of their efforts, and we got many compliments about what we are trying to accomplish here in South Dakota.

Both days our guests prepared regional foods for our students and staff to feast on at lunch time. Yesterday’s menu included turkey with cornbread dressing, yams and turnip greens. Today we had pulled pork BBQ. Our kids love it all, except maybe the greens, but a certain yuck factor at anything new, especially in the line of vegetables, is typical of school aged children.

Monday afternoon the group toured the nearby Lower Brule and Crow Creek Indian Reservations. The trip included stops at a reconstructed Earth Lodge, typical of a Mandan village, St. Mary’s Church in Lower Brule, and a guided tour of the Sundance grounds. This afternoon our students had a chance to host and present. Our drum group played traditional songs, and our third graders were dance ambassadors. They demonstrated different powwow dance styles and  got all the guests on their feet to try hoop dancing.

Our archery students demonstrated the skills they’ve learned. Irene impressed us all by showing that she could hit the center of the target even while shooting lying on her back. (the next Katniss Everdeen?!) Our visitors were tickled to be asked to try their hand, and Rob, one of theeighth grade visitors, even got a bullseye! Our students sat with the guests and taught them how to make dreamcatchers. The end of the school day brought time to tour the homes and Akta Lakota Museum. We shared a meal of Buffalo Burgers, and parted with many joyfully shared memories.

Learning through life

I stopped by the computer lab to wish Gina, our Computer Teacher, a happy birthday. This is her first year, and she’s been monitoring the websites our students have access to. We’ve constantly worked at firewalls to block access to objectionable sites. On a positive note, she’s structuring our school web access so the students are directed to more academically enriching sites. Formerly when given time to surf, the students would mostly go to game sites. When some of their favorite sites didn’t work any more, they asked why!? Gina told them there are a lot more educational ways to spend time on the computer than only playing Mario Brothers. Begrudgingly, they kids are getting used to the “Gina rules” and hopefully using the computer time to enhance what they’re learning in the other classes.

After finishing up 2 ½ days of testing, the students with perfect attendance got to walk the mile to the downtown movie theater to see an afternoon matinee. The weather was perfect for the outing.

HR is busy with hiring boards, interviews and checking out references. Last week, we hired a new 8th grade teacher with a solid math background and a new houseparent, who will start next fall in the younger grade homes. Today I met another houseparent candidate from Michigan who is here for an interview.

Our tri-county area, which includes Chamberlain as well as the Lower Brule and Crow Creek Indian reservations, is planning to build a memorial to area veterans near the Interstate exit and overlooking the beautiful Missouri River. One of the organizers visited with me today to share more information and to ask for our help in promoting the project. Besides our many staff and students who have honorably served our country, there are actually quite a few priests and brothers who worked here over the years who were veterans before they chose to enter religious life.

Brother Steve Cyr SCJ  (died in 2003, the Cyr Home is named after) was a squad sergeant in the difficult battle of Monte Cassino in WWII. He said,

“I promised God that if He saw fit to let me survive that, when the war ended, I would become a religious and give my life in service.”

He worked at St. Joseph’s Indian School for 42 years, and admirably fulfilled that promise. We’re considering ways that we might honor and remember people like Brother Steve through this project.

I finished the evening by joining the Hogebach (high school girls) Home for supper. On the message board by the front door was a large “20” indicting the number of school days left at Chamberlain High School. Our three seniors in that home have even less. They’re getting very excited, but also having bad cases of “senioritis” and need regular reminders not to procrastinate and get caught up in missing assignments.

Many of these young women will be on campus for part of the summer, for driver’s ed or to help with our Rising Eagle Summer Camps. Some will continue jobs in town or try some new employment to gain work experience and save up a few bucks to help them realize future plans and goals. Just as summer is just around the corner, it won’t be long before the juniors in the home enter their final year of studies here.

Making each Lakota (Sioux) child feel valued and special

St. Joseph's Indian School's 2012 chili cook-off winners!
Congratulations to this year's chili cook-off winners!

Cold weather has returned to our area and St. Joseph’s Indian School’s Human Resources organized our annual Chili Cook Off today. About 15 staff members made their best chili or soup and judges decided who gets bragging rights for the next year. It’s a fun, cold weather activity.  By the time I arrived in the skate room, the three award-winning crock-pots were empty. But there were plenty of other samples to treat for the taste buds. Our dining room prepared its own hearty chili, and Wisconsin Cheddar soup to make sure no one went away hungry. The crowd of staff who gathered lingered long to talk, eat and raise each others’ spirit.

In the evening, I was invited to the Afra Home (1st – 3rd grade girls). Ironically, what was on the menu? Chili dogs! But that was also balanced by fruits and vegetables. After supper, I listened to the children read for a while. A houseparent with 12 students to supervise may not have the ability to sit down with one or two students like that and the girls relished the individual attention. While we deal with a number of children, it’s our goal to make each feel valued and special.

Lakota (Sioux) students represent

Six high school students made up our St. Joseph’s Indian School’s Knowledge Bowl team, and traveled to Rapid City, South Dakota for the Lakota Nation Invitational Tournament (LNI). The competition was double elimination, and our team won three games before losing our second in overtime. All but one game was decided by 3 points or less – those back and forth games kept me tense and on the edge of my seat the whole time. I wanted so badly answer some of the questions myself. What young people often lack is the breadth of knowledge and countries, cultures and history that come from reading, travel and a few more years of life experience. In one game, I was pleased that Erin earned our winning points by completing one of my favorite phrases, “It’s better to light a candle that curse the DARKNESS”. Our Lakota (Sioux) students represented the school and themselves well.

Besides two seasoned seniors, we had a junior, two sophomores and a freshman on the team. The newcomers intend to study harder, hungry to return next year.

The LNI is a combination basketball tournament, knowledge bowl, art show, wrestling tournament, Lakota language competition and much more. It’s like a huge family reunion for so many of the tribal people in the great state of South Dakota. I ran into folks from all three of the Indian reservations I’ve worked on and several former St. Joseph’s students. The Rapid City Civic Center was filled to capacity with so many people and activities.

Several students entered pieces in the juried art show. In the category of “Traditional Native Arts”, Merrill, one of our 8th graders, took home first place. Merrill painted and decorated a deer skull, which also included a handmade dreamcatcher. He earned a coveted ceramic plate trophy from Sioux Pottery. Congratulations Merrill!