The story of our beginning—and how we have become the premiere Native American, Catholic and Jesuit institution in the country—is certainly a complex one. And yet it is also incredibly inspiring, for it involved young men and young women, Lakota and Jesuits, laypeople and countless others, who banded together in a single voice to show the world how important education, outreach and the arts are in all of our lives.
Over the course of the mid-1800s, several wars had broken out between the Lakota, eager to protect their homeland, and the United States government, who was intent on controlling all of the land within its borders. Several treaties, including the famous Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, were made and broken as a result of the conflict that was continuing to rise.
Chief Red Cloud rose up as a great leader of the Oglala, leading the most successful military campaign ever waged against the United States by an Indigenous group. The result was the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which established the western half of South Dakota plus territory in five adjoining present-day states as Lakota land. For a brief time, peace had hovered over the land. Sadly, that did not last. With Custer’s 1874 expedition into the Black Hills, the treaty was broken and war had risen again. It was not until 1878—just one decade prior to the founding of Holy Rosary Mission (now Red Cloud Indian School)—that Chief Red Cloud and his followers were given a “permanent home” on the reservation.
The Black Robes
With peace settling across the vast plains of Lakota land, Chief Red Cloud began working with a group of men known as the Sina Sapa, or the “Black Robes” (a reference to the black cassocks worn by the Jesuits). Renowned for their emphasis on education and the freedom that it could bring to the Indigenous people, Red Cloud sent a petition to Washington, D.C. to allows the Jesuits to come to the reservation and set up a school “so that our children may be as wise as the white man’s children.”
You see, Red Cloud saw that the way of life to which he was accustomed to was quickly ending, and that in order for his people to prosper, their children must be educated… that they must be empowered to walk in both the Lakota world and the “white man’s world.” The U.S. government granted Red Cloud’s request, despite the fact that the Reservation had officially been designated as Episcopal territory in 1879.
In 1888, a group of Jesuits and Franciscan Sisters came to the land designated by Chief Red Cloud for the new mission. And using primarily their own labor and that of the local people, began construction of the main Mission Building. All of the bricks for the building were made from local clay and lime on the grounds of what is today Red Cloud Indian School’s Pine Ridge campus. It was the only two-story building in the area.
Later that year, the first classes began and quickly grew to more than 100 students. Students at the school were divided into three classes: one for all younger students attending, another for older girls and lastly one for older boys. The older students spent half their day learning reading, writing and arithmetic and the other half performing domestic duties to keep the mission running. The young women often worked in the kitchen and laundry rooms, while the young men spent their time in the wood and metal shops, or farming the land.
Through disease and poverty, hope and light
The following decades brought many challenges to the new school, namely poverty and disease. But it also brought growth and hope: Students came to the school from as far away as Wyoming and New Mexico, and the land began to produce enough food to feed the growing number of students and staff. A Catholic-Indian conference was held each year, drawing a large number of clergy and religious as well as Native American laypeople. Records from the Franciscan Sisters note that Masses held at the beginning of each conference featured singing in both Latin and Lakota—a telling sign of the cooperation and partnership between the Lakota and the Jesuits.
Red Cloud High School first began classes in 1937. Its first student to graduate was Daniel Francis Crazy Thunder, in 1942. Ten students graduated from the school in 1943, with Orville Cuny as the salutatorian and Lyle Clifford as the valedictorian. Classes became integrated, the boarding parts of the school were closed and the farms associated with the school turned into football fields, fieldhouses, parking lots and more. As enrollment grew, a second kindergarten through eighth grade campus, Our Lady of Lourdes, was opened in Porcupine, about 30 minutes from the original Pine Ridge campus.
A new name
In 1969, Holy Rosary Mission was officially renamed Red Cloud Indian School, both as a token of respect for the man whose work had made it possible to found the school and as part of a program of re-identification meant to demonstrate to the world that Red Cloud was not meant to be an organization of cultural imperialism, but rather the product of a lasting bond between groups of two separate cultures who wanted to enhance the best parts of both worlds to serve the people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
To this day, Red Cloud Indian School looks toward a bright future for the children of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The schools, pastoral outreach programs and The Heritage Center work toward achieving Chief Red Cloud’s dream of a Lakota youth who are able to walk equally in both worlds… a Lakota people who are educated and able to do whatever they dream, on the reservation or off of it, and who will choose to live in a good way no matter where the path may lead.