“Those priests did do quite a bit of work to try and keep the culture alive - beautiful beadwork, dancing, things like that,” she said.
By the 1970s, civil rights movements and changing philosophies in education - particularly towards boarding schools - brought changes to St. Joseph’s. By 1981, the school transitioned the students to family-style residential homes, rather than dormitories.
It was also in the 1980s that the Lakota language was incorporated into prayer services at St. Joseph’s, and that the school’s religion department published documents exploring the links between Catholicism and Lakota religious beliefs.
St. Joseph’s today
“At this point in St. Joseph’s history, Lakota culture no longer involves taking a class or attending a Pow Wow,” Kathryn Cravens wrote in Educating for the Future, a book about St. Joseph’s Indian School.
“Native culture pervades every aspect of the school, from the look and feel of the campus, to the manner in which values and religion are reinforced. A sweat lodge has been built on the grounds of the school campus and is available for students who wish to participate in this Lakota ritual,” Cravens wrote.
There are also Lakota tribal flags hung in the school cafeteria. The Lakota Medicine Wheel, called the Circle of Courage at the school, emphasizes Lakota values of generosity, courage, wisdom, and respect, and are displayed in the family homes on campus. Lakota language is taught and encouraged daily in school, and extracurricular activities for students include cultural activities like traditional beading, drum group, archery or dancing. Students also go on regular field trips to culturally important sites both near and far.
The school also continues to embrace its Catholic identity, and to help students understand that they can be both Lakota and Catholic. The church on campus is called Our Lady of the Sioux, and the Virgin Mary is depicted in traditional Lakota regalia.
Our Lady of the Sioux chapel on St. Joseph's campus. Photo courtesy of St. Joseph's Indian School.
“I'm proud to work here to show our kids the ability to pray and be proud of who they are as a Lakota kid, and if they're Christian as well,” Tyrell said, though he added that he helps students learn how to pray no matter what their faith background is.
“My goal as a religion teacher for the past eight years was to have our kids know that they have some way to pray,” he said, so that they’re able to navigate the tough times in their lives once they leave the school.
“I really love the ability for our kids to find who they are as an individual and then tie that in with their culture and spirituality. And then that amplifies who they truly are and (they’re able) to use it for the rest of their lives.”
Woster, a member of the Rosebud tribe, said she is glad that the students have an opportunity to learn so much about their culture in a safe environment, which not all reservation towns may be able to provide.
“I think what a lot of our South Dakota residents and citizens would say is, ‘I grew up either on a reservation or a border town and didn't know anything about the people who first lived here,’” she said.
“We’re at a place in education where kids are getting to learn the correct history and who they are and they're able to be proud of what that is. As a mission, we're supporting and embracing the fact that this is...a living culture. I was not raised learning about my culture and who I was at school, so I'm super excited and proud of the fact that I get to do that here everyday,” Woster added.
Danielle Kucera, associate director of communications and outreach for the school, told CNA she is proud that St. Joseph’s provides a safe environment in which students can learn and be involved in extracurricular activities, and where their parents trust that they are safe. She said that even if students come from stable homes, reservation environments on the whole can be unstable, with high rates of drug and alcohol addiction, depression, violence and other issues.
“...it wasn't necessarily that (families) couldn't provide for their students or for their children, it was more so that they wanted them to be in a place that they could guarantee that they were in a safe environment and learning in a way that was impacting,” Kucera said. “We provide this safe place for our students, and our families know that they're a part of our family here.”
St. Joseph’s is able to provide all of its additional support for students - including counselors, speech and occupational therapists, and tutors - through private donations. The school receives a small amount of Title I funding from the government for children who need educational support, but everything else is donor-funded. The school also provides resources such as food assistance to struggling families and alumni who need it.
“Our resources are large because of our donor base, and so we're able to do a lot of things for our families,” Kucera said. “I’ve always said that if the families are doing good back home, that means our students probably are, too.”
Sharmel Olson, director of education at St Joseph’s, told CNA that she is most proud of the school’s educational legacy, as well as its ability to educate the whole person and prepare each student for life after high school.
“Certainly education for me is at the forefront, but at the same time we're able to do things that other schools honestly don’t get to focus on,” such as faith and culture, she said. Their numerous avenues of support also allow them to look out for all the needs of their students.
“If (a student is) struggling emotionally, we make sure we take care of that, and sometimes that has to be above school, that has to be taken care of so that you can learn. We have a strong team, and a philosophy here that the kids come first and whatever their needs are at that time is what we're going to take care of. And so I think that's very unique that a lot of schools don't necessarily have those capabilities to do that,” she said.
Teachers and staff who come to St. Joseph’s often end up staying for a long time, she added, because they feel a strong sense of mission in serving the Native American population.
“We're very mission-based, and I think most of (the staff) at our school...we're here for a reason,” she added. “We really feel that calling to be here.”