ASHLAND — A Montana school system is digging deep into a dark period of history, when Native American children were forced to attend government and religious-operated boarding schools, and some children never returned home.
It's a first-of-its-kind investigation in Montana, as the school commissioning the investigation is examining its own history and the potential of unmarked/undocumented graves on its property.
"In this generation now, there is an effort by educators, by community members, by tribal members, to initiate these kinds of investigations," said Dr. Janine Pease, the chair of an independent commission looking into the boarding school history of the St. Labre Indian School.
St. Labre runs three private Catholic schools in Ashland, Pryor and St. Xavier, all dating back to the late 1800s and still operating today.
Following high-profile discoveries of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools in Canada, St. Labre decided to commission an independent study of its historical records and look for the possibility of undocumented deaths and unmarked graves on any of its properties.
“We’re anticipating some amazing, important, and significant findings," Pease said.
The commission is composed of five historians/educators: Pease, Dr. Matthew Redinger, Dr. Walter Fleming, Dr. Richard Littlebear, and Anda Pretty on Top. Redinger and Pretty on Top are both members of the St. Labre board of directors.
During a press conference announcing the investigation, Pease and Littlebear both shared their personal histories with boarding schools.
“Education was a very damaging experience for many of our tribes and we’re still recovering from that," said Littlebear, who attended a boarding school in Busby.
“Bringing closure to these things for families, for the tribes, is one of the goals I set for myself in joining this commission," Littlebear said.
Pease said the plan now is to thoroughly analyze archives, hold listening sessions with community members on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, analyze the material and assemble a report, and determine where any graves may be.
“If necessary, we may end up doing more of the research you may have heard in connection to other boarding schools, the ground penetrating radar," Pease said.
Due to the magnitude of the research effort, the commission identified and hired the Missoula-based Historical Research Associates (HRA) led by senior historian James Grant.
The commission says HRA is already reviewing government, church, privately held and other relevant records at the national, state and local level.
A critical part of the investigation is stories and oral histories from boarding school survivors and their descendants.
The commission will be holding listening sessions across the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations:
July 10, 9 a.m., Blessed Sacrament, Lame Deer
July 10, 1 p.m., Christ the King Catholic Church, Busby
July 10, 5:30 p.m., St. Labre Auditorium, Ashland
July 11, 9 a.m., St. Dennis Meeting Hall, Crow Agency
July 11, 1 p.m., Our Lady of Loretto Catholic Church, Lodge Grass
July 11, 5 p.m., Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy Cafeteria, St. Xavier
July 12, 10 a.m., St. Charles Mission School Cafeteria, Pryor
To respect anyone attending the listening sessions, the commission asks no photos, video or audio be taken. The sessions will be closed to the media.
The findings report is expected in 2024, and the commission hopes this deep dive into a dark place of U.S. and Montana history brings a new era of closure.
“I hope these processes bring closure to a lot of trauma," Littlebear said.
If you have questions about this project, listening sessions, or would like to participate, email Pease at email@example.com.