You’re viewing a free article. Subscribe for more.

Nine Little Girls 

Some years ago, deep into a confounding research assignment for which I had been combing through the website of the South Dakota legislature, I stumbled upon the recorded testimony of a woman describing in detail her own rape and torture, and the tortures of her sisters by the same hands. In her account the acts, which allegedly took place in the 1960s and 1970s, continued for several years and had begun when they were all children some fifty years earlier. The discovery of that testimony was a thing that happened to me, an event in my life, in the way realizing for the first time that my parents will grow old and die was an event in my life. The sound of her voice, the stories she told, gripped me, and attached me to a group of people I had never met, to a story that, before that evening, had nothing at all to do with me and my world. 

We are surrounded, of course, by reports of atrocities of various kinds, and the mass of them often has the unfortunate effect of inuring us to many hells. But on that day I encountered a human voice and, despite our cultural preoccupation with trauma, which should have readied me to understand what I heard, I did not know how to think about what the woman’s voice was saying. In a confrontation not with data points, but with a personal account of extreme cruelty, I was without adequate resources. I recognized the problem of my human unpreparedness. 

The horrors needed to be studied and reflected upon over time. There were implications that I needed to work out, and understandings that I needed to develop. Framings that had seemed sturdy and fundamental now felt flimsy. I experienced the testimony of those abused women as new knowledge, which ruptured trusted conceptions of justice and duty. It was not obvious to me that justice was possible here, or that this evil could be punished. My strongest sensation was of having been inducted into a darker acquaintance with the world.

The story stayed with me. What follows is not an attempt at investigative journalism or historical scholarship. I wish only to share what I discovered, in order to give an account of how I tried to find a mental and social context for certain acts, and to offer some reflections about how to think about them. Much of the grisly information relayed here is in the public domain. It turns out that there is a lot that we do not know, and do not comprehend, about the public domain. 

Geraldine Charbonneau believes that the scars from her abortion must have been there since just before her seventeenth birthday, though for most of the intervening decades she couldn’t remember the procedure that left them, or the rape that she says necessitated it. Like all eight of her sisters (Louise, Francine, Mary, Barbara, Joann, and three others who wish to remain anonymous), and like most victims of childhood sexual assault, she claims that she repressed memories of the abuse that she sustained while a child and a teenager. Louise, Geraldine’s older sister, alleges that she was in third grade when she became the first of her family to be abused by the priests and nuns at St. Paul’s Mission School (now called Marty Indian School), a Catholic school in Marty, South Dakota. The nine sisters were born and raised in Olga, North Dakota into a tribe of the Anishinaabe people known by the federal government as the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, to a strong-willed matriarch, the mother of seventeen children. They were among those Native toddlers whose parents had willingly sent them to Native boarding school in order to secure an education that could supply the skills necessary to thrive in this country. Others across the country were ordered from their homes by government officials, still others were allegedly forcibly taken from their families. 

Both Charbonneau parents died without ever hearing their daughters’ stories. Like other children at similar boarding schools across the country, the nine sisters say they were warned not to tell anyone about the abuse they alleged took place there. When the nuns at St. Paul’s discovered that Geraldine was pregnant, they warned her that if she revealed her condition to her parents, all three of them would burn in eternal hell. In a clandestine operation in the school’s infirmary, Geraldine recalls, her fetus was aborted and forced into the incinerator in the basement. “They always kept a fire burning in the incinerator room,” she said. “ I know now that’s where they put the unborn child. They burned it.” 

Since the inception of the Native American boarding school movement, the goal of these institutions has been the deracination of young Native Americans and their assimilation into American life. The schools were considered a potential solution for the “Indian Problem” beginning in the 1870s. They were conceived as a progressive alternative to the reservation policy, which had long been the favored policy in America. In 1869 the New York Times declared that “the only possible method [with which to keep Indians from hindering American growth] would seem to be to rigidly confine Indians to certain specific localities, until by their good conduct or progress in civilization they can be allowed perfect freedom.” Two and a half decades later, in an article entitled “Senator Dawes Talks to the Cambridge Indian Rights Association” the Times reported favorably about Dawes’ support for the reservation policy: “ [The Indian] is losing the last acre of his heritage. He can no longer retreat from the advance of civilization. We must either support him in idleness or else devise some way to make him a part of us and absorb him into our body politic. As we cannot exterminate him, we must make something of him.” 

Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the pioneer of the Native American boarding school movement, and the founder of Carlisle, the first off-reservation boarding school, delivered a speech in 1892 entitled “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” In it he conceded that the only good Indian is a dead one, a nod to General Philip Sheridan’s infamous evaluation, but he urged the country to commit bloodless — that is to say, cultural — genocide. If granted entry into what he and most other whites of the period considered an indisputably superior way of life, Pratt assured his audience, the Indians would abandon their traditions willingly. This, he thought, was a far more humane and effective method than Jefferson’s reservation strategy, by which Natives were sequestered on patches of land “held apart from all association with the best of our civilization.” Pratt was proposing to erase them with kindness, or at least tolerance. 

Many Natives agreed with him about the reservations, and about the hope of assimilation. There were Indian teachers and parents who supported Pratts’ schools, and who clung to the chimera of a “white man’s chance.” Pratt’s promise was made at the start of a great wave of immigration that would alter the American sense of belonging and identity. He conjured a future in which it was possible for a Native to become an American in a pre-multicultural context. It was, in essence, a melting-pot argument for America’s indigenous population. What is most unnerving about Pratt’s famous oration is its jumble of progressivism and racism. The speech champions the liberal truth that there is something essential and irreducible in all people that transcends their particularity. Pratt espoused a jarringly humanist argument. It was 283 also a universalist argument, rather like the French view of citizenship since the Enlightenment: erase your difference,
lose your traditions, and you will be welcomed as members of the general society. 

This mottledness in Pratt’s objectives, the mixture of good and evil, of benign and malign intentions, is characteristic of much of the Native American experience. It is a messy story, peopled with unlikely alliances and incongruous endings, and whereas the larger moral picture may be clear, and the historical verdict about American prejudice unequivocal, the story closer to the ground is clouded with complexities. There are plainly abhorrent actors whom some Natives defend. For decades after the rumored abuses that took place at Native American boarding schools had become semi-notorious within many Indian tribes, there were Native subcultures in which Carlisle was revered. 

The first compulsory education clause affecting Native Americans appears in 1858 in a treaty between the United States and the Pawnees. Such clauses would appear in ten other treaties before the end of the treaty period in 1871. In 1891, federal legislation was passed which extended compulsory school attendance to all Indians regardless of tribe. In 1893, for a single year, it was legal for government officials to withhold “rations or the furnishings of subsistence either in money or in kind to the head of any Indian family” for failure to send Indian children between the ages of eight and twenty-one to school the previous year (this legislation and its revocation the following year can be found in chapter 7 of the US Code title 25). Nonetheless, there are cases of children being forcibly separated from their families well into the twentieth century. Consider the case of Dennis Seely, who was removed from his home and sent to the Tekakwitha Indian Mission in Sisseton, South Dakota in 1946 (further horrifying details of the Seely case, which have been made public, are of a piece with those of the nine sisters). In 1929 much of the authority to enforce Native school attendance was given to the states. The Meriam Report, commissioned by the Department of the Interior and published in 1928, focused on reservation and boarding school poverty. All 847 pages of the report, detailing a truly appalling episode in our nation’s history, are easily accessible online. Regarding the Native American boarding schools, it reads in part: 

For several years the general policy of the Indian Service has been directed away from the boarding school for Indian children and toward public schools and Indian day schools…. It is, however, still the fact that the boarding school, either reservation or non-reservation, is the dominant characteristic of the school system maintained by the national government for its Indian wards. 

The survey staff finds itself obliged to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate. 

The outstanding deficiency is in the diet furnished the Indian children, many of whom are below normal health. The diet is deficient in quantity, quality, and variety……. 

The boarding schools are frankly supported in part by the labor of the students. Those above the fourth grade ordinarily work for half a day and go to school for half a day…. The question may very properly be raised as to whether much of the work of Indian children in boarding schools would not be prohibited in many states by the child labor laws. 

Just ten years after Carlisle’s founding, 10,500 of the roughly 36,000 Native student population went to Native boarding schools shaped by Pratt’s social-evolutionary philosophy. A web of these schools spread across the country over the course of the next century. 

Allegations about the mistreatment of Native students at these establishments are as old as the schools themselves. Children were allegedly forced to eat lye soap for speaking their native tongue, whipped for running away, and beaten simply for holding one another’s hands. Some died from malnourishment. Disease due to overcrowding was rampant. Richard Monette, professor of law at UW-Madison, former president of the Native American Bar Association, and a graduate of a boarding school in North Dakota (and former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Tribe), put it this way: “Native America knows all too well the reality of the [Native] boarding schools, where recent generations learned the fine art of standing in line single-file for hours without moving a hair, as a lesson in discipline; where our best and brightest earned graduation certificates for homemaking and masonry; where the sharp rules of immaculate living were instilled through blistered hands and knees on the floor with scouring toothbrushes; where mouths were scrubbed with lye and chlorine solution for uttering Native words.” 

Still, as always, the history is complicated. Not all student experiences at Native boarding schools are alike. Some former students recall their time at these schools fondly. For many it provided an education and an opportunity to develop inter-tribal Native identities, since schools often mixed students from different tribes. Michelle Dauphinais Echols, the Charbonneau sisters’ cousin and lawyer, is one such alumna. Like her cousins, she attended St. Paul’s. Even after spending the better part of the past decade pursuing justice on the nine sisters’ behalf, she describes the years she spent at the school happily. It was with her help, patience, and example that I was able to explore this episode. 

What follows are the accounts that the nine sisters have given about their time at St. Paul’s in the 1960s and 1970s. These stories have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

On the first Monday of every school year all of us would undergo the same initiation ritual: Straight off the bus we’d be organized into one long line and then stripped naked. Once we reached the front of the line, nuns would pour DDT powder, a poisonous insecticide, over our heads and bare bodies [for delousing]. We were told this was because we were dirty Indians and had to be debugged. If we tried to wash the powder off, we’d be forced back in line and the process would simply be repeated. Every single year, the first Friday evening at the end of that first week the entire school would assemble, and they would screen films of Jews in concentration camps lined up towards the gas chambers. The next morning all of us would be led into group showers where we would finally be permitted to wash off that powder. After washing each child would stand naked in front of the nuns waiting for us just outside the bathroom in order to inspect our bodies. They would  bend us over and touch us before finally permitting us to collect our clothes and redress. From that very first week, that fear of being put into the gas chamber was instilled and remained throughout our time at St. Paul’s. 

There were all kinds of horrors awaiting us after that initial trial. Some of us suffered permanent frostbite, some still bear physical scars from the beatings administered by the nuns and priests. Some of us were beaten so badly we had to be hospitalized for up to ten days. Some of us were sodomized. Some have scars from births and abortions from being raped by our caretakers. Once, on an outing to a lake, one of the boys went into the water and started to drown and we were all screaming asking them to help him but the priests and nuns just ignored us and he died. No one took care of us. We had no mother or father figures. There were no toys. We made friends quickly. We had to — friendship was a form of protection. We always had our cliques. We had to have our cliques to look out for one another, or we would have been severely beaten on a daily basis. The staff hated us. They made us know they hated us in no uncertain terms. They gave us no affection. We wouldn’t have known what a hug was or how to have a bond with anybody if it hadn’t been for the summers back home with our mother. We were the lucky ones because we got to go home. There were students there who couldn’t afford the trip back, and they had to stay at that place the whole year round. 

School was 700 miles away from our hometown. There was no way to connect with family. They made sure of that. Even our aunt and uncle, who lived on the grounds because they worked at the school, never got to see us. From the moment you got there it was total isolation at Marty. They enforced it by beatings, strappings, shaving heads, by saying “You’ll go to hell. Your parents will die and they’ll go to hell.” If one of us was at one table and we saw our sisters at another we didn’t dare say hello, just made eye contact. No talking at all. Sometimes when they fed us that mush we’d put it in our hands and go wash them at the sink, and that was the only time we’d be able to lean against a friend or touch their shoulders. If you were caught touching you got the worst beating of your life. 

There was always the lurking of a priest or of this one man, the groundskeeper, who worked there and who also molested us. It was like they had different signals that they gave each other. Like for instance, the man who molested Louise would hold her to a chair by the front of her clothes and use his finger on her. And sometimes a few of his fingers. And then he would leave her there and we would see him making a motion with his hand to one of the priests and he would come over and do what he wanted with her. Was the hand motion a sign that she was ready for intercourse? We couldn’t be sure. But we remember definitely the secret looks they gave each other, and the snide remarks they’d make about young girls becoming women. Geraldine says her sexual abuse started when she was eight. Father George began to try and touch her and kiss her. Father George kissed her several times which made other children tease her and say that Father George was in love with her. Father Francis was in the room when Father George 289 kissed her. He laughed and accused Father George of saving Geraldine all for himself. 

Father Francis was clever. He tricked Barbara into trusting him. The way he did it was, he knew that our aunt and uncle lived on the grounds and that we couldn’t go see them on our own, and we were so desperate for some connection with family. Father Francis would say ‘Come with me, I’ll take you to visit your uncle.’ And she missed our mom and dad so much so she’d go with him. And then after he’d gained her trust he would take her to the church basement and force her to fondle him and perform oral sex. Once there was a coffin in the church basement, maybe they were preparing the body for burial in there, and he lifted her up and showed her, there was a dead woman in it and he put her in that coffin next to the corpse and said if Barbara ever told anyone he’d lock her up in there. So we learned to keep quiet. 

The groundskeeper who abused Louise had a big ring of keys with him all the time. When we were in the little girls dorm, so we must have been about fourth graders, we would say to each other “did you hear some keys? Some keys clinking in the night?” Because we used to hear them jingle. And on the nights that we heard them jingle, we’d see a priest in the dorm at night. We learned to pull the blankets up over our heads and hold our breath so he wouldn’t pick our bed to climb into. Once Louise went to the bathroom in the middle of the night and came back and found a man in her bed. This man with the keys was letting them in through the tunnels that run under the school, for the pipes, you know. The tunnels are still there now. They run underground connecting every building in the school — the rectory, the church, and the dorms. That’s how the priests got in. 

The nuns were in on it, too. They let the priests do what they wanted, and they abused us too. They used to pull our blouses down, making believe that they thought we’d hidden something in our bras, but knowing full well we hadn’t. They just wanted to humiliate us. It was a team effort. We were handed around like used clothing, and nobody cared. Even the missionaries who worked at the school were in on it. There was no one to turn to and we knew it. We were told that we would be hurt if we told anybody, that they would kill our parents and our parents would go to hell. We certainly couldn’t turn to our parents so we buried it so deep inside that there was no way it would ever surface. 

For many years none of the sisters spoke of their alleged abuse to each other or to anybody else. This is not uncommon. According to CHILDUSA, if child victims of sexual assault disclose at all, they do so during adulthood. The median age of disclosure is 48, the average age is 52. Of those who do disclose, only 6% to 15% contact authorities, while most others confide only in friends. That is why many state statutes of limitations for cases of childhood sexual assault, if they exist at all (some states have no SOL and permit plaintiffs to come forward at any time), provide timeframes for plaintiffs to bring their case after memories are likely to have resurfaced, rather than immediately after the incident occurred. 

Geraldine Charbonneau was alarmed when asked by her gynecologists, who recognized the scarring, if she had gotten an abortion early in life. She had buried the memory of the procedure since it had happened. It was not until a family gathering in 2009 that one of the sisters, Louise, told the others that she had been abused at St. Paul’s and asked if they had been too. Barbara Kay Charbonneau recalled that “We all cried but nothing was said. It was so traumatic, so incomprehensible. But the memories came back one right after the other…. It was like Pandora’s Box was opened.” 

The sisters had been approached in 2006 by other alumni who were members of a class action suit seeking recompense for abuses sustained by students at boarding schools such as St. Paul’s. Between 2003 and 2010, over a dozen alumni of South Dakota’s Catholic boarding schools filed civil lawsuits against the federal government, the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, and various religious orders operating the schools. The following descriptions of abuse are from the Complaint for Zephier, et al. v United States of America (2003): 

a. Plaintiff, Sherwyn Zephier, attended Boarding School at St. Paul’s at Marty, South Dakota, in the Yankton Reservation, where he was beaten and witnessed nuns regularly commit sexual assaults on boys; 

b. Plaintiff, Adele Zephier, attended Boarding School at St. Paul’s at Marty where she was sexually abused by a priest, who would put his hands under her dress and fondle and penetrate her. She was also physically abused by the nuns, one of whom would pick her up by her hair, shake her, and lock her in a closet for hours. 

c. Plaintiff, Roderica Rouse, also attended St. Paul’s at Marty Boarding School, and was physically beaten and sexually abused by a priest in the same manner as Adele Zephier. 

d. Plaintiff, Lloyd B. One Star, attended the St. Francis Board School in South Dakota, on the Rosebud reservation. He was physically beaten and sexually abused from the age of 6 to age 10 by multiple priests and nuns, which included oral sex and sodomy. He was threatened physically by the priests if he told about the abuse. He was beaten and tortured continuously for a week, including head slappings and paddlings, for telling his father about the abuse. 

e. Plaintiff, Edna Little Elk, attended the St. Francis Boarding School on the Rosebud reservation in the period 1921-24. She was locked in an attic for days because she did not speak English. She was beaten and stripped by both nuns and priests. She witnessed her cousin, Zona Iron Shell, beaten to death in front of her. She also witnessed other girls being sexually fondled by priests. 

f. Plaintiff, Christine Medicine Horn, attended the St. Pauls Boarding School at Marty. Because she did not speak English, she was thrown down a three-story laundry chute. She was also stuffed in a trash can and locked in an incinerator for not speaking English. She was forced to strip to her underwear, when she was whipped with a leather strap. 

g. Plaintiff, Lois L. Long, attended the Holy Rosary Boarding School in the Pine Ridge Reservation. Because she was left-handed, her educator accused her of Satanism and attempted to “cure” her by tying her left hand which caused permanent physical injuries. She was repeatedly stripped and beaten by nuns. During baths, the nuns would fondle her and attempt to “wash the devil out” of her. 

After memories of their alleged abuse resurfaced, the sisters joined Bernie v Blue Cloud Abbey, a class action suit that was a consolidation of eighteen cases. In 2010, days before the case was scheduled to go to trial, the South Dakota Statute of Limitations (SOL) for childhood sexual assault (SDCL 26-10-25) was amended to bar claims against entity defendants after plaintiffs reach the age of 40. (Recall that the average of disclosure for cases of childhood sexual assault is 52 and the median age is 48.) 

The amended SOL was drafted and introduced by Steven Smith, a lawyer for the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, the religious order that operates St. Joseph’s Indian school. At the time the bill was drafted, Smith was the lawyer for the defendants in about a dozen pending cases of abuse alleged to have occurred at St. Joseph’s Indian School. The judge applied the new statute of limitations retroactively, and dismissed the case. About the amended SOL and the judge’s decision to retroactively apply it just days before the suit went to trial, Joelle Casteix, western regional director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, observed to WOMENSENEWS: “you bet the South Dakota legislation was designed to keep Native American lawsuits out of the courts. The Church has a hard time defending itself because it has the proof. It keeps a paper trail on sexual-abuse complaints.” And indeed during discovery for the case letters surfaced in which, for example, Abbot Thomas Hillebrand wrote to a victim and former student, in November 2008, “[Denis Quinkert] does know that he was going through a crisis in his vocation and a deep struggle with his own sexuality. And he is deeply sorry for the hurt that he caused you…. The favor that I want to ask is that you do not mention that incident outside of the sacrament of Confession. It causes a lot of damages to his character and sets off all sorts of alarms in the official Church.” 

Every year since 2010, the Charbonneau sisters and their families return to South Dakota to lobby for a change in legislation that would allow them to bring their case to trial. In 2015 Michelle Dauphinais Echols drafted an amendment to the South Dakota SOL which would permit the sisters to reopen their claim and allow other survivors to bring forward their claims as well. The bill failed. After conversations with opponents of her original amendment, Dauphinais Echols drafted a new proposal which, if passed, would create a two-to- three year loophole in the 2010 Statute of Limitations, during which time plaintiffs would be permitted to bring their case to court. This bill failed as well. In 2018 Dauphinais Echols created the advocacy group 9littlegirls, dedicated to bringing awareness to child sexual abuse and to pursuing justice and healing. Every year she and her cousins, with bipartisan support from South Dakota representatives, present the bill to the legislature, and every year it is defeated. 


A person raped can never be unraped. They will have those scars inside themselves until they die. The sisters’ pain is the silent, festering pain of overlooked people. It is not exquisite, glamorous, articulate, or redemptive. Nobody marches to denounce it. They suffer in obscurity, and the obscurity, the indifference of their surroundings to their story, compounds the suffering. They live with their understanding of all that was done to them and all that has not been done for them. 

We have been taught that the knowledge of tragedy can transform societies. There are victims, such as Raphael Lemkin, coiner of the term “genocide,” who are able to salvage dignity from their personal tragedies by forcing others to be transformed by their experiences and the knowledge they managed to harvest from them. Lemkin, whose mother, father, and forty-seven other relatives were killed in Treblinka in 1943, dedicated most of his life to this effort. But there is nothing about victimhood that confers a capacity to do such work. The general truth is that tragic circumstances do not make ordinary people into extraordinary people. And people with the internal resources to bring tragedy eloquently and affectingly to our attention are rarer than tragedy itself. There were the slaves and there was Frederick Douglass. It is not the responsibility of a victim to know how to make use of her pain or give it lasting voice. Pain grants no wisdom, only the need for it. 

No consolation will come to the nine sisters, but their stories should be known anyway. There are practical reasons for this, and I will list and explain them, but first I must say that the primary effect of their story is to explode our faith in happy endings. By telling their story or arguing for reform we can fulfill the duties of ethical beings and that is some comfort, but the sisters are themselves beyond the reach of solace. For them, the horror is irreversible. It is essential that we grasp this about all victims of atrocity — we must understand the aftermath in which they are condemned to live. 

The South Dakota legislature will not give these sisters their day in court, and even if they did, the law still would have little capacity to enforce justice in their case. The scars will stay, they are indelible. The cultural genocide will not be undone, despite the astonishing power of Native cultures to sustain and to flourish. In 1975 St. Paul’s School, like many of these institutions, was transferred from the church to tribal control and became Marty Indian School. There is no one left even to punish. The alleged rapists and sadists are long dead: their mortality, and popular indifference, protected them. There should be monuments in the streets in South Dakota commemorating the horrors that were done there. High school students throughout this country should know the disgraceful history of these boarding schools. But if all this were to happen, by some social miracle, still justice would not be done. The wounded will remain the wounded. 

And we do not have the luxury of saying that we tell these stories to stop evils like them from happening again. Our cultural obsession with utility, our impulse to respond always with practical steps, misleads us. This will happen again. Such horrors will be repeated. We know too much about human nature to believe only in human goodness, and in the efficacy of historical lessons. One of the essential characteristics of humankind is that it contains evil. There will always be evil people, and many of them will escape punishment, and there will always be an overwhelming majority of disinterested onlookers, a mass of unmoved movers, who will facilitate that evasion. 

In this story the onlookers play a particularly disturbing part. After all, as people like to say, the story is complicated. Not all the students were brutalized. Many enjoyed their time at the Native boarding schools. Should the alleged tragedies of some overshadow the normalcy of others? Many Native survivors with the strength to seek justice are asked this question. Why soil the reputation of whole groups and whole institutions by making them known only for their crimes? Aren’t they much more than the darkness they harbor? These are questions that have been asked also about the rapes and abuses that were perpetrated against other students at different sorts of schools in America. The question is basically an invitation to lie or to look away, and in so doing to damage the victims and distort the history still further. In the protracted wrestling with these issues in many Catholic dioceses in America, the path of truth was eventually chosen. If children in Boston deserve truth and protection, so do children in South Dakota. Perhaps we feel awkward about intruding upon the privacy of another community, but all ethical criticism and action is a kind of intrusion. 

Most victims will not be rescued, and their aftermath will stretch on, and those who could have saved them, or ameliorated their conditions, but did not, will not be absolved of complicity. Yet we must be careful not to tell these stories in order to absolve ourselves. The act of telling the story redeems no one — not us, not the victims. The tales may increase the ethical sensitivities of the hearers — or they may be treated only as stories, a passing disturbance of our minds with a beginning and an end, a structure which has the effect of abrogating shock. As an incentive to change, narrativity’s power may be exaggerated. These stories must be inducted into our national collective memory, alongside every other significant episode in our national history, the magnificent and the repugnant, for another reason: because America should know what America is. 

There is a pop-therapeutic axiom that talking through pain or anxiety will diminish its power. Americans believe in the salvific power of speech. One long heart-to-heart and the world is already a better place. Let’s talk it out. That platitude is actually a sugary dilution of The Talking Cure, which has an interesting origin. It was first conceived by Bertha Pappenheim and inducted into our lexicon by Freud, who included hers as the first of six case studies in Studies on Hysteria. But it is worth noting that Pappenheim did not talk through her pain in the way that contemporary mental health advocates seem to think she did. She found, in consultation with her doctor, Josef Breuer, that her somatic disorders — headaches, partial paralyses, loss of sensation — would begin to weaken if she could recall aloud to him the repressed traumas and emotions related to the initial manifestations of each symptom. This process has little to do with let’s talk it out, with the theory that assumes that there is something inherently healing for a survivor about telling others their stories. Pappenheim wanted Breuer to fix the symptoms of a wound that itself could not be fixed. She wanted respite, not consolation or redemption. And respite was the most that the discursive therapeutic setting could offer her. 

Talking it out is not always healing. It certainly has not been so for the Charbonneaus. Recalling their childhood, which they had for years done their best to forget, is excrucating for them. Silence is a natural reaction to the experience of horror, and a dignified one. Within the Native American community, the sisters are among many who have withdrawn into silence. Children of the survivors of the Native boarding schools were told by their parents not to go looking for clues about what happened in those places. Often this silence is an expression of shame, which many of these descendants say colored their childhoods, and was bequeathed to them. The shame makes the heavy memory heavier. 

Some say it is fatal. The sisters who survive her believe that Louise Charbonneau, who died suddenly in 2020, just three weeks before she and her sisters planned to return to the South Dakota Legislature once again, could not bear to retell her story. They say that the looming burden, the annual pilgrimage back in time, hastened her death. During testimony for the proposed amendment, Geraldine told the legislators: “I feel the Creator took her home so she didn’t have to come here again, so she didn’t have to be raped all over again by your ‘no’ vote.” Is it ever a victim’s responsibility to relive her trauma? 

In cases of atrocity, it is essential that the onlookers, and not just the victims, bear the burden of remembering. For over two centuries, since Carlisle’s founding, these stories have remained outside our national collective memory. It is a moral imperative that this willed amnesia be cured — not just among the tribes, and not just in South Dakota and North Dakota, and all the other states in which the boarding schools stood. These atrocities deserve to be incorporated into the shared past of the country, out of respect for the humanity that was desecrated and as an impediment to future desecrations. I say impediment advisedly. Collective memory, and even historical knowledge, certainly cannot preclude the recurrence of injustice. One of the saddest and most erroneous claims of the post-Holocaust sensitivity to atrocity is its confidence that the remembrance of past evil will prevent future evil. Survivors and victims bet a lot on the power of memory to dissuade people from violent action. But by now we ought to know better. “Never Again” did not prevent Bosnia, or Rwanda, or Syria. The destruction of the concentration camps built for Jews in Europe did not prevent the construction of the concentration camps built for Uighurs in Xinjiang today. 

Evils must be remembered by people to whom they did not happen. We must remember other people’s histories. It is reasonable to wonder whether people can remember things that they have not experienced. Doesn’t that defy the nature of individual memory? But we do so all the time. We call this ubiquitous and mysterious phenomenon collective memory. Descendants of slaves never experienced slavery, and yet they are right to say that they remember it. The children of Holocaust survivors never experienced the Holocaust, and yet they are right to say that they remember it. It is possible to achieve great proximity to the experiences of other people. 

In order to remember what did not happen to you, you have to immerse yourself so completely in the knowledge of the past that an inner intimacy with it is achieved and it takes on the sensation of personal acquaintance. The instrument of this intimacy, of this acquaintance, is the imagination — not the imagination of fantasy but the imagination of fact. Every year on Passover every Jew is enjoined to conceive of herself “as if she herself had left Egypt” two thousand years before her birth. That “as if” is the ancient rabbinical euphemism for the imagination. Even remembering episodes of one’s own group’s history is a creative exercise which requires an imaginative leap. The imagination is an ethical instrument. It has to be such: if the only evils one could conceive, abhor, and fight are those one has experienced oneself, then fortunate people would be useless against injustice. Which, for this reason, they often are. 

The women of Olga, North Dakota are not like anyone I have ever known. Their personal histories are quite alien to me. We are children of different Americas, and I have no natural understanding, based on my own life history, of how these Ojibwe women lived and what they endured and how they interpreted it, though it may be easier for me to incorporate their stories into my collective memory because my own tradition supplied a training course in the importance of such strenuous empathy. (I have thought many times while researching the story of the Charbonneaus that the Jewish tradition’s emphasis on memory was essential preparation for this work.) But despite the differences between us, the distance in space and in background, the emphatic otherness, these women have haunted me, have been with me, since that night three years ago.

In the space of an evening, I went from knowing almost nothing about these stories to becoming familiar with myriad specific details, and then to imagining minutes and hours that occurred decades ago in strange places where I have never been. By becoming aware of them, and by extension of all the men and women like the nine sisters whose lives were permanently mutilated by similar ordeals, these stories became in some sense also mine. I say this humbly. Again, I am not like them, and I have not suffered anything like what they have suffered. But it would be wrong to turn away from them for that reason, to invoke “alterity” and try to forget what I have learned. Difference should not be an excuse for indifference. If one does the work of study and imagination, the arduous and respectful work, then the gulf can be adequately traversed — certainly enough to impose moral and social and political responsibilities. Strangely, solemnly, in ways totally unlike the victims and their communities, I remember. They are a part of me. Now they are a part of you.