The annual observance of back-to-school rites is underway at the 62 Jesuit high schools in the United States — notebooks have been purchased, iPad apps downloaded, Masses of the Holy Spirit celebrated. At the Jesuit high school on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, these rituals have been faithfully marked, but so too have others: an Inipi or “sweat lodge” ceremony and invocations to Tunkashila, the Great Spirit, for a successful school year.
Red Cloud Indian School has a complex past and a complex present. The school’s namesake, the famed Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud, was a skilled politician and military commander, who mounted the most successful military campaign ever waged against the United States by an indigenous group. In 1878, when Red Cloud finally secured for his people a “permanent home” in a region of western South Dakota that would became the Pine Ridge Reservation, Red Cloud petitioned Washington to permit Jesuits — Sina Sapa or “Black Robes,” they called them — to enter the reservation and found a school “so that our children may be as wise as the white man’s children.” Red Cloud recognized that his people’s world had been upended and that western education was essential to their future survival; he also knew of the Jesuit’s reputation as world class educators. So in 1888, Jesuits and Franciscan sisters arrived on Pine Ridge and thus began Holy Rosary Mission School, later renamed for Red Cloud.
This past May, 2014, 38 young women and men walked across a stage set up on the basketball court of Paul “Dizzy” Trout Field House and received their diplomas, heirs to Red Cloud’s vision. It was surely a graduation ceremony unlike any at the other 61 American Jesuit high schools, replete with traditional Lakota ritual and pageantry. To make it to this moment, the graduates had navigated hardships and cultural complexities surely unlike any faced by their peers at the other Jesuit high schools. Pine Ridge comprises the second poorest county in all of the United States, and the legacy of maltreatment and racism against America’s native people is still felt acutely here. The relationship between the school’s western, Christian past and a present which lays greater emphasis on Lakota language, spirituality, and culture is also a source of tension for students and faculty.
But the graduates of 2014 are most certainly beacons of hope. This month, nearly all of them are matriculating at prestigious universities around the country, having been decorated with Gates Millennium scholarships and a host of other honors. This short documentary — the inaugural installment of our new “America Films Docu-Shorts” series — was filmed last May over four days of graduation festivities. We immerse you in the sights and sounds of graduation week, while letting the 2014 graduates speak for themselves — about the challenges they’ve overcome, and the hopes they dream moving forward, for themselves and for their people.
Jeremy Zipple, SJ
Find Red Cloud Indian School on the web at www.redcloudschool.org or on social media: Twitter, @redcloudschool, Facebook, facebook.com/redcloudindianschool