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Nine sisters who were abused by priests and nuns at an Indian boarding school in South Dakota have been trying since 2008 to sue the Catholic Church for their abuse. But the church petitioned the state legislature to change the law, and that has kept the nine Charbonneau sisters, members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and other boarding-school survivors from ever getting their day in court. Will they ever see justice?  Read the two-part series by Native News Online Senior Reporter Jenna Kunze. 

From Left, Geraldine Dubourt, Francis Hart, Marie Ogitchida, Mikayla Maxwell and Michelle Dauphinais Echols stand on the steps of the South Dakota Capitol in Pierre, S.D. on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. Lawmakers killed a bill that would have given survivors of childhood sexual abuse a two-year window to sue organizations in which abuse occurred. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)Part One:  ‘They Could So They Did’

Almost every February for a decade, the nine Charbonneau sisters donned their traditional Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa regalia, took deep breaths, and piled into cars to travel to the South Dakota Legislature in Pierre. There, the sisters told lawmakers year after year about the abuse they endured as children at the hands of priests, nuns, and staff at St. Paul’s Indian Mission boarding school in Marty, South Dakota.

The sisters’ accounts of molestation, rape, and even a forced abortion aligned with a larger picture of abuse painted by more than 100 other boarding-school students in lawsuits against the Catholic dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City that began in 2003.

But those lawsuits were dismissed by the courts in 2010 as a result of a change in the law. After the Charbonneau sisters’ cases were dismissed, they rallied every year behind legislation that would give them their day in court. Now, Charbonneau family members say that lawmakers' racism, ignorance, and blind support of the church has had its intended effect: Boarding-school survivors are aging, and some have died before ever getting their day in court.

“My mom always said, ‘They’re waiting for us to get old and die so they can forget all about this,’” says the daughter of Barbara Charbonneau-Dahlen, one of the nine sisters.

9 sisters part 2Part Two:  ‘Their Justice Would Be My Justice’

As their mothers, aunties and cousins grow older and, in some cases, walk on to the spirit world, the next generation of Charbonneau relatives takes up the fight for justice against the abuses suffered by the nine sisters.

But they’re struggling, as they wrestle with their own intergenerational trauma, the recent loss of three of the sisters, and an unresponsive legal system. 

Faced with considerable obstacles, they say they’re not giving up the fight.

“I want to finish what my mother—our mothers—started,” says one sister’s daughter. “It’s about holding institutions accountable.”

“When I think about it,” says a cousin, an attorney, “their justice would be my justice.”

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.