Life at the Rapid City Indian Boarding School

Find out how the Rapid City Indian Boarding School came to be and how it changed throughout the decades it was open. This article also details the U.S. government’s motivation behind creating boarding schools like this one. Find out who the students were, where they came from, and the story of what life was like for the children who lived there.

By Scott Riney

In 1896, Inspector James McLaughlin of the Bureau of Indian Affairs made the first purchase of land for the Rapid City Indian School. By about 1906, the school site grew to 1,200 acres, the original congressional appropriation was for not more than $3,000, for not more than 160 acres of land. McLaughlin spent up to the limit, paying $3,000 for 160 acres, in three separate transactions from private sellers. Together, they formed a contiguous tract, and included 90 acres of low-lying land “susceptible [to] irrigation from Rapid Creek and Limestone Creek . . . both streams being reported to have a never-failing supply of excellent water.”

The first superintendent of the new Rapid City Indian School, Ralph P. Collins, opened the main building of the school from the contractor on September 12, 1898. A surviving photograph shows a substantial, two-story brick building on a stone foundation. The first children arrived at the school on September 20, 1898. Of the first class, four children were from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and 22 each were from the nearby Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Reservations. The last of the children from Cheyenne River arrived on December 19, after what Collins called “a very cold and hard” wagon trip over the rugged, West River plains.

Within a few years, the Rapid City Indian School added land and additional student dormitories and staff residences, classroom buildings, and farm buildings. While the school occasionally housed very young children, it was intended for grades four through eight, later extended up to the tenth grade. By the 1920s, enrollment grew to as many as 340 students. Girls and boys lived in separate dormitories, and enrolled at the school for three-year terms. The school allowed students to go home over the summer, but only if the students’ families first deposited money to pay for return train tickets, to ensure that children returned to school in the fall. Students came from reservations across South Dakota, as well as Wind River in Wyoming, and the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Flathead, and Fort Peck Reservations in Montana. Regardless of the language they may have spoken at home, the school required all children to speak only English, and all instruction was in English.

Like other on- and off-reservation boarding schools built in the late nineteenth century, the Rapid City Indian School was designed explicitly to destroy Indian tribes by separating children from their families and cultures, while training them to live as laborers or farmers. While treaties between the federal government and Indian tribes had created reservations across the Midwest and western United States, Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were determined to eliminate the reservations and end treaty obligations as quickly as possible, by destroying tribes as cultural and political entities. One means used to attack tribes was to break up tribal landholdings on the reservations into small, individual parcels, and also allow non-Native families to purchase them, through the policy of allotment.

The other strategy intended to destroy Indian tribes was to remove Indian children from their parents, and raise them instead in government-run boarding schools, with the intention that the children would lose their tribal identities, and assimilate and disappear into the general population. Kept from contact with their families for extended periods of time in a harshly regimented boarding school environment, children were forbidden from using their native languages, and the practice of their customs and religions. An early promoter of off-reservation schools, Richard Henry Pratt, described the mission of the schools as ensuring “that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian, and save the man.”

Guided by that philosophy, education at BIA boarding schools bore only a superficial resemblance to that offered in public schools. For most of the Rapid City Indian School’s history, children spent only half of each day in the classroom. For the other half of the day, children worked around the school. Children worked on the school’s farm, and in its kitchen, laundry, and dormitories. In theory, the half-and-half schedule allowed children to be taught life and work skills that would prepare them to leave tribal rolls, and make a living on their allotments. Some of the skills taught, such as carpentry and auto repair, were genuinely useful. Other work, such as cleaning the dorms, was simply the routine labor needed to keep the school functioning on a minimal budget. Some of the work, such as tending the school’s boiler, or working in the school’s steam laundry, was dangerous work that should never have been done by children, and sometimes led to injury or death.

Children faced harsh discipline at the Rapid City Indian School. For most of the school’s history, Chauncey Yellow Robe, a Lakota graduate of the Carlisle Indian School, served as the school’s disciplinarian and was responsible for maintaining order among the boys, while a staff of matrons supervised the girls. The disciplinarian and matrons could beat children, and before the BIA banned the practice, students could be confined to cells or cages. Children sometimes ran away from the school, but were seldom able to avoid being captured and returned. Most runaways tried to return home, and were quickly caught by reservation police. Some children suffered horrific injuries in their attempts to escape the school. In 1909, Paul Loves War and Henry Bull lost their lower legs to frostbite after trying to escape the school in the dead of winter. In 1910, James Means and Mark Sherman died when they were struck by a train as they slept on the tracks.

Children at BIA boarding schools also fell victim to disease. In an era before antibiotics, when vaccines existed for only a few diseases, housing large numbers of children in a boarding school environment was inherently unhealthy. Poor sanitation and health practices, and a lack of health care, made BIA boarding schools particularly dangerous. The first of the boarding schools, the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, quickly became known as a place where children died. Of the fifteen children sent from Wind River to Carlisle between 1881 and 1894, eleven either died at the school, or were sent home sick and later perished. The principal culprit was tuberculosis, which spread easily when schools housed healthy children with those in the active stage of the disease, whose every cough spread the tuberculosis bacilli.

By the time the Rapid City Indian School opened in 1898, the BIA was beginning to understand the necessity of screening out children with tuberculosis in its contagious stage. Even so, the overall health of children at the school was poor. The school had its own, small hospital, and employed a local physician to care for the children on a part-time basis, but lacked the resources to do more than offer the most basic care. Tuberculosis remained a problem throughout the school’s existence. As the skin puncture tuberculin test was not yet available, detection of tuberculosis relied on observing physical symptoms that were easily missed. When children showed unmistakable signs of tuberculosis, the school either sent them to sanitariums, or sent them home, for no cure for tuberculosis then existed.

Other potentially life-threatening diseases included measles, meningitis, scarlet fever, and even smallpox. With the school so close to Rapid City, anything going around in the city found its way to the school, and children returning to school from summer break sometimes brought illness with them. In October 1918, Spanish influenza reached the school in the flu pandemic of 1918-1919. When it became clear that an outbreak was occurring at the school, Superintendent Jesse F. House cancelled classes and stopped the transportation of students to the school. Of the 150 students at the school, half the usual enrollment, 131 fell sick, as did 16 of the staff, including the superintendent and his daughter. By the time the outbreak subsided, six children had died.

The location of the remains of children who died at the Rapid City Indian School is often unclear, for the school kept minimal records of student deaths, rarely recorded causes of death, and made no effort to record the disposition of students’ remains. The first death at the Rapid City Indian School occurred in 1901, when Mabel Holy, a student from the Cheyenne River Reservation and the stepdaughter of the noted Lakota leader Touch-the-Clouds, died of what was believed to be kidney disease. Mabel was buried in Mountain View cemetery. Other children who died at the school appear to have been buried on school grounds, for newspaper descriptions of their funerals describe students walking to the sites of the burials. Oral histories, too, indicate that there is a cemetery on the former school grounds, near Sioux San. While records are incomplete, between 40 and 50 children are known to have died at the school, and may be buried on or near school grounds. Their names are listed, in honor and remembrance, on the back page this insert.

By the late 1920s, both the BIA and Congress had begun to question the viability of off-reservation schools, including Rapid City. The half-and-half schedule of classroom study and work around the campus seriously interfered with learning; teachers simply did not have time to teach children the material expected at their grade levels. Meanwhile, the work children performed in the half day outside the classroom often did little to prepare them either for jobs or for the tasks they might face in their own homes after graduation. The expense of running the schools meant that there was little money left over to adequately feed and clothe the children, or to maintain student health. As the BIA closed and consolidated schools, the Rapid City Indian School was first converted to a sanitarium school for students with tuberculosis for the 1929-1930 school year. The school reverted to its status as a regular boarding school the following year, and closed for good in 1933.


  • Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1898. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1898.
  • Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1898. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899.
  • Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
  • Riney, Scott. The Rapid City Indian School, 1989-1933. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.