Red Cloud’s School His Legacy to Future Lakota

At the Heritage Center Museum at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, stands a replica of a one-room schoolhouse where the White Man first indoctrinated Indians by civilizing them into the White Man’s Ways and disseminating from their own people. Young Indians were taken from families into boarding schools to be brainwashed. If a child spoke Lakota, his mouth was washed out with lye.  Lakota language, religion and customs were forbidden. White men annihilated an ancient culture that lived in harmony with the land, at peace with their souls, as one with the Great Spirit.

In 360 degree turn a bout, another kind of school now does all it can to preserve the Lakota culture.   Red Cloud School educates 600 students in primary, middle and high school, by trying to give Lakota children the skills to compete in society, while retaining traditional values and culture of Lakota heritage.   Along side basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic courses in ethics and religion, Lakota culture, religion and language are required.

Red Cloud indian school, South Dakota

Red Cloud indian school, South Dakota

Red Cloud, the Indian chief who led the most successful military campaign against the US by an indigenous group, saw that their way of life was ending.  For his people to prosper, they needed to learn to walk in the way of the White Man.  The school inspired by Red Cloud’s vision was started in by the Jesuits order in 1888.  One hundred percent of its 2010 graduates went on to college, yet it receives no national or state aid.   No longer a boarding school, some students ride an over an hour to get to and from school.

My brother-in-law’s Uncle, Mike Zimmerman, who entered the Jesuits, first worked in Argentina, before his transfer to the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota in the center of the Oglala nation.  He agreed to show us around the school.

I expected Brother Mike to be dressed in clerical black robe, but instead a tall, slender man in grease stained green work suit, thrust his large hand into ours.  His eyes were soft brown and kind.  I wondered who was this simple, soft-spoken, articulate man who had dedicated his life to serving the Lord.

Our greeting was awkward, for he rarely had visitors and here we were eight tourists from the Carlson-Zimmerman clan.  When his colleague introduced us to the Indians on campus, she said, “These are Brother Mike’s family, either related by blood or the heart.”

First, Brother Mike stopped in front of the school and told us about the fire that destroyed it in 1996.  He pointed to a display of flames devouring the wooden buildings, turning his head away.  “It still pains me to look at the photographs of that awful time.”

Mike led us into the new church that had been rebuilt after the fire. The wooden pews formed a semi circle in front of the alter which the Indians requested be built in circle representing their belief.  In a picture window, Jesus is surrounded by Asian, Eskimo, Indian and white children.

“Each window forming the circle around the worship area told a story, but in Lakota tradition all stories must be told orally,” Mike told us.  “They refused to write it down or tape record it, for they said that it is not their way.”

Mike invited us to lunch. In a small cafeteria, we filled paper plates with corn, beans, salad and hot dogs and fresh fruit from the self-service counter. We were urged to take seconds, but I felt guilty eating knowing that they subsisted on so little.  We offered to pay for our meals, only a mere two dollars a person, but Mike waved us away.

In the history classroom, where they learned world, national, state and Lakota history, the unabridged edition, phrases in Lakota, had been written on the blackboard. The school also had a new computer lab and the flat screens looked top of the line, but the desks were old, wooden relics from long ago.  The textbooks were worn and outdated.  Nevertheless Red Cloud School continues to draw interest in the wider community. For instance, Dr. Jane Goodall visited the school in several years ago to share her ideas.

As we left, I wondered what the Indians thought of us, this white-faced tribe invading their territory.  Only our 6’2 “ daughter drew a few glances from the short, stout brown-skinned workers.  With Brother Mike at our side, we were welcomed as special guests and I felt privileged for this peek into the life of the Lakota.

The school exemplifies Red Cloud’s dream for Lakota children to learn to walk equally in both worlds.   As I walked across the grounds by his grave, I felt honored to follow in his mighty steps on this hallowed land.

Posted in education, inspiration, relationships, social view.


  1. Excellent, Pat. I’m hoping to post this on Facebook (if I can do it right, which is a big IF!)

  2. Sis,
    Great writing! A lot to think about in this one! You remember so much of that day in vivid color and emotion…thank you for taking us back to that special day with Brother Mike and reminding us what a true act of “giving back” looks like. I will share with the Carlson’s and especially Brother Mike. Brother Mike’s large but gentle hands are well known in the Jesuit world!

  3. Pat,
    Thanks so much for the information on the Red Cloud School. Grant and I felt so moved as we read the history of this great people.
    I can’t tell you how much your articles have meant to us. Keep up the good work!
    Grant and Jeanette

  4. I’m definitely going to mention it on Twitter and Facebook. This school sounds like it’s largely going unnoticed, and I’d be happy to send a donation. I’ll look into it.

  5. Beautiful Pat. A sensitive reminder of what the indigenous peoples of our great country went through at the hands of the white man and an inspirational story of how they are rising from the ashes thanks to people like Brother Mike.

  6. Another touching story,Pat. I also tweeted it and posted it on facebook. I agree with Lynne,more people should know about the good things happening for Lakota children. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks, Pat!! The Zimmerman connection to Holy Rosary goes back to the 1920’s with Fr. Joe Zimmerman. He worked there for several decades, the Native Americans gave him a Lakota name, High Eagle. Mom’s uncle Fr. Martin Schiltz also worked there. I remember visiting him when I was a little girl. My beloved uncle, Fr. Gene Zimmerman was the pastor for years. So Holy Rosary, Red Cloud School and Pine Ridge are important places to our extended family. We appreciate your words!!

    • Thanks for sharing your fascinating link to the Red Cloud School. I hope someone in the family has documented this part of the Zimmerman history for Hannah and Marie and all the rest of the grans and great grans. I know I will never forget my visit there and the gracious, warm welcoming we received from Brother Mike.

  8. Lots of memories from your words Pat! I remember going there as a child and seeing how tough life was out there, and very proud of my Uncles & others that were doing God’s work out there. Makes us realize how easy we really have it and need to continue to say our Prayers of thanks each day.

  9. Great post Pat, although I couldn’t help but note how jesus was surrounded by children of every color except black! Could it be the Lakota doesn’t know these children of color exist?


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