WALHALLA, N.D. -- The nine Charbonneau sisters grew up straddling two worlds, outsiders in both.
In summer, they lived as white children, the light-skinned daughters of a father born of French lineage in Olga, North Dakota. During the school year, they were shipped off to the St. Paul’s Indian Mission School on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota, where their Chippewa blood earned them free room and board.
“They called us half-breeds,” said Barbara Dahlen, 67. But they had each other and their bond carried them through those boarding school years filled with brutal beatings, even if the best they could do was lie on their bellies at night in the dark, reaching under locked doors to touch fingers.
They stayed connected as they scattered across the heartland and had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But after the death of their mother, new memories began to surface. One by one, the sexual abuse each suffered at the hands of priests and nuns came into focus.
“It was like dominoes, falling,” said Louise Aamot, 69.
At first the pain and shock brought them together and over the years, some have stayed close, even as their grueling crusade for acknowledgement and closure leaves them exhausted and demoralized. In other ways it broke them all and fractured the family.
“We’ve been through too much,” Aamot said. “The bond is broken.”
For Aamot, Dahlen, and Joann Braget, the eldest at 78, confronting these horrors has helped make sense of so much that has gone wrong in their lives: The low self-esteem and insatiable desire to prove their worth. The tendency toward rage, depression and impatience with their children that bordered on cruelty. The nightmares.
“It’s explained a lot, the guilt and shame and feeling dirty,” Aamot said.
Their sister Francine Soli, 71, said it wasn’t until she remembered that her life began to change. She’s more sensitive now, prone to tears.
It’s been 15 years since they remembered and 14 since they sued the Sioux Falls diocese, joining dozens of other Native Americans who say they were abused in Catholic schools on reservations.
Every year they scrape together money and travel to South Dakota to lobby for changes that would allow their case, tossed out after the passage of a bill limiting the ability of survivors to sue the church, to move forward. Every year they come home defeated.
Most of the sisters have given up. Some want nothing to do with the legal fight, or the memories.
But the battle gives the pain purpose, Aamot said. Prayer, pride in their ancestry and a weighty responsibility to illuminate the struggles of their people gives them the strength to continue. Before each session the sisters sit together in their hotel room, burning sage and sweet grass.
Dahlen eschewed Christianity years ago in favor of her native customs. Soli, Braget and Aamot are born-again Christians. None wants anything to do with Catholicism. “A cult” is what Braget calls it. They blame the institution for not only failing to stop their abuse but for enabling it.
The sisters formed an organization, 9 Little Girls, to raise awareness of the abuse of native children at Catholic schools on reservations and over the years they’ve come to embrace their roots. Some make quilts, a custom passed down from their mother. They wear traditional ribbon skirts to interviews and demonstrations.
“We’ve been pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. Why? Because we’re Native Americans,” Soli said. “Nobody wants to hear us.”
Dahlen says their message is about more than what happened at the boarding school. It’s about why: the continuation of a legacy of discrimination.
They carry on. Soli lives in Walhalla, North Dakota. She surrounds herself with family and keeps busy baking elaborate cakes for events across the state. Dahlen, a nurse and Ph.D, teaches at a local college and works too much, she says. Braget cares for her ailing husband, and visits Soli often—the two live just blocks apart. Aamot spends her days planning their advocacy, and struggles daily with the fallout of her abuse, she said.
“I can’t go to sleep without thinking about it,” she says. “I think about my sisters who can’t come forward because if they do, they’ll be like me. I feel guilt for them, I feel shame for them. I know their pain.”
The burden is a heavy one, they say, and it’s taken a hefty toll.
“The insult of trauma is not good for your health, physically or mentally,” Dahlen said. “Sometimes I wish the hell we never remembered anything.”
The Associated Press produced this project with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.