In a relentless pursuit of truth and healing, Marsha Small has dedicated her life to exploring the sites of Native American tragedies. Her latest investigation takes her to Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where a dark secret lies buried beneath its walls.
Justin Pourier, once a maintenance worker at the school, stumbled upon something unsettling in 1995. As he investigated a leak in the heating system, he discovered three dirt mounds topped with tiny wooden crosses hidden away in the basement of Drexel Hall. Pourier’s unease grew as he questioned why these graves were located inside the school instead of within the surrounding hills’ cemeteries.
Pourier’s discovery remained buried for over two decades until unmarked graves were uncovered at a former boarding school in British Columbia in 2021. This revelation sparked nationwide attention to the historical trauma inflicted on Indigenous children by boarding schools.
The US government began compiling a list of its operated or supported boarding schools, shedding light on 53 burial sites so far.
Red Cloud Indian School had undergone significant changes since Pourier’s encounter. A new leadership team comprised primarily of tribal members sought to address historical trauma through a process of “truth and healing.”
Led by Maka Black Elk, who attended Red Cloud herself, this initiative aimed to confront past abuses and facilitate transformation within the community.
Upon hearing Pourier’s story, Tashina Banks Rama, an executive vice president at Red Cloud and Pourier’s old friend, promised him that they would seek the truth.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition joined their cause. They connected them with Marsha Small, one of few Indigenous researchers experienced in using ground-penetrating radar technology.
Small accepted the opportunity with cautious hopefulness. She recognized the importance of conducting a survey backed by both the Catholic Church and the local tribe, but she remained skeptical of the church’s intentions.
Nevertheless, Small saw this as an opportunity to bring greater accountability to boarding schools and provide closure for affected communities. In May 2022, Small arrived at Red Cloud Indian School to begin her investigation.
She presented to the community about ground-penetrating radar technology and its limitations when it comes to reconciling the past. Small emphasized that healing could only be achieved by combining technology with Lakota traditions of ceremony and storytelling.
As community members operated the ground-penetrating radar machine, activists from the International Indigenous Youth Council rode on horseback around the school’s chapel, demanding justice for their ancestors.
The scene portrayed a complex interplay between technology, tradition, and a community’s collective quest for truth and healing.
Marsha Small’s investigation at Red Cloud Indian School signifies a broader movement across North America—a reckoning with the traumatic history of Native American boarding schools. By employing forensic tech alongside cultural practices, communities hope to bring long-overdue justice and healing to those who suffered.