History Of Marty Indian School




Marty Indian School is currently owned and operated by the Yankton Sioux Tribe.  The school is a legal entity of the Yankton Sioux Tribe and is authorized to operate, maintain and administer educational programs for the benefit of students attending. Marty Indian School has a colorful past that links early Catholic influence, regimented discipline and academic rigor with tribal culture, technology, and contemporary content standards. Marty Indian School is located on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in Southeastern South Dakota, four miles east of the Missouri River.


The school was founded in 1924 and formerly known as St. Paul’s Indian Mission School. In the eyes of the clergy, Marty “Mission” is a collaborative monument to the work of both Indian and non-Indian Christians that spans some three centuries.  Early exposure to European Roman Catholics began in 1658-59 when Sieur des Groselliers and Pierre Radisson obtained a royal license to search for minerals along the Mississippi. In fact, the Indians once shared with La Sieur that it was not customary to hunt or occupy land unless invited by those to whom the land belonged. He ignored the message and continued to trespass. In his notes, La Sieur mentions the Hinhaneton (Yankton), Village of the Red Pipestone Quarry where the Yankton lived.  The original Yankton Sioux Reservation boundaries wouldn’t be determined for another 200 years when the Treaty of 1858 provided 400,000 acres of land for the Ihanktonwan.


Doubtless, many Yanktons also met Father Louis Hennepin during his visit in 1680, then learned about Christianity during the ensuing half-century from priests who followed French trappers and traders across Sioux country as far west as the Big Sioux River.  Ihanktonwan history is from this point linked to non-Indian spirituality, ceremony, and beliefs.


Through the 1720s and 1730s, many Sioux fell victim to the superior military power of the Ojibwas, who had acquired firearms from the French, and were forced to retreat from the Minnesota woodlands to the area between southeastern Minnesota and the northern Rocky Mountains.  Yanktons positioned themselves between the Des Moines and Missouri Rivers, adapted quickly to prairie life, and established trade relations with British merchants from Canada, but they were isolated from non-Indian religious influence until the 1830s.


Soon after the Ponds, and the Riggs and Williamson families introduced congregationalism and Presbyterianism to the eastern Sioux tribes, Father Pierre De Smet opened up a Catholic Mission field that reached from eastern Dakota to the Pacific slope. In May 1839, he contacted Yanktons near the mouth of the James River.  The next year his co-worker, Father Christian Hoecken, began to work among Yankton people, and after him came Father Augustine Ravous, Jeramiah Tracy and several others.


By the 1860s, Father De Smet had hopes of building a mission for the Yanktons.  During a visit in 1844, he met Struck By The Ree, and twenty-two years later -- after the Yanktons surrendered their lush prairies and accepted concentration on a 400,000-acre reservation – he baptized the head chief.  After adding Struck By The Ree to his list of Yankton (converts) he must have planned a mission for them but his plans were upset, in 1869, by word that President Ulysses Grants “Quaker Policy” required the assignment of one religious denomination to each agency, and the Yankton agency went to the Episcopalians.  Father De Smet might have been able to set up a Catholic Mission in defiance of federal policy.  Presbyterian, John P. Williamson “felt the call to preach the gospel to the Yankton Indians” and moved across the Missouri River on March 18, 1869, to become the first resident missionary among them, and face no opposition from government officials.  Father De Smet and his successors accepted their assignments on Standing Rock, and Fort Totten, however. Episcopal priests Joseph W. Cook and Rev. Williamson dominated organized religious activities as well as educational services, on the Yankton reservation until the onset of the 20th Century.


All the while, Catholic convents around Greenwood Agency remained loyal to the teachings of Father De Smet: Struck By The Ree, Chief Blue Cloud (William Bean), “Grandma” White Tallow, the Bonnins, the Cournoyers, the Picottes, and countless others.  John Picotte, who lived approximately one mile north of present Marty Mission, offered his home for Catholic service, and Yankton Catholics assembled occasionally to worship in secret.  In 1877, Martin Marty, abbot at St. Meinrad (Benedictine headquarters in Indiana), appeared to offer Mass and provide instruction.  As he rose to the office of Vicar Apostolic of Dakota Territory, then to Bishop of Dakota, he worked out of Marty House (established in the city of Yankton in 1880), arranged the founding of St. Ann’s Mission (near Wheeler, west of the reservation), and traveled almost continuously from reservation to reservation.  He never succeeded in building a church for the Yanktons, however.   Even though the “Quaker Policy” was revoked in the early 1880s, and he was at liberty to work at Greenwood, the Bishop devoted most of his time to the creation of mission stations for Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Crow Creek, and Lower Brule reservations.  After 1877, all organized efforts to teach Catholicism to the Yanktons were abandoned; when Chief Struck By The Ree died, in 1888, he was buried by John P. Williamson at the Presbyterian Cemetery at Greenwood because there was no Catholic priest available.


For nearly twenty-five years thereafter, Yankton Catholics were left alone, but they continued to ask for the services of a priest.  Finally, in November of 1911, Henry Westropp, S. J. of St. Francis on the Rosebud, came to the home of Chief Blue Cloud to celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  After that, he appeared periodically to minister to Yankton people until he received orders from his Jesuit superiors to devote all his time to St. Francis Mission.


After Father Westropp’s departure, Benedictine Father Joseph Ambrose Mattingly came down from Stephan Mission (near Fort Thompson) and, despite his obligation to serve ten far-flung stations around Stephan, he appeared once a month and preached to Yanktons at their locations: St. Paul’s, later called Marty, St. John’s at Greenwood; and St. Francis Solano at White Swan Village.  St. Paul’s was regarded as “Catholic headquarters” on the Yankton Reservation.  Several years earlier, Father Westropp had arranged the purchase of a small tract of land on the allotment of Eugene Shooting Hawk (Brunot) for $450.00, and erected St. Paul’s Chapel, which was dedicated to Bishop Thomas O’Gorman on October 22, 1913.  Once the chapel came into use, the rolls of members grew quickly.  By the time that Father Ambrose was transferred to North Dakota in 1918, terminating his visits to Yankton parishes, there were some 300 Catholics on the Yankton Reservation. From appearances, most of them attended St. Paul’s.


Father Sylvester Eisemman, O.S.B., a native of Southern Indiana who was ordained at St. Meinrad on May 25, 1916, came at the time of Father Ambrose’s departure.  After leaving St. Meinrads, Father Sylvester served two years at Fort Totten and then accepted an assignment to Stephan.  From there he made monthly visits to the Yankton Reservation.  During his first visit, he was called to pray at the deathbed of Chief Blue Cloud.  This emotional experience, plus the obvious need for a larger chapel to serve St. Paul’s congregation, convinced him to bring his personal belongings from Stephan for a brief stay.  A frame building church and a sacristy had become vacant at Wagner and St. Paul’s congregation was able to raise the $700. to purchase. With help from the congregation, three steam engines and several trucks, plus various volunteers from outside the reservation, Fr. Sylvester moved the Wagner church to present Marty.  Indians and non-Indians, Catholics and Protestants, edged across the prairie at a snail's pace, despite the rain, snow, flu, and outraged railroads who were forced to wait for more than three hours as the church was moved across the tracks.  After more than two months of effort, the job of moving was complete.


Once the new church was in place at Marty, Father Sylvester sent his belongings back to Stephan.  Abbot Athanasius Schmitt, O.S.B. received complaints about his absence and sent word from St. Meinrad that he was to devote all his time to the people on Crow Creek and Lower Brule Reservations.  As Father Sylvester was about to leave, however, a delegation of three men from St. Paul’s congregation appeared and announced their intention to travel to St. Meinrad to request that he be assigned to the Yankton Reservation as the first resident priest.  Thunder Horse (eighty years old), David Zephier (sixty-seven years old), and Edward Yellow Bird (sixty-five years old) had been encouraged to make such a pilgrimage several years earlier, by clergymen assembled on the Reservation for an annual congress.  Translations were interesting as Latin was converted into English where they were again translated into Dakota language by David Zephier. Father Sylvester held out little hope for success, but he wrote a letter of introduction and sent the three men on their way.  During April and May 1921, they traveled to St. Meinrad and spoke to Abbot Athanasius.  The men pleaded for a church representative to formulate a school located on the reservation and teach reading and writing.  The elders envisioned the possibility of keeping local tribal children closer to home and not sending them far away to established boarding schools. After listening to their request, the Abbot loaned them money for the return trip, ordered Father Justin Snyder, O.S.B. to take over the administration of Stephan Mission, and asked Father Sylvester to give his full attention to the Yankton people.  At last, the Yanktons had a resident priest.


As an appropriate reward for their devotion to Catholicism, the Yanktons received one of the most effective missionaries ever to serve Indian people along the trans-Mississippi western frontier.  From his appointment to his death in 1948, he devoted every waking hour to the “welfare of the Indians” around him, according to Moses Hart, and others who knew him well.  For good reason, Yanktons called him Tikdisni – “He’s never home!”


From the time he arrived at St. Paul’s, Father Sylvester recognized the need to establish a school to provide secular education, sustenance, and a healthy social environment, as well as religious instruction, for young people.  Before he became resident priest, Monsignor William H. Ketcham, Director of the Catholic Indian Bureau, asked if the missionary might be interested in a day school.  Miss Katherine Mulkern, of Baltimore, was available as a teacher.  A shortage of funds was not a problem, for the Bureau would supply desks, books, and equipment.  Members of St. Paul’s congregation expressed approval by offering their chapel for use as a classroom, and soon thirty Yankton children were enrolled.


The founding of the day school pleased Father Sylvester, but after he became the resident priest he explained to Monsignor Thomas A. Flynn, Diocesan Administrator, that only a handful of children could attend the school due to absence of transportation facilities.  What the Yanktons needed was a boarding school!  The Monsignor was receptive to the idea, and so was Abbot Athanasius.


With encouragement from St. Meinrad, Father Sylvester drafted an appeal for Sisters to Mother Katherine Drexel, who had recently founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to serve Indians and Blacks, and in 1922, she sent three to St. Paul’s – Mother Liguori, Sister Ambrose, and Sister Hilda – together with the assurance that the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament would impose no financial burden upon the Mission except the costs of housing, food, clothing, and other personal needs.


As the Sisters settled in a new cottage, Father Sylvester launched plans for the construction of the facilities and began to send out calls for financial support.  At first, his appeals were hand-written, then restricted to mimeographed letters, but by 1924, he hired a Chicago printer named Cyril Hettich and began publication of The Little Bronze Angel. He also published the bi-lingual Catholic Sioux Herald from1932.  Indian people around the Mission circulated a petition to promote the establishment of the “Marty” Post Office.  Father Sylvester became the first Postmaster, and with mail service at hand he launched a career in “begging” (which he disliked), but which was essential to the success of the Mission.  To build up lists of potential contributors, he acquired names from Abbot Athanasius; asked priests and nuns across the country to send him directories; and requested suggestions from the parents of children who enrolled in the school.  Benefactors mailed used clothing, supplies and substantial sums of money.  During Father Sylveter’s service at the Mission, financial contributions increased steadily:  $48,600 in 1928, $72,670.80 as the Great Depression set in, in 1931; $94,000 in 1936, at the depths of the Depression; $328,000 in 1948, the year of his death.  By the early 1940s, the work of solicitation and correspondence required the services of (at least) twenty-six people!


Most of the funds went for supplies to operate the boarding school, and for the construction of buildings to accommodate increasing enrollments.  In twenty-seven years, Father Sylvester launched the construction of nearly thirty buildings: homes for Mission staff, apartments, farm plants, gymnasium facilities, a shop, a convent, a general store, etc.  He salvaged materials from razed buildings for at least six structures.  In fact, the only building erected entirely from unused materials was the “Cathedral of the Prairie” which he started in 1941, and consecrated in 1943, at a cost of $167,600.  His brother, Leonard, provided expertise and supervision for construction, as well as for vocational training and maintenance for the entire mission plant.  For the most part, labor was free. Seminary students, brothers, and priests came out from St. Meinrad. Boarding students alternated half days of study with half days of work.  Adults from the Reservation gave their labor in many instances free of charge.


Enrollments at the Boarding school grew as rapidly as space became available.  When it opened in 1922, there were thirty-nine students; by 1948, there were 421, most of them Indians – both Catholic and non-Catholic – from more than a dozen different reservations.  Discipline was strict, but most students did not resent regulations because discipline was accompanied by recreational opportunities and kindness.  The curriculum was limited to elementary instruction at first, but a twelve-year program was in operation by 1934.  Along with academic training, the curriculum provided many types of vocational, instruction: baking, sewing, shoe repair, farming, mechanics, printing, wood and metalwork, etc.  In addition, there was a time each day for moral and religious teaching.


The older boys spent long hours working on the Mission farms, attempting to provide support for the boarding school.  The farms never produced enough profit to cover operational costs.  In 1930, for example, when Father Sylvester sold $6,673.76 worth of eggs, poultry, milk, cream, hogs, horses, and cattle, he paid out $11,735 for food and supplies.  But as long as Father was alive, he relied heavily upon the farms to keep the school in operation.


In 1935, he added a feature that has been unique among Indian Missions.  Several girls, who enrolled at the school had expressed their desire to become sisters.  Fearing that they might encounter problems elsewhere, he enlisted Mother Katherine Drexel’s help and founded the all-Indian Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.  It began operation on October 6, 1935, when seven girls became postulants: Mary Louise Vondall, Florence Frederick, Ruth Obershaw, Helena Tebo, Betty Davis, Rita Azure, and Lillian Dubois.  Since that time, Sisters of the Oblate Community together with those of the Sister of the Blessed Sacrament, whose number grew to twenty-two by the year 1940, have supplied much of the dedicated service for the operation of the boarding school.


The boarding school has been the focal point of St. Paul’s Mission since its establishment, but the Mission personnel have always been conscious of the responsibility to serve adults on the reservation, too.  Along with spiritual guidance, Father Sylvester, the other priests, and the sisters took food, clothing, fuel, and medicine to Yankton people off of the Mission grounds.


Their efforts were especially helpful through years of extreme hardship in the 1930s.  In 1931, hot weather, drought, and grasshoppers destroyed the crops.  In 1932, grasshoppers returned, the Great Depression set in, and Yanktons struggled for survival, as an entry to the Mission diary revealed:


"Winter days of the Sioux Indians are rather a dreary affair.  In little huts scattered over the reservation they live with their families, and sometimes with one or two extra families of neighbors or relatives, all crowded into the same hut with them.  These little cabins or huts frequently stand right out on the open prairie where the wind drives snow relentlessly about them… This winter following the drought and grasshoppers last summer has seen the finish of most of the Indian ponies.  They simply starved…  Our Mission school has taken in many of the children … The Mission, too, has done its full quota in providing food and clothing for the needy."


From 1933 to the late 1930s, Father Sylvester ran a free soup kitchen and people showed up in numbers ranging from twenty-five to 100 each day.  Conditions grew worse year after year.  On February 3, 1934, Father Sylvester noted a “severe dust storm, almost total darkness at noon.”  In 1936, he wrote, “The truth of the matter is that our Washington officials know practically nothing of the details of misery that exists in the individual homes of these isolated Indians.”  On July 4th, he said “Thirty days have gone without rain.  Hot sizzling winds have already taken a heavy toll of crops that months ago were so promising. Grasshoppers … are invading the fields and devouring the young crops.”  Northwest of the Mission, “not a sign is left of some fields to indicate what kind of crop had been planted there in the spring … the people are penniless and stranded, depending entirely on relief,” but the relief was scarce.  Federal programs provided some jobs through the CCC and WPA and supported the distribution of some commodities, but there was never enough to go around.  According to some Yanktons, who remember those troubled days, survival would have been questionable for many people had the Mission not been there to answer their needs.


It is no slight to other Priests and Sisters, and laymen, who labored at the Mission and contributed to its coffers, or to the children who did a large part of the work around the Mission to conclude that Father Sylvester Eiseman was the “founder and builder” of Marty Mission.  He brought to his office the organizational ability of a corporate manager, along with missionary zeal comparable to that displayed by Father Pierre De Smet and John P. Williamson, educational skills equal to those of Joseph W. Cook and Alfred Riggs, and compassion similar to that of the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho.  It seems questionable that many other priests could have possessed talents and the dedication necessary to do the work he accomplished. Yet, since Father Sylvester’s death in 1948, Marty Mission has continued to perform services as essential as those envisaged by its principal architect.


A journal preserved by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which from appearances was written by Sister Ligouri, who had worked with Father Sylvester from the founding of the boarding school, contains an account of events following his death at Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton on September 14, 1948. “While the Sisters were saying Vespers, word came saying that Father Sylvester had died at 12:15 P.M.” Two days later, “at 9:30 A.M. the whole Mission lined up to receive the remains of our dear Father Sylvester which were brought from the undertaker at Wagner.  The body was escorted to the church in solemn procession and lay in state until the following morning.  Groups of children took turns in praying for the repose of his soul.  The Sisters continued later in the day and the employees kept the wake at night.”  On the 17th of September following the Requiem Mass, “the cross-bearer and acolytes headed the funeral procession.  All the children, as many of the Sisters as could be spared, the choir, the priests, and lastly the Bishop took part.  Many people from neighboring towns, as well as many Indians, followed.”


By the following morning, people across the Mission grounds were asking soul-searching questions.  Could the Mission go on? Would the Oblate Sisters continue? Was anyone available to carry on Father Sylvester’s work?


When word came from St. Meinrad that Father Gualbert Brunsman was appointed to succeed Father Sylvester as Superior, most of the Mission staff expressed surprise.  Although Father Gualbert had long been a friend and confidant of Father Sylvester, he never had worked among Indian people.  A native of Indiana, he had made his profession of vows at St. Meinrad on August 6, 1929, was ordained to the priesthood on May 22, 1934, and served in close proximity to St. Meinrad until his assignment to Marty Mission.  Father Gualbert was as surprised as the Mission staff; as he put it in The Little Bronze Angel, “a feather could have knocked him over.” “A tremendous responsibility” had been “thrust upon his shoulders,” wrote Abbot Ignatius.


Fortunately for the new Superior, Father Sylvester left the Mission free from debt and had completed construction of all of the buildings except for the Shop and St. Theresa’s grade school and residence for girls.  It took limited effort to complete interior work on these two buildings, and required modest expense.


There was a great need for continuing repairs and renovations, but Father Gualbert was skilled in carpentry and unhesitant to accept the task.  His methods were different from those of Father Sylvester.  Father Sylvester used second-hand materials; Father Gualbert purchased new materials because of his concern overcareful workmanship and aesthetic beauty.  Father Sylvester relied heavily upon boarding school students for labor; Father Gualbert also did this but engaged professional builders.


The two Superiors differed from each other in another significant way.  Father Sylvester was always adamant in his refusal to accept financial support from the Federal Government for fear of outside intervention in Mission affairs.  In contrast, Father Gualbert worked diligently throughout his administration to win federal aid and was able to qualify for partial assistance in the milk program and eventually the lunch program.


Father Gualbert encountered serious problems in his relationships with public officials, but his fight was in Pierre, not Washington, D.C.  Private landowners around the Mission complained to County tax officers the Marty Mission had never paid taxes on lands used for farm purposes.  Tax officials went to court and won a decision requiring Marty to pay back-taxes from the year 1936, in the amount of more than $10,000.  Sisters who shared this burden with Father recall that it sapped his energy, and probably hastened the coming of his death.


Fortunately, other aspects of his work brought him personal satisfaction to compensate for the struggle to prevent foreclosure on Mission property. One was the growth of the Oblate Sisters Community.  Father Gualbert felt the responsibility to continue the work of Father Sylvester with the Oblate Sisters and inspired three changes of great significance to the Community’s history.  During his administration, it achieved complete independence from the Sister’s of the Blessed Sacrament (1950); the Sisters became integrated (with the arrival of the first non-Indian postulant in 1954), and the Oblate Sisters required their own Novitiate building with the opening of St. Sylvester’s (1957).


Other accomplishments that brought Father Gualbert great satisfaction included the renovation of St. Paul’s Church to accommodate liturgical reforms; changes in liturgy to achieve greater involvement in worship by the congregation; the erection of the grotto to honor St. Benedict; and the construction of an “Indian Center” to house a general store, the post office, a “clothing store,” and a craft shop.  To construct the store without placing the Mission in debt, Father Gualbert sold $110,000 in securities that had been donated by benefactors over the years.


After eighteen years of service both the Mission and to Indian people across the Reservation, Father Gualbert succumbed to a heart attack (May 16, 1965).  His successor, Father George Lyon, was also an “easterner” – a native of Kentucky – but he was better prepared for the task of Superior because he had worked here at Marty several years (1958-1965), and was previously among the Chippewa people from the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.   The principle problems he faced, and the most perplexing difficulty of his successor – Father Michael O’Reilly, who arrived in 1972 – was finding sufficient funds to keep the boarding school in operation.  Contributions began to decline significantly after the death of many original benefactors.  The farms had ceased to be a major factor produce food for the students.


During the past two decades, the experiences of students at the Mission had changed too.  Crowded living conditions were seldom a problem because enrollments had declined sharply.  High School attendance had remained about the same from year to year, but elementary enrollments had declined sharply – from over 300 in the 1950s to 130 in 1975.  The curriculum had changed.  During Father Gualbert’s administration, on the advice of the school principals, students had been allowed to give full time to academic pursuits, had been more encouraged to study Indian culture, and had received more individual and remedial instruction than ever before.  Attitudes toward discipline had changed.  A combination of the “permissiveness” that has swept the nation and the emergence of Indian “self-determination” had caused the steady erosion of stern rules established by the Mission’s founder.


Even more dramatic had been the growing influence of Indian people in the management and operation of the Mission.  Due to a pronouncement from Blue Cloud Abbey in 1970, a movement began to transfer control of the Mission to the Indian people themselves.  The official name was changed to Marty Indian School.  Responsibility for certain aspects of life at the school has been given over to a new Indian school board, created in the year 1971.  From the date, July 1, 1975, the future of Marty Indian School will be in the hands of the Yankton Sioux Tribal School Board.  The priests and the sisters will remain on the reservation to continue the works of the church.