IllumiNative, a national Native woman-led social justice organization is launching a documentary-style podcast, titled “American Genocide: The Crimes of Native American Boarding Schools,” to uncover a horrifying truth about one of the United States government’s best kept secrets. The podcast examines the atrocities and human rights violations committed against Native children at Native American boarding schools by the U.S. federal government and Catholic Church and follows the ongoing federal investigation into these crimes.

In the six-episode series, Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), founder and executive director of IllumiNative, and Lashay Wesley (Choctaw), director of communications and storytelling at IllumiNative, investigate and search for answers and justice at Red Cloud Indian School, a former boarding school in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

As part of Secretary Deb Haaland’s Federal Indian Boarding Schools Initiative, the Department of the Interior (DOI) released an investigative report in 2022 which found that from 1819-1969, the federal Indian boarding school system involved more than 400 boarding schools operated by the federal government and the Catholic Church. At these schools, Native children experienced physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and inhumane conditions under the guise of education and “cultural assimilation.” The DOI’s investigation identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 different schools across the school system with additional burial sites expected to be found as the investigation continues. “American Genocide” examines this history at Red Cloud Indian School, where there has been no acknowledgment of the children who were burned or beaten for speaking their Lakota language, the children who died attempting to run away, or the eye witness accounts of unmarked graves at the school. Red Cloud stopped boarding students in 1980 but still operates as a private Catholic school today, serving more than 600 students from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota tribe. 

“We had no idea where this would end up when we first started — all we knew was that this story had to be told – and what we uncovered is far bigger than any of us could have imagined,” said Crystal Echo Hawk. “The United States government and Catholic Church blatantly committed genocide, and no one really knows about it outside of the Native community. This isn’t a distant part of history either – some of the boarding school survivors are still alive and the pain from their experiences spans generations. This is deeply personal to me and countless other Native peoples, and we hope that ‘American Genocide’ will reach new audiences and hold these institutions responsible for their role in the deaths and erasure of Native peoples. We cannot heal from this trauma until we acknowledge the truth of what happened, and we invite everyone to join us on this journey of justice and reconciliation at Red Cloud, the Pine Ridge Reservation, and for all Native peoples across the country impacted by the U.S. and church-run Native American boarding schools.” 

Over the course of six episodes, Echo Hawk and Wesley will take listeners with them as they visit Pine Ridge and investigate the two versions of Red Cloud: the school that positively impacts the community today and the school that is one of the greatest sources of trauma on the Pine Ridge reservation. Featuring interviews with school administrators, local elders and survivors, young activists, and the U.S. Department of the Interior, “American Genocide” embeds itself in the community and covers every step of this story — from the community’s reactions to Secretary Haaland’s investigation, Red Cloud’s search for mass graves on campus, the growing conflicts between Red Cloud and community youth activists, and if the Catholic Church will close Red Cloud and return the land to the Lakota people. 

“Storytelling is an integral part of the Native community,” said Lashay Wesley. “It’s how we keep our culture and history alive, it’s how we heal and make sense of our past – it’s what makes us resilient. We were lucky enough to speak with survivors of these schools, and many others for this podcast, and we are so thankful to the people of Pine Ridge – from Lakota youth to elders – who took the time to share their deeply personal and sometimes very painful stories with us. We could not have done this without Secretary Deb Haaland’s powerful leadership to launch this unprecedented investigation, and the unwavering support and collaboration from DIGA Studios and Madica Productions, as well as Pop Culture Collaborative, CAA, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and Open Society Foundations. We’re thrilled to finally share this with the world.”

“In the summer of 2021, I read about the hundreds of thousands of Native children who were forced to attend Native American Boarding Schools, and I was ashamed that I wasn’t aware of this painful time in our history. First thing I did was call Crystal to try to understand and learn more. I learned that these children endured endless physical, mental, sexual abuse and many thousands were killed. I asked her what I could do to help and she said people need to know what the Government and the Church did here. We came up with the idea of a podcast and developed this true story with Crystal and Lashay at the helm. I hope that people everywhere listen and that a greater dialogue is started around this issue,” said Shawn Sachs, CEO of Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis. 

“American Genocide” is produced by DIGA Studios, IllumiNative and Madica Productions, the sister production company of Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis. Patrick Smith is executive producing for DIGA Studios, Crystal Echo Hawk is executive producing for IllumiNative, Jeff Tahler is executive producing for Madica, and Shawn Sachs is executive producing for Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis.