Original URL: http://www.yankton.net/stories/060703/com_20030607027.shtml

Alleged Abuse Prompts Lawsuit
Wagner Pair Involved In Action Against Feds
Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan
June 7, 2003

BY TERA SCHMIDT, P&D Staff Writer

A multi-billion dollar lawsuit against the federal government that has gained nationwide attention began with a phone call from South Dakota.

Gary Frischer, multi-district litigation consultant, got a call last July from a man in South Dakota who told Frischer about unbelievable abuse he and other Native Americans had allegedly experienced at Catholic boarding schools when they were children.

"He talked to me for hours," said Frischer, who is working with Miami attorney Jeff Herman on this case. "He had me in tears. As a white American, I was absolutely ashamed. I travel all over the world working on cases, but after hearing this story I decided to devote all my time to this."

Frischer traveled to South Dakota and was introduced to Sherwyn Zephier and his sister, Adele Zephier of Wagner.

Since that time Frischer, his wife Carrie, and the Zephiers have traveled extensively throughout South Dakota visiting reservations and collecting evidence.

"Last month we found all the evidence we needed to file a lawsuit," Frischer said.

The $25 billion class-action lawsuit was filed in April against the the federal government, which paid the church to house, feed and educate Native American children on reservations.

"The lawsuit is against the federal government because it broke the Treaty of 1868, which said it would not let the bad man' onto the reservations," Frischer said.

The 1868 Treaty signed April 29, 1868, at Ft. Laramie, Wyo., stated any bad men who committed any wrongs against the Native Americans would be arrested and punished by the United States (upon proof) and also the injured person would also be re-imbursed for the loss.

The lawsuit, which began with a few former boarding school students, has grown to include hundreds of people from reservations across South Dakota.

"Thousands have called from all over the country stating they have experienced the same kinds of things," Frischer said. "We now have clients from Arizona, Mexico, South Dakota, North Dakota and even Alaska. There are approximately 10,000 victims in South Dakota and 300,000 living victims in the U.S. Before it is all over, I think the lawsuit will have 25,000-50,000 people involved."

Frischer's clients plan to file new lawsuits in the coming weeks against each of the schools, the diocese, the archdiocese and specific individuals.

"Our client base multiplies every day," Frischer said. "We have received hundreds of phone calls. There were many, many schools built for this purpose."

"I talked on (a Native American call-in) radio show earlier this week," Sherwyn Zephier said. "Just in that time, we received 30 phone calls from people telling us what had happened to them. They were all the same stories."

Frischer said the civil lawsuits may be followed up with criminal cases.

"We hope to see criminal charges against the nuns and priests that caused the abuse," he said. "There were many children who went into these schools and disappeared. The FBI should look into it and figure out the names of these children and file the proper charges. There is no statute of limitations on a criminal charge of murder."

Those who survived the boarding schools, including the Zephiers, are describing horrific scenarios of constant mental, physical and sexual abuse.

"We had the dignity taken from us -- beaten out of us," Sherwyn Zephier said. "We were taken out of our homes. We were totally at the mercy of the priests and nuns and caretakers."

"The (school employees) beat the crap out of the students, raped and sodomized them," Frischer said.

Sherwyn Zephier, who attended St. Paul Mission School in Marty, said he remembers being tortured and confined in closets or in the attic for days at a time without food or water.

"The sexual abuse was so bad," said Adele Zephier, who also attended St. Paul's. "They continuously molested the same (children) year after year."

Sherwyn Zephier said that, although the alleged abuse ended in the 1970s when the schools were reverted back to tribal control, the effects of the abuse did not end.

"The results of the abuse are mental anguish, physical scarring and spiritual damage," he said. "The spiritual damage goes so deep because they always used the name of God when they were beating us. They did it in the name of God.

"They stripped us of our identities," Sherwyn Zephier continued. "Everything of our culture had to be removed, including our physical appearance and our religious beliefs. They tortured us if we would speak our language.

"It was a terrible time of loneliness. We had no contact with family members. We were locked up. The atmosphere was like a jail."

Sherwyn Zephier said many Native Americans have turned to drug and alcohol abuse to dull the pain of the abuse.

"The survivors have tried to cope with the trauma, pain and memories through alcohol and drugs," he said. "Many of us have tried to wipe it away, but you can't eliminate or dull the memories."

This lawsuit should educate the world about life on the reservations, Sherwyn Zephier said.

"Those of us that held on to our sanity and maintained ourselves picked up our culture again," he said. "We asked about our language and customs and traditions. We have made a stand to tell the truth to all the world, so let the education begin."

Many of the people involved with the lawsuit, including the Zephiers, also hope to bring political change and strengthen their culture, Frischer said.

"Native Americans, among minorities in America, have the weakest voice in the political system," Frischer said. "This lawsuit is beginning to unify the different nations under one cause. In the very near future, I think the tribes will have a very strong voice in our country."

Sherwyn Zephier said he hopes the tribal system can also be changed.

"Another thing we are intending to improve is the way tribal government operates," he said. "We have to think positive and help each other more. This is all due to hope. You don't realize how little hope you have until you get filled up."

When Frischer first came to Wagner, he said many tribal members didn't realize they had civil rights.

"They didn't know they had the same civil rights as other Americans," he said. "I spent a lot of time telling them about their rights and telling them that they can stand up and they will win. They don't have to sit back and take it."

Sherwyn Zephier said he sees this as the first step to creating closure and allowing healing to begin.

"I hope this lawsuit allows people to begin to heal the pain and trauma they have gone through," he said. "I also hope they will deal with the loss of family members who have committed suicide because they couldn't live with the pain.

"The church and government have ruled over our people. They have divided us, brainwashed us, and still we have family and friends who are real skeptical," he added.

"They think that because they survived the boarding schools, they are OK. But they're not OK. The effects of the boarding school experience have rippled out to other family members and other generations."

Frischer and Sherwyn Zephier urged anyone who has been abused to seek out a counselor or spiritual advisor.

"People need to go see them," Frischer said. "The Catholic Church has opened its doors to the victims of abuse. I feel that, if the abusers treat the abused, it is just abusing the abused again."

"It is too late for them to heal the hurt they caused," Zephier said. "There are a lot of recovering Catholics out there."

Contact Tera Schmidt at 665-7811 (ext. 123) or tera.schmidt@yankton.net.