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Akta Lakota Museum addition tells school's history

Mark Shields, a former employee of St. Joseph's Indian School, cuts the ribbon at the newly renovated Akta Lakota Museum, located on the school's campus in Chamberlain. Around Shields are, from left, Del Iron Cloud and Marcel Felicia, two alumni of St. Joseph's, the Rev. Steve Huffstetter, director of St. Joseph's, and the Rev. Anthony Kluckman. (Chris Mueller/Republic)

CHAMBERLAIN -- After more than 40 years of work at St. Joseph's Indian School, Mark Shields has plenty of stories.

As Shields, a retired school maintenance worker, looked around the Akta Lakota Museum, located on the campus of St. Joseph's, on Sunday in Chamberlain, he recalled two buses the school bought in 1959.

"We drove them for years and years," he said. "We had a lot of experiences with them."

Shields remembers a particular incident when he took one of the buses, packed with students, to Howard for a basketball game.

"We got up there and the bus wouldn't start," he said. "We called everybody and nobody could come to help."

Another St. Joseph's employee along on the trip asked Shields what they should do, he said. Shields came up with a plan.

"We've got 60 kids sitting in that bus, let them get in the back and push it," he said. "So they did, and that's how we got it started."

Shields' wife, Clara, came to St. Joseph's when she was just 3 years old and spent much of her life in and around the school, both as a student and an employee. She died last year.

"We've always been close here," Shields said. "I come back out once in awhile."

On Sunday, Shields was back to cut the ribbon at a ceremony to unveil an addition and renovations to the Akta Lakota Museum.

More than 75 school officials, community members, alumni and students attended the event.

"I think the best thing is it tells our story," said Dixie Thompson, director of the Akta Lakota Museum. "It's our history."

A focus of the approximately $3 million project was to make a place for St. Joseph's alumni to return to and a place for the school's history to be recorded, Thompson said.

"We have a lot of students that come back," she said, "and they always want to see their memories, or see pictures."

The project began in 2009 when St. Joseph's staff discussed adding a historical center and additional space to store the school's historical artifacts. Out of those discussions, the idea to create an alumni center was developed, according to Thompson.

St. Joseph's worked with Architecture Inc., of Sioux Falls, and Puetz Corp., of Mitchell, to complete the project, Thompson said.

"It's a dream come true," she said.

The Rev. Steve Huffstetter, director of St. Joseph's, was pleased and relieved to see the addition and renovations to the Akta Lakota Museum officially unveiled.

"It tells about where we've been and where we're going," Huffstetter said, addressing the crowd at the ribbon cutting.

Inside the museum, exhibits now tell the history of St. Joseph's alongside displays of historical artifacts and contemporary works of art.

"We want to try to recapture the history while there are still living people that can tell it," he said.

Having more alumni on campus will benefit the school's current students, Huffstetter said.

"We can look at the alumni as a resource for our students," he said.

The new addition will give former students a place to connect and relive their time at St. Joseph's, said Mary Jane Alexander, alumni director at St. Joseph's.

"We want people to be welcome at this place," Alexander said, addressing the crowd at the ribbon cutting. "Anybody, but especially alumni."

Outside the museum itself, a Medicine Wheel Garden will feature a water wall and a garden of native grasses, all overlooking the Missouri River. It will be set aside as a place for healing and reconciliation, Alexander said.

Construction of the garden just started last week because of weather and is expected to be finished by the end of June, Alexander said.