Friday, December 14, 2018

Eagle Butte

Cheyenne River woman disinterred and cremated without permission of family and church

 Tere Charging Thunder was the daughter of Celeste Littleton of Bear Creek. Her father was Earl Charging Thunder of Oglala, SD. At the age of two, she was adopted by a non-tribal member and raised off the reservation.

According to her biological sister, Carol, Charging Thunder allegedly suffered abuse in her adoptive home. When she was 18 years old, she was given her birth certificate and thrown out of her home.

With nowhere to go, Charging Thunder was instantly homeless, and began living in tents to survive.

After many years, Charging Thunder found her way back to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, and spent a month visiting and reconnecting with her relatives. After years of living alone off the reservation, Charging Thunder was finally surrounded by family.

It was during this time she became an enrolled member of CRST.

Charging Thunder left the reservation and lived throughout the western part of the United States, eventually settling in Seattle. Throughout the years, she kept in contact with her sister and relatives on Cheyenne River.

In 2013, Charging Thunder knew that she was at the end of her life. She called her sister Carol, and said that she wanted to be buried in Bear Creek with her tiospaye.

On November 4, 2013, Charging Thunder passed away. Carol travelled to Seattle and brought her body back to Cheyenne River.

Stout Funeral Home of Mobridge handled the funeral arrangements, and Carol signed the death certificate as the Informant. The informant is usually the next of kin who makes the funeral arrangements, and is the person who can most accurately answer questions on the death certificate about the deceased.

Mother Margaret Watson of the St. James Episcopal Church in Eagle Butte presided over the funeral.

“Tere did not want to be buried alone. She lived all her life alone. It was her wishes to be buried with her ancestors. So we buried her in Bear Creek with her tiospaye,” said Watson.

Charging Thunder was buried between her grandparents, Zoe and Paul Littleton. The Littleton’s never stopped searching for Charging Thunder.

In attendance at the funeral service was Charging Thunder’s adoptive mother.

“She saw Tere’s obituary in the newspapers in Rapid City. That was how she found out that Tere had died,” said Carol.

According to Carol, the adoptive mother was verbally abusive to Tere’s biological family.

“She was so rude to our family at the funeral. She was so mouthy and so disrespectful to our elderly aunt,” said Carol.

The adoptive mother did not attend the interment ceremony at Bear Creek Cemetery.

Last summer, four years after Charging Thunder’s death, the adoptive mother contacted Mother Margaret and stated that she wished to disinter Charging Thunder and have her reburied at the Eagle Butte cemetery.

“I contacted Carol Charging Thunder, who said that under no circumstances was Tere to be disturbed,” said Mother Margaret.

The Bear Creek Cemetery is private property that is owned by the Episcopal Church.

“I told the adoptive mother, ‘If you come to do anything other than visiting her grave, you will be trespassing’,” said Mother Margaret.

Mother Margaret then contacted Kesling Funeral Home, the place the adoptive mother asked to perform disinterment and reinterment services.

According to Mother Margaret, she reminded the funeral home that they needed explicit permission from the church before they could enter any church-owned cemeteries.

“I told them, more than firmly, that they should not and could not dig up anyone in our cemeteries. They did not have permission to enter Bear Creek cemetery,” said Mother Margaret.

The adoptive mother threatened to sue the Episcopal Church, but Mother Margaret and the Diocesan Bishop of South Dakota stood their ground and supported Charging Thunder’s family wishes.

“I heard nothing more from the adoptive mother,” said Mother Margaret.

This year, from July to September, Mother Margaret went on sabbatical out of state. When she returned she found a letter from the Dewey County Commissioners Office dated July 24, 2017. Enclosed was a disinterment permit for the remains of Tere Charging Thunder.

Like all disinterment permits, it was issued by the South Dakota Department of Health. A date stamp indicates that Dewey County received the permit on July 28 but did not mail the letter until August 15th, 19 days after it received the permit from the state.

Mother Margaret attests that the church did not receive the letter until the last week of August.

In the letter, Dewey County Auditor Kyrie Lemburg wrote, “I apologize for the delay in getting this information to you. For several weeks I was unable to locate contact information for the cemetery board.”

By the time Mother Margaret received the letter, it was too late. Charging Thunder had been disinterred from the Bear Creek Cemetery and was reburied in Eagle Butte.

Mother Margaret went to Bear Creek Cemetery to inspect Charging Thunder’s burial site.

Large heavy equipment tire tracks could be seen where Kesling Funeral Home dug up Charging Thunder’s remains. Gravesites within a 15-feet radius also had signs of disturbance.

“I do not know if the grave that was dug up was Tere’s grave, because her plastic marker had blew away several feet. There was a huge disturbance to the graves. I am 99% sure it is Tere, but couldn’t tell you that with 100% assurance,” said an emotional Mother Margaret.

Mother Margaret contacted Kesling Funeral Home and was informed they disinterred and reinterred Charging Thunder in Eagle Butte.

Mother Margaret then contacted the Eagle Butte Cemetery and was told that Charging Thunder was reinterred in Eagle Butte, and that her remains were placed in a cremation plot.

Kesling Funeral Home did not inform Mother Margaret that they had cremated Charging Thunder.

Mother Margaret immediately contacted Carol and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe with the shocking news.

Carol immediately wrote a grievance letter to the South Dakota Department of Health.

On October 25, Carol received a letter from the State Registrar, Mariah Pokorny. Enclosed were two Notices of Disinterment Permit that she said were sent to the Dewey County Commissioners Office and CRST Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier.

CRST said that they do not have any record of receiving any notification from the state regarding Charging Thunder.

Furthermore, a comparison of these two letters shows glaring differences.

In the letter allegedly sent to Chairman Frazier, the adoptive mother’s address is not listed, the date format and font are different than the letter sent to the county. Also missing in the letter is this excerpt, which was in the letter to the county:

“We would appreciate you providing prompt notice of this Disinterment Permit to the affected cemetery board of directors and/or any affected family members of the deceased, as you determine appropriate.”

In her response to Carol’s grievance letter, Pokorny wrote, “In the case you reference, the appropriate process was followed.”

Carol also sent a letter to the State Board of Funeral Services, listing her grievances against Kesling Funeral Home. In the letter, she asked the state to revoke the funeral home’s license.

She also demanded that her sister’s cremated remains be returned to the family and that the adoptive mother and Kesling Funeral Home pay the expenses to reinter Charging Thunder in Bear Creek.

Carol also asked that the tribe be reimbursed for the full amount of $5123.06 because the tribe’s Support Services Program paid for the original funeral.

On January 22, Carol received a letter from the State Board of Funeral Services which stated, “We will take your correspondence to our board meeting in May for informational purposes only.”

As of February 13, the South Dakota Board of Funeral Services did not have any updated information about its official position or findings in regards to Carol’s grievance letter. The board’s mission statement on its website states:

“The mission of the South Dakota Board of Funeral Service is to receive consumer inquiries and complaints; to license funeral practitioners and establishments in the State of South Dakota which ensure the consumer that he is dealing with qualified practitioners and establishments… to enforce the updated statutes and rules and regulations governing the practice of funeral service in South Dakota, including complaint processing from the consumer and licensees; and, to make investigations and hold hearings as needed.”

In an interview over the phone, the board’s Executive Assistant, Jill Lesselyoung, stated that the person most knowledgeable with the case was on vacation.

“I just can’t give you any more information. There really is no further information I can give you,” said Lesselyoung.

Lesselyoung said that state board would meet in early May in conjunction with the South Dakota Funeral Home Directors Association annual state convention, and that Charging Thunder’s case may be discussed at that time.

According to Carol, in October, she sent letters requesting assistance in the matter of her sister, Tere Charging Thunder. The following individuals were emailed:

Former tribal Assistant Attorney General Diane Roy; Council Representative Raymond Uses the Knife; Cultural Program Administrator Donna Rae Peterson; and Chairman Harold Frazier.

Kesling Funeral Home continues to operate on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Their business license expires in April, which Kesling Funeral Home may request for renewal. The tribe’s treasurer signs all business licenses issued by the tribe.

CRST Support Services continues to pay Kesling Funeral Home for funeral services for enrolled members of the tribe. It is not known as of press time how much money Kesling Funeral Home has profited since November, when Charging Thunder’s story was first published.