Churches in the United States are preparing themselves for an unprecedented confrontation with their own histories of running boarding schools for Indigenous children, as Native Americans tentatively accept Pope Francis’ historic apologies for the crimes committed on their ancestors within Canada.
Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, is expected to issue a report on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s efforts to improve Native American education later this month. Last year’s discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at old Canadian residential school sites prompted the investigation, which will concentrate on the deaths and long-lasting traumas inflicted on Indigenous children by the U.S. system from the 19th to the mid-20th century.
Faith groups in Oklahoma, ranging from Episcopalians to Quakers to Catholic dioceses, have begun or intensified efforts in the last year to investigate and atone for their prior roles in the boarding school system, which forced Native children to attend, cutting them off from their families, tribes, and traditions.
On April 1, Pope Francis addressed Indigenous tribes in Canada, and many in the United States were paying attention.
For Roy Callison, a Catholic deacon and Cherokee Nation member, an apology is the best way to begin any discourse. He is working to manage the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project, which involves listening sessions for those affected by the boarding school past. “That’s the first step to trying to get healing.”
Francis prayed for forgiveness “for the role that a number of Catholics … had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” during his meeting with Canada’s Indigenous representatives.
According to Maka Black Elk, executive director of truth and healing at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Francis “did something really important, which is name the importance of being indignant at this history.”
According to Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota, that past “is shameful, and it is not something we should accept,” Black Elk said in a statement.
Red Cloud, a Catholic Jesuit boarding school, served the Lakota people for many years. It has been transformed into a traditional Lakota day school, complete with Lakota teachers and curriculum. In order to come to terms with the past, Black Elk is leading a process of archival research and interviewing former students.
The Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada has been widely covered in recent years. Ground-penetrating radar uncovered nearly 200 unmarked potential burial sites at a former school in British Columbia last year, bringing attention to the problem.
In the wake of similar findings throughout Canada, Haaland commissioned a study from her own department.
According to Black Elk, the United States has yet to deal with this past in the same manner that it has dealt with it in Canada. In terms of the work that must be done in our nation, the Interior report “will be an important first step.”
Leaders of the church are preparing. According to a letter sent last October to members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by two colleagues who served on committees looking into the matter, the study will undoubtedly come to light some extremely alarming material. An open and honest discourse about how people are responding to the findings and what efforts need to be taken to go ahead together was urged on bishops in the letter.
Some boarding schools in the United States were regarded as dangerous, unsanitary, and scenes of physical or sexual abuse. Other students describe their school years as an enjoyable time of camaraderie, academics and extracurricular activities.
Several indigenous communities claim that even the best schools were part of an effort to integrate students into a society dominated by white Christians while simultaneously eradicating their unique identities, rituals, and languages.
Catholics in Oklahoma are working with historian Bryan Rindfleisch, a Marquette University Native American history professor who says that the practice of boarding schools is inherently violent and harmful.
National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minneapolis-based advocacy organization, estimates that there were 367 boarding schools in the United States throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century..
Most were operated by the government, but there were also a large number managed by churches, both Catholic and Protestant.
While the national healing coalition applauded the Pope for his remarks, they encouraged the Vatican to return Indigenous items in its museum collections and called on religious groups to release their institutional archives.
Listening sessions performed via the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project elicited many good tales from participants, but the church is also dedicated to chronicling the terrible ones, Callison remarked. “You’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear,” he said.
Archival research and one-on-one interviews with people impacted will also be part of the project. Oklahoma was home to at least 11 Catholic residential schools.
Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City remarked, “We need to get to the truth before we can deal with whatever hurt or celebrate whatever success” the schools accomplished.
More than a few religious organizations are supporting legislation in Congress that goes beyond the Interior Department’s report on climate change. Using the paradigm of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it would explore the boarding school past.
Earlier this year, a group of local congregations known as the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends issued an apology for the historical support of such institutions by Quakers, admitting their “spiritual and cultural arrogance.”
There was a lot of pain caused by this system, and we’re very sorry for our role in it, stated the New England group.
According to Paula Palmer, a Colorado-based Quaker who has conducted extensive study into the history of Native American boarding and day schools managed by Quakers, it’s critical that they do so.
“The yearly meetings voted to support, operate and finance” the schools, she said. “So it’s really the yearly meetings who have the responsibility to respond. They were the ones who also participated in the whole project of forced assimilation of Indigenous children.”
The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States has recruited an archive researcher to chronicle the Jesuit Conference’s boarding school history.
According to Rev. Ted Penton, secretary of the Jesuit conference’s Office for Justice and Ecology, “even where that is difficult,” the order is “committed to examining and sharing the truth of our history.”
Voting on a declaration acknowledging “the intergenerational trauma caused by genocide, colonialism, and boarding schools and other systems based on white supremacy” is anticipated during the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in July.
The church’s running of such schools will likewise be the subject of a “comprehensive and complete investigation” by the convention. It was the recommendations of a committee constituted by denominational leaders that led to these conclusions.
Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, said local dioceses need to understand their own history and fight for Indigenous peoples. It is Taber-mission Hamilton’s to represent the Episcopal Church in Canada’s Shackan First Nation in the Anglican Indigenous Network.
A simple apology and monetary compensation aren’t enough for her, she added. Listening to the suffering is the first step, but it’s a difficult one.