As Native Americans cautiously welcome Pope Francis’ historic apology for abuses at Catholic residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada, American churches are preparing for an unprecedented reckoning with their own legacy of operating such schools.
Faith-based schools are set to feature prominently in a report from the US Department of the Interior, led by the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland, to be released later this month. The report, prompted by the discovery last year of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada, will focus on the loss of life and lingering trauma that the American system inflicted on Indigenous children from the 19th to the mid of the XXth century.
From Episcopalians to Quakers to the Catholic dioceses of Oklahoma, faith groups have launched or intensified efforts over the past year to seek out and atone for their previous roles in the boarding school system, which Indigenous children have been forced to associate – cutting them off from their families, tribes and traditions.
While the pontiff’s April 1 apology was directed at Indigenous groups across Canada, people were listening south of the border.
“An apology is the best way to start a conversation,” said Roy Callison, a Catholic deacon and member of the Cherokee Nation who helps coordinate the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project, which includes listening sessions for those affected by the legacy of residential school. “That’s the first step in trying to get healing.”
During Mr. Callison’s meeting with Indigenous delegations from Canada, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness “for the role that a number of Catholics…have had in all these things that hurt you, in the abuses that you have suffered and in the lack of respect for your identity. , your culture and even your spiritual values.
Pope Francis “did something really important, and that is the importance of being outraged by this story,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director of truth and healing for Red Cloud Indian School on the reservation. Pine Ridge Indian in South Dakota.
This story “is shameful, and it’s not something we should accept,” said Mr. Black Elk, who is Oglala Lakota.
Red Cloud, affiliated with the Catholic Jesuit order, was for generations a boarding school for Lakota children. It is now a day school incorporating Lakota leadership, language and traditions. Mr. Black Elk leads a reckoning process that includes researching archives and listening to alumni stories.
Canada has been the subject of a highly publicized truth and reconciliation process in recent years. The issue attracted unprecedented attention last year after a searcher using ground-penetrating radar reported finding around 200 unmarked probable burial sites at a former school in British Columbia.
This discovery, followed by others across Canada, prompted Ms. Haaland to commission the report from her ministry.
“This story in the United States has not been approached in the same way as in Canada,” Mr. Black Elk said. The report on the interior “will be an important first step on the work that needs to be done in this country”.
Church leaders are preparing. The report “will likely bring to light some very disturbing information,” says a letter circulated last fall to members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by two colleagues who have chaired committees related to the issue. The letter urged the bishops to build relationships with local Indigenous communities and engage “in meaningful and honest dialogue about reactions to the report and the steps needed to move forward together.”
Conditions varied at boarding schools in the United States, with some being described as unsafe, unsanitary, and scenes of physical or sexual abuse. Other former students remember their school years as positive times of learning, friendship and extracurricular activities.
Indigenous groups note that even the best schools were part of a scheme to assimilate children into a predominantly white Christian society and shatter their tribal identities, customs and languages – what many Indigenous groups call cultural genocide.
“The boarding school process itself is violent and damaging,” said Bryan Rindfleisch, a Native American history expert at Marquette University who helps Oklahoma Catholics research their school heritage.
There were at least 367 boarding schools in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group.
Most were government-run; many others were run by Catholic and Protestant churches.
The National Healing Coalition called Pope Francis’ comments a historic first step, but urged the Vatican to repatriate Indigenous artifacts from its museum collections and called on religious organizations to open their school archives.
In listening sessions held as part of the Oklahoma Catholic Indigenous Schools Project, many participants told positive stories of school experiences, Callison said, though the church has committed to documenting also traumatic experiences. “You’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear,” he said.
The project will also include archival research and individual interviews with those involved. At least 11 Catholic boarding schools operated in Oklahoma.
“We need to get to the truth before we can face up to anything that hurt or celebrate any success” the schools have had, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley said.
Several religious groups — including Quakers, Methodists and some Catholic religious orders — support legislation pending in Congress that would go beyond the Interior report. It would create a truth and healing commission, modeled on Canada’s, to investigate the legacy of residential schools.
The annual meeting of Friends of New England – a regional group of congregations – last year apologized for the historic sponsorship of these schools by Quakers, acknowledging that they had been undertaken with “spiritual and cultural arrogance “.
“We are deeply sorry for our part in the vast suffering caused by this system and the ongoing effects,” the New England group said.
It’s important that Quakers accept such responsibility, said Paula Palmer, a Quaker from Colorado whose research has identified about 30 Native American boarding and day schools run by Quakers.
“Annual meetings voted to support, operate and fund” the schools, she said. “So it’s really the annual meetings that have the responsibility to respond. They are also the ones who participated in the whole project of forced assimilation of Aboriginal children.
The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States has hired an archival researcher to document the history of its own residential school.
The order is “committed to examining and sharing the truth of our history, even where it is difficult,” said the Reverend Ted Penton, secretary of the Jesuit conference’s Office of Justice and Ecology.
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention in July is expected to vote on a statement that would “acknowledge the intergenerational trauma caused by genocide, colonialism,” the operation of boarding schools, and “other systems based on white supremacy.”
The convention will also consider authorizing a “thorough and complete investigation” into the operation of these schools by the Church. The proposals came from a group nominated by faith leaders.
Such measures are strong, but local dioceses must also research their own history and stand up for Indigenous peoples, said Reverend Rachel Taber-Hamilton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, Washington. Ms. Taber-Hamilton, whose heritage includes the Shackan First Nation of Canada, is an Episcopal Church representative to the Global Anglican Indigenous Network.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m sorry, and here’s some money,'” she said. “We have to do a very hard job of listening to the pain first.”
This story was reported by the Associated Press. Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.