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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

First pope, now American church faces boarding-school reckoning

by Peter Smith

While Native Americans cautiously welcome Pope Francis’ historic apology for misbehavior at Catholic-run boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada, the American Church with its legacy of operating such schools is poised for an unprecedented reckoning.

Church schools are likely to feature prominently in a report by the US Department of the Interior, led by the first Native American cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland, to be released later this month. The report, inspired by last year’s discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada, will focus on the loss of life and lasting trauma inflicted by the American system on Indigenous children from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries.

From Episcopalian to Quakers to Catholic dioceses in Oklahoma, faith groups have either begun or intensified efforts over the past year to research and atone for their past roles in the boarding school system, which included native children. were forced to part ways – cutting them off from their families. , tribes and traditions.

While the pontiff’s April 1 apology was addressed to Canada’s indigenous groups, people south of the border were listening.

Roy Collison, Catholic Deacon and member of the Cherokee Nation who helped coordinate the Oklahoma Catholic Native School Project, said, “Apologizing is the best way to start any conversation, including listening for those affected by the boarding school’s legacy. Sessions are included. “This is the first step in trying to get treatment.”

In his meeting with Canada’s Indigenous delegations, Francis apologized “for the role that many Catholics have… in all these things that hurt you, the abuse you’ve had and the respect for your identity, your culture.” In the lack of. And even your spiritual values.”

“Francis did something really important, which is the importance of being angry in this history,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director of Truth and Healing for the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

That history is “shameful, and not something we should accept,” said Black Elk, who is an 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. Black Elk is guiding a reckoning process that includes archival research and listening to alumni stories.

Canada has gone through a much-publicized truth and reconciliation process in recent years. The issue gained unprecedented attention last year after a researcher using ground-penetrating radar discovered nearly 200 unmarked potential burial sites at a former British Columbia school.

That discovery, followed by others across Canada, prompted Haaland to turn in his department’s report.

“This history in the United States is not addressed in the same way it has been addressed in Canada,” Black Elk said. The internal report “will be an important first step regarding the work to be done in this country.”

Church leaders are getting ready. The report is likely to reveal “some very disturbing information,” said a letter to members of the American Conference of Catholic Bishops by two colleagues who chaired committees related to the issue. The letter urged the bishops to build relationships with local indigenous communities and “engage in a genuine and honest conversation about the responses to the report and what steps are needed to move forward together”.

Conditions were varied in boarding schools in the United States, with some described as unsafe, unhygienic and scenes of physical or sexual abuse. Other alumni remember their school years as a positive time of learning, friendship and extra-curricular activities.

Indigenous groups note that even the better schools were part of a project to assimilate children into a predominantly white, Christian society and break away their tribal identities, customs and languages ​​– which many Indigenous groups call cultural genocide.

“The very process of boarding schools is violent and harmful,” said Brian Rindfleisch, an expert in Native American history at Marquette University who is helping Catholics in Oklahoma research their school heritage.

According to the Minneapolis-based advocacy group National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, there were at least 367 boarding schools across the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Most were run by the government; Many others were run by Catholic and Protestant churches.

The National Healing Coalition called Pope Francis’ remarks a historic first step, but urged the Vatican to return indigenous artifacts to its museum collections and called on religious organizations to open their school archives.

In listening sessions conducted through the Oklahoma Catholic Native School Project, many participants told positive stories of school experiences, Callison said, although the church is committed to documenting painful ones as well. “You’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear,” he said.

The project will also include archival research and personal interviews with those affected. There are at least 11 Catholic boarding schools operating in Oklahoma.

“We need to get to the truth before we can deal with any injuries or celebrate whatever successes,” Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Cockley said.

Several church groups – including Quakers, Methodists and some Catholic religious orders – are backing legislation pending in Congress that will go beyond internal reports. It will create a Truth and Healing Commission based on the Canadian model to investigate the legacy of the boarding school.

The New England Annual Meeting of Friends – a regional group of congregations – issued an apology last year for Quakers’ historic sponsorship of such schools, acknowledging that they were done with “spiritual and cultural arrogance”.

“We are deeply sorry for our part in the enormous suffering caused by this system and the continuing effects,” the New England group said.

It is important for Quakers to accept such responsibility, said Paula Palmer, a Quaker from Colorado, whose research has identified about 30 Native American boarding and day schools that were run by Quakers.

“The annual meetings vote to support, operate and finance the schools”, she said. “So it is really the annual meetings that have a responsibility to answer. They were the ones who also participated in the whole project of the forced assimilation of indigenous children.”

The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States has hired an archival researcher to document the history of its boarding school.

Ted Penton, secretary of the Jesuit Conference’s Office of Justice and Ecology, said, “The Order is committed to examining and sharing the truth of our history, even where it is difficult.”

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church is expected to vote on a statement in July that would “accept the genocide, the intergenerational trauma caused by colonialism” and the operation of boarding schools and “other systems based on white supremacy”.

The conference will also consider authorizing a “comprehensive and thorough investigation” of the Church’s operations of such schools. The proposals came from a group appointed by communal leaders.

Rachel Taber-Hamilton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, Washington, said such measures are strong, but local dioceses also need to research their history and advocate for indigenous peoples. Taber-Hamilton, whose legacy includes Canada’s Shekan First Nation, is an Episcopal Church representative for the worldwide Anglican Indigenous network.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m sorry, and here’s some money,'” she said. “We have to try very hard to hear the pain first.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. Associated Press is solely responsible for this content.

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