As Native Americans cautiously welcome Pope Francis’ historic apology for abuses at Catholic-run boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada, U.S. churches are bracing for an unprecedented reckoning with their own legacies of operating such schools.
Church schools are likely to feature prominently in a report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, led by the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland, due to be released later this month. The report, prompted 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 the enduring traumas the U.S. system inflicted on Indigenous children from the 19th to mid-20th centuries.
From Episcopalians to Quakers to Catholic dioceses in Oklahoma, faith groups have either started or intensified efforts in the past year to research and atone for their prior roles in the boarding school system, which Native children were forced to attend — cutting them off from their families, tribes and traditions.
While the pontiff’s April 1 apology was addressed to Indigenous groups from Canada, people were listening south of the border.
“An apology is the best way to start any conversation,” said Roy Callison, a Catholic deacon and Cherokee Nation member helping coordinate the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project, which includes listening sessions for those affected by the boarding school legacy. “That’s the first step to trying to get healing.”
In his meeting with Canada’s Indigenous delegations, Francis asked 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.”
Francis “did something really important, which is name the importance of being indignant at this history,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director of truth and healing for Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
That history “is shameful, and it is not something we should accept,” said Black Elk, who is Oglala Lakota.
Red Cloud, affiliated with the Catholic Jesuit order, was for generations a boarding school for Lakota children. It’s now a day school incorporating Lakota leadership, language and traditions. Black Elk is guiding a reckoning process that includes archival research and hearing the stories of former students.
Canada underwent a much-publicized Truth and Reconciliation process in recent years. The issue gained unprecedented attention last year after a researcher using ground-penetrating radar reported finding about 200 unmarked probable burial sites at a former school in British Columbia.
That discovery, followed by others across Canada, prompted Haaland to commission her department’s report.
“This history in the United States has not been addressed in the same way it has been addressed in Canada,” Black Elk said. The Interior report “will be an important first step about the work that needs to happen in this country.”
Church leaders are getting ready. The report “will likely bring to light some very troubling information,” said a letter circulated last fall to members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from two colleagues who chaired committees related to the issue. The letter urged bishops to build relationships with local Indigenous communities and engage “in a real and honest dialogue about reactions to the report and what steps are needed to go forward together.”
Conditions varied at boarding schools in the United States, with some described as unsafe, unsanitary and scenes of physical or sexual abuse. Other former students recall their school years as positive times of learning, friendship and extracurricular activities.
Indigenous groups note that even the better schools were part of a project to assimilate children into a predominately white, Christian society and break down their tribal identities, customs and languages — what many Indigenous groups call a cultural genocide.
“The very process of boarding schools is violent and damaging,” said Bryan Rindfleisch, an expert in Native American history at Marquette University who is helping Catholics in Oklahoma research their school legacy.