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American churches rely on traumatic legacy of Indigenous schools

The discoveries of hundreds of anonymous graves in former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada prompted new calls for judgment on the traumatic legacy of similar schools in the United States – and particularly by the churches that operated many of them. .

The Catholic and Protestant denominations of the United States operated more than 150 residential schools between the 19th and 20th centuries. Native American and Alaskan children were routinely separated from their tribal families, customs, language and religion and brought to school for the purpose of assimilating and Christianizing them.

Some American churches have relied on this activity for years through ceremonies, apologies and archival investigations, while others are just beginning. Some advocates say churches have more work to do to open their records, educate the public about what has been done in the name of their faith, and help alumni and loved ones tell their stories of family trauma.

“We all need to work together on this,” said Rev. Bradley Hauff, a Minnesota-based Episcopal priest and missionary for Indigenous ministries with the Episcopal Church.

“What is happening in Canada is a wake-up call for us,” said Hauff, who is registered with the Oglala Sioux tribe.

This painful story has attracted relatively little attention in the United States compared to Canada, where recent grave findings highlighted what a 2015 government commission called “cultural genocide.”

This is starting to change.

This month, senior officials of the Episcopal Church of the United States recognized the need for the denomination to heed its involvement in such residential schools.

“We have heard with sadness stories of how this story has harmed the families of many Indigenous Episcopalians,” read a July 12 statement from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Reverend Gay Clark Jennings, President of the Church. Denomination Chamber of Deputies.

“We need to come to a full understanding of the legacy of these schools,” they added, calling for the denomination’s next legislative session in 2022 to allocate funds for independent research into church records and to educate church members.

Home Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as Secretary to the US Cabinet, announced last month that her department would investigate “the loss of life and the lasting consequences of residential schools.” This would include seeking to identify schools and their burial sites.

Shortly after, she spoke at a long-planned ceremony at the former Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where the remains of nine children who died at the school more than a century earlier have been returned to the tribal representatives of Rosebud Sioux for reburial in South Dakota.

American church groups were affiliated with at least 156 of these schools, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, formed in 2012 to raise awareness and address institutional trauma. That’s more than 40% of the 367 schools documented to date by the coalition.

Eighty-four were affiliated with the Catholic Church or its religious orders, such as the Jesuits. The other 72 were affiliated with various Protestant groups, including Presbyterians (21), Quakers (15), and Methodists (12). Most have been closed for decades.

Samuel Torres, director of research and programs for the coalition, said the church’s apology can be a good start, but “there is a lot more to be done” to involve members of the indigenous community and educate the public.

Such information is crucial given the limited knowledge most Americans have about schools, both in their impact on indigenous communities and in their role “as a weapon for the acquisition of indigenous lands,” he said. he declared.

“Without this truth, the possibilities for recovery are very, very limited,” Torres said.

Hauff noted that the experiences of former students, like his own parents, were very varied. Some said that even in the midst of austerity, loneliness and family separation, they received a good education, made friends, learned skills and spoke tribal languages ​​freely with their peers. But others spoke of “unspeakable and cruel abuse,” including physical and sexual assault, malnutrition and punishment for speaking indigenous languages.

“Even though some kids said they had a positive experience, it came at a price,” Hauff said. “Our church has worked hand in hand with the government to assimilate these children. … We have to recognize that this has happened.

In Canada, where more than 150,000 indigenous children have attended residential schools for more than a century, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented 3,201 deaths in poor conditions.

The United Church of Canada, which operated 15 of these schools, apologized for its role, opened its archives and helped identify burial sites.

The Reverend Richard Bott, Moderator of the United Church, lamented that “we are to blame” and that the Church “puts the national goal of assimilation before our responsibility as Christians.”

The response of the Catholic Church in Canada remains controversial. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in June he was “deeply disappointed” that the Vatican failed to issue a formal apology. Pope Francis expressed his “sadness” over the discovery of the graves and agreed to meet at the Vatican in December with the school’s survivors and other indigenous leaders.

Canada’s Catholic bishops said in a joint statement this month that they were “saddened by the legacy of residential schools.” In Saskatchewan, the bishops have launched a fundraising campaign to benefit survivors and other reconciliation efforts.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, meanwhile, said it would “look for ways to help” with the Home Office’s investigation.

“We can’t even begin to imagine the deep sadness these findings are causing in Indigenous communities across North America,” said spokesperson Chieko Noguchi.

Influential voices such as the American Jesuit-affiliated magazine are urging American Catholic bishops not to repeat their mismanagement of cases of child sexual abuse by priests and other religious leaders.

“For decades, God’s people have been agonized by the obfuscation on the part of those church leaders who allowed only a trickle of incomplete publications of documents from the diocesan and provincial archives as investigators fought for find out the truth, ”the magazine said in an op-ed. “The church in the United States must demonstrate that it has learned from … such failures.”

Individual efforts are underway, however, such as at the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota, which formed a Truth and Healing Advisory Committee to reflect the years it was run by Catholic orders.

Other churches have dealt with their inheritance to varying degrees.

In early 2017, Presbyterian Church (US) leaders traveled to Utqiagvik on the North Slope of Alaska to make a drastic apology to a crowded school auditorium for the treatment of natives in general, and in particular for the way she operated the residential schools.

Reverend Gradye Parsons, declared former clerk of the denomination, told the assembly that the church had been “in defiance of its own proclaimed faith” in suppressing indigenous spiritual traditions amid its zeal to spread Christianity, and “the church judged when it should have listened.

“It’s taken us too long to get this apology,” Parsons said. “Many of your people who most deserved an apology are gone.”

The United Methodist Church held a repentance ceremony in 2012 for historic injustices committed against Indigenous peoples, and in 2016, it recognized its role in residential schools in tandem with a government effort to “intentionally” destroy traditional cultures and belief systems.

Yet the Native American International Caucus of The United Methodist Church recently urged the Church to do more “to uncover the truth about the role and responsibility of our denomination in this reprehensible history.”


The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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