While Native Americans cautiously welcome Pope Francis’ historic apology for abusing boarding schools run by Catholics to natives in Canada, US churches are preparing for an unprecedented reckoning with the legacy of running such schools.
Church schools are likely to feature prominently in a U.S. Department of the Interior report, led by the first-ever Native American secretary of state, Dov Halland, due to be published later this month. , Will focus on the loss of life and ongoing traumas that the American system caused to native children from the 19th century to the mid-20th century.
From Episcopalians to Quakers to Catholic diocese in Oklahoma, religious groups have begun or intensified efforts in the past year to explore and atone for their previous roles in the boarding school system, to which native children were forced to study – alienated from their families, tribes and traditions.
While the pope’s apology on April 1 was addressed to Native American groups, people listened south of the border.
“An apology is the best way to start any conversation,” said Roy Clison, a Catholic deacon and member of the Cherokee Nation that helps coordinate the Oklahoma Catholic Schools project, which includes listening sessions for those affected by boarding school heritage. “This is the first step in trying to reach healing.”
Church leaders are getting ready. The report “is likely to reflect very disturbing information,” read a letter circulated last fall to members of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference from two colleagues who chaired committees related to the issue. The letter urged bishops to build ties with local indigenous communities and conduct a “genuine and honest dialogue about the responses to the report and what steps are needed to move forward together.”
Conditions have changed in 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 periods of learning, friendships, and extracurricular activities.
Indigenous groups point out that even the better schools were part of a project to assimilate children into a predominantly white Christian society and break their tribal identity, customs and languages - what many indigenous groups call cultural genocide.
“The very process of boarding is violent and harmful,” said Brian Rindfleisch, an Indian history expert at Market University who helps Oklahoma Catholics explore their school heritage.
There were at least 367 boarding schools across the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, an information group from Minneapolis.
Most of them were in government management; Many others were run by Catholic and Protestant churches.