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US churches reckon with traumatic legacy of Native schools

In this 1910s photo provided by the United Church of Canada Archives, students wrote on a chalkboard at the Red Deer Indian Industrial School in Alberta. In Canada, where more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools over more than a century, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 3,201 deaths amid poor conditions.
In this 1910s photo provided by the United Church of Canada Archives, students wrote on a chalkboard at the Red Deer Indian Industrial School in Alberta. In Canada, where more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools over more than a century, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 3,201 deaths amid poor conditions.The United Church of Canada Archives/Associated Press

The discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada have prompted renewed calls for a reckoning over the traumatic legacy of similar schools in the United States — and in particular by the churches that operated many of them.

US Catholic and Protestant denominations operated more than 150 boarding schools between the 19th and 20th centuries, according to researchers. Native American and Alaskan Native children were regularly severed from their tribal families, customs, language, and religion and taken to the schools in a push to assimilate and Christianize them.

Some US churches have been reckoning with this activity for years through ceremonies, apologies, and archival investigations, while others are just getting started. Some advocates say churches have more work to do in opening their archives, educating the public about what was done in the name of their faith, and helping former students and their relatives tell their stories of family trauma.

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

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“What’s happening in Canada, that’s a wakeup call to us,” said Hauff, who is enrolled with the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

This painful history has drawn relatively little attention in the United States compared with Canada, where the recent discoveries of graves underscored what a 2015 government commission called a “cultural genocide.”

That’s beginning to change.

This month top officials with the US Episcopal Church acknowledged the denomination’s need to reckon with its involvement with such boarding schools.

“We must come to a full understanding of the legacies of these schools,” read a July 12 statement from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the denomination’s House of Deputies. They called for the denomination’s next legislative session in 2022 to earmark funds for independent research into church archives and to educate church members.

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Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, announced last month that her department would investigate “the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools.” That would include seeking to identify the schools and burial sites.

US religious groups were affiliated at least 156 such schools, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a private group formed in 2012 to raise awareness and address the traumas of the institutions. That’s more than 40 percent of the 367 schools documented so far 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 church apologies can be a good start but “there is a lot more to be done” on engaging Indigenous community members and educating the public.

Such information is crucial given how little most Americans know about the schools, he said, both in their impact on Indigenous communities and their role “as an armament toward acquisition of Native lands,” he said.

“Without that truth, then there’s really very limited possibilities of healing,” Torres said.

Hauff noted that the experiences of former students, such as his own parents, ranged widely. Some said that even amid austerity, loneliness, and family separation, they received a good education, made friends, learned skills, and freely spoke tribal languages with peers. But others talked of “unspeakable, cruel abuse,” including physical and sexual assault, malnourishment, and being punished for speaking Native languages.

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In Canada, where more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools over more than a century, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 3,201 deaths amid poor conditions.