Home Posts Churches In The United States Are Dealing With The Traumatic Legacy Of Native American Schools
Churches In The United States Are Dealing With The Traumatic Legacy Of Native American Schools
United States

Churches In The United States Are Dealing With The Traumatic Legacy Of Native American Schools

The discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada has reignited calls for a reckoning with the traumatic legacy of similar schools in the United States, particularly by the churches that ran many of them.

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, more than 150 boarding schools in the United States were operated by Catholic and Protestant denominations, with Native American and Alaskan Native children routinely separated from their tribal families, customs, language, and religion and sent to the schools in an effort to assimilate and Christianize them.

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

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

“What’s going on in Canada is a wake-up call to us,” said Hauff, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

In comparison to Canada, where recent discoveries of graves highlighted what a 2015 government commission called a "cultural genocide," this painful history has received relatively little attention in the United States.

This is changing.

The United States Episcopal Church's top officials acknowledged this month that the denomination's involvement with such boarding schools must be addressed.

“We have heard with sadness stories of how this history has harmed the families of many Indigenous Episcopalians,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the denomination’s House of Deputies, said in a joint statement on July 12.

“We must come to a full understanding of these schools’ legacies,” they added, urging the denomination’s next legislative session in 2022 to allocate funds for independent research into church archives and education of church members.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary, announced last month that her department would look into “the loss of human life and the long-term consequences of residential Indian boarding schools,” including locating the schools and their burial grounds.

Soon after, she spoke at a long-planned ceremony at the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where the remains of nine children who died there more than a century ago were returned to Rosebud Sioux tribal representatives for burial in South Dakota.

According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which was formed in 2012 to raise awareness and address the traumas of the institutions, at least 156 such schools were affiliated with religious groups in the United States, accounting for more than 40% of the 367 schools documented so far.

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

According to Samuel Torres, the coalition's director of research and programs, church apologies are a good start, but "a lot more work needs to be done" to engage Indigenous community members and educate the public.

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

“Without that truth, there are really only a few options for healing,” Torres explained.


Hauff noted that former students' experiences varied widely, with some claiming that despite austerity, loneliness, and family separation, they received a good education, made friends, learned skills, and freely spoke tribal languages with peers. Others, however, spoke of "unspeakable, cruel abuse," including physical and sexual assault, malnourishment, and punishment for speaking tribal languages.

“Even if some of the children say they had a positive experience, it did come at a cost,” Hauff said, noting that “our church worked hand in hand with the government to assimilate these children.... We need to acknowledge it happened.”

A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada identified 3,201 deaths in residential schools over a century, with over 150,000 Indigenous children attending over that time.

The United Church of Canada, which ran 15 of these schools, apologized for its role, opened its archives, and assisted in locating burial sites.

The Rev. Richard Bott, moderator of the United Church of Canada, lamented that “we were perpetrators in this” and that the church “put the national goal of assimilation ahead of our responsibility as Christians.”

The Catholic Church's response in Canada has been contentious. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in June that he was "deeply disappointed" that the Vatican had not issued a formal apology. Pope Francis expressed "sorrow" following the discovery of the graves and has agreed to meet with school survivors and other Indigenous leaders in December at the Vatican.

In a joint statement this month, Canada's Catholic bishops said they are "saddened by the Residential Schools legacy." Bishops in Saskatchewan have launched a fundraising campaign to benefit survivors and other reconciliation efforts.

Meanwhile, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said it would “look for ways to assist” the Interior Department’s investigation.

“We cannot begin to imagine the deep sorrow these discoveries are causing in Native communities across North America,” said Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the organization.

Influential voices, including the Jesuit-affiliated America Magazine, are urging U.S. Catholic bishops not to repeat their handling of cases of child sex abuse by priests and other religious leaders.

“For decades, the people of God were anguished by the obfuscation on the part of those church leaders who allowed only a trickle of incomplete document releases from diocesan and provincial archives while investigators struggled to get to the truth,” the magazine wrote in an editorial, adding, “The church in the United States must demonstrate that it has learned from... such failures.”

Individual efforts, on the other hand, are underway, such as at the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota, which has formed a Truth and Healing Advisory Committee to account for the years it was managed by Catholic orders.

Other churches, to varying degrees, have addressed their legacy.


Early in 2017, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) traveled to Utqiagvik, Alaska's North Slope, to deliver a sweeping apology before a packed school auditorium for the treatment of Indigenous people in general, and specifically for how the boarding schools were operated.

Former state clerk for the denomination, Rev. Gradye Parsons, told the gathering that the church had been “in contempt of its own proclaimed faith” in suppressing Native spiritual traditions in its zeal to spread Christianity, and that “the church judged when it should have listened.”

“It has taken us far too long to reach this apology,” Parsons said, adding that “many of your people who deserved it the most are no longer with us.”

In 2012, the United Methodist Church held a repentance ceremony for historical injustices against Native peoples, and in 2016, it acknowledged its role in boarding schools in tandem with a government effort to “intentionally” destroy traditional cultures and belief systems.

Nonetheless, the United Methodist Church's Native American International Caucus recently urged the denomination to do more "to uncover the truth about our denomination's role and responsibility in this heinous history."

The Lilly Endowment supports Associated Press religion coverage through The Conversation U.S. The Associated Press is solely responsible for this content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published, Required fields are marked with *.