Natives join Catholics in long search for residential school details

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WASHINGTON, DC – Native American tribal officials are teaming up with Catholic dioceses and religious congregations to uncover vast amounts of information about the church’s role in running the residential schools that for more than a century have worked to assimilate Aboriginal children into white society.

Known as the Catholic Native Boarding School Accountability and Healing Project, or AHP, the effort helps church institutions learn about their past and helps Native American communities fill in the holes in their ancestral history.


The “pain of realizing the immensity of the damage done” motivated Sister Susan Torgersen of Minneapolis to join the effort as a member of her coordinating team and her religious accompaniment subcommittee working with religious congregations of women and men.

She said AHP seeks to work to hold Catholic institutions accountable and promote healing among Indigenous tribes and Catholic entities.

“As a church, we owe our indigenous brothers and sisters what is needed in terms of reparations, in terms of healing. I believe we have to do it in a way that listens, explained Torgersen, who said his religious community, the Congregation of St. Joseph, does not operate any of the schools.

Future work must include Native American representatives to discern how to carry out the task of researching thousands of pages of decades-old documents in diocesan and congregational archives and how to share what is discovered with tribal communities, those related to the process of research told Catholic News Service.

“One of the things that’s really important about this effort is that it’s not something that a lot of Indigenous people need more information about. It’s part of our family history. The real gap is the lack of outreach to non-natives across the country,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director for Truth and Healing at the Jesuit-sponsored Red Cloud Indian School on the Indian Reservation. Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

“What I suggested to the AHP is to raise awareness, engage the non-indigenous Catholic community and go into it with an open heart and mind,” he said.

This painstaking research has taken on added importance in the past year since the U.S. Department of the Interior began studying the operations of Indian and Native residential schools spanning the period from 1819 to 1969.

In a first-of-its-kind report released May 11, the department said hundreds of US government-backed boarding schools sought to forcibly assimilate Native American and Indigenous children into white society.

The report identified 408 schools in 37 states or former territories that tens of thousands of children were forced to attend during a period that largely coincides with the forced displacement of many tribes from ancestral lands. He also indicated that there are at least 53 marked or unmarked burial sites associated with the schools.

The federal government operated many schools directly and contracted with Catholic, Protestant and other churches to operate others, the report said. About 50% of schools received support or involvement from religious institutions or organizations.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo and Catholic, commissioned the report last June when she established the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative to undertake a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal policies on residential schools.

Conditions varied across the schools, with some students reporting positive experiences while others lived under “systematic militarized and identity-altering” practices designed to assimilate them into white society, the report said. Headteachers renamed children with English names, cut their long hair and discouraged or prevented the use of indigenous languages, religions and cultural practices, he said.

Even before Haaland commissioned the report, religious communities and dioceses began digging into the archives to determine the depth of their role in the running of schools.

And in a letter sent last November, two U.S. bishops urged their fellow prelates to cooperate with any requests from the federal government in its investigation of alleged abuses at schools run by church entities.

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Homeland Justice and Human Development, and Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, former chair of the bishops’ subcommittee on Native American affairs, also encouraged bishops to consider contacting local tribal leaders and start a dialogue about all schools located in a diocese.

The USCCB participates in the AHP. Father Michael Carson, assistant director of Native American affairs at the conference, regularly attends the organization’s meetings.

Carson explained that the involvement stems from a new pastoral plan, part of which calls for reconciliation with Native Americans over boarding schools. “We look for opportunities to promote healing and reconciliation,” he said.

While the USCCB or its predecessor organizations never ran a school, the bishops’ subcommittee on Native American affairs wanted to address the painful history as a step to earning the trust of natives, Carson said.

The AHP came together about a year ago, emerging from other such efforts among Catholics, including Catholics for Boarding School Accountability. Brenna Cussen Anglada, who with her husband runs a Catholic Labor Movement farm in southwestern Wisconsin, said the role of Catholic organizations in running schools is critical to understand.

Last fall, Catholics for Boarding School Accountability hosted a four-part webinar series to help religious congregations understand how they can work with Indigenous communities in their quest for healing and reconciliation. Cussen Anglada said around 300 people joined each online session.

Ensuring Indigenous peoples were consulted throughout the research effort was one of the main messages of the series, she said.

“Files are scattered everywhere,” she told CNS. “Many congregations and dioceses don’t know they have them. We don’t want to throw hundreds of thousands of paper documents at one (Native American) nation. It is important to ask the aboriginal communities what they want to do with it.

Cussen Anglada is working with Veronica Buchanan, executive secretary of archivists for religious women’s congregations and a member of the AHP Archives Subcommittee, to obtain grants to complete the assembly of a list of Catholic boarding schools and cemeteries .

Buchanan said the funding sought from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission would be used to publish a list of schools, their geographic and diocesan locations, affiliated religious communities, and other information in late 2024 to help Native Americans connect and to know where. a long time ago, family members were kidnapped.

“It will be as comprehensive as possible,” she said, expecting up to 1,000 more schools to be identified as research by various organizations continues.

In addition, the archivists’ group has developed a resource guide for religious congregations. It describes the role of archives in truth and healing, steps congregations can take to initiate their own examination of archives, and how to balance access to archives and confidentiality.

The AHP is sponsoring a webinar on June 6 in partnership with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The event will include a conversation with Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, Saskatchewan, and members of the Indigenous delegation who met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in March. Black Elk at Pine Ridge will make conversation easier.

The Canadian Catholic Church has been on its own path to reconciliation and healing alongside Indigenous peoples since identifying burial sites near residential schools in British Columbia and elsewhere in 2021.

Black Elk said such conversations are important to the Catholic Church as it seeks to come to terms with its mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

“The Catholic Church still has a lot of work to do to atone for its historical involvement in the harmful process of colonization of indigenous peoples,” he told CNS.

“For people who are victims, victims must heal. This is their path to follow,” said Black Elk. “Healing must also happen for historical wrongdoers. This is where it gets complicated. Yes, many people today in this situation are not the ones who committed the atrocities of years past, nor do they bear the direct burden of them.

“But we have this need as an institution to heal ourselves and be what our faith actually calls us to be all the time. Healing must happen for the church and the non-natives who carry the story as descendants.

He also called on non-Indigenous people to be “open to learning what other people’s experience was.”

“It is not a difficult task. This is something we cannot be closed to. If we are closed to people’s experience, then we are closed to God.

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