A new report from the Ministry of the Interior on the legacy of boarding schools for Native Americans highlights how closely the U.S. government worked with churches to Christianize them as part of a project to separate them from their culture, identity, and ultimately their land.
The role of the churches constitutes a secondary part of the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative Inquiry Report, released Wednesday after a year-long review sparked by discoveries in 2021 of hundreds of potential graves at former residential schools in Canada. Most of them focus on the government’s accountability for its own official actions and policies.
But it details how the government provided funding and other support for religious boarding schools for indigenous children in the 19th and early 20th centuries to an extent that would normally have been prohibited under rules of separation between church and the state. Churches also had influence over the government, he adds, and could recommend people for appointments to federal positions on Indigenous affairs.
While this church-state collaboration is well known to scholars in the field and has been the subject of federal reports over generations past, the latest brings it to a wide audience at a time when many Americans are only beginning to learn about boarding schools.
The Interior Department report, citing a 1969 Senate investigation, acknowledges that federal policy towards the Indian was based on a desire to dispossess them of their land. Education policy was a function of our land policy.
An essential part of this was to train Native Americans in occupations that were less demanding of land but often ill-suited to the jobs available, in addition to severing tribal ties.
Christian conversion was also essential, the report says, citing an 1886 Indian Commissioner’s document that disparaged Indigenous spiritual traditions and said the government should encourage and cooperate with missionaries.
The government aid provided allows them to support their missions and makes it possible … to lead these people, whose paganism has been the main obstacle to their civilization, to the light of Christianity, the commissioner wrote then.
This week’s report also says the government funded the schools with money held in trust for the tribes as compensation for the land they ceded. A 1908 Supreme Court decision ruled that the federal government’s ban on spending funds on religious schools did not apply to Indian treaty funds, he notes.
And he says, citing the 1969 Senate investigation, the US military was frequently called in to bolster missionary orders in the 19th century.
The report identifies 408 boarding schools for Native children in 37 states and former territories that were government-operated or supported between 1819 and 1969. While it does not say how many were church-operated, an earlier report by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition found that more than 150 were, about half each by Catholic and Protestant groups.
During a congressional hearing Thursday on a bill that would authorize a truth and healing commission to investigate residential schools, modeled on a similar one in Canada, witness Matthew War Bonnet testified about his experience of childhood at St. Francis boarding school in South Dakota. The priests who ran the facility sought to estrange him from his parents and his culture, and sometimes subjected him to sadistic abuse.
The boarding schools have been sanctioned by the United States government, said War Bonnet, 76, a Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux reservation. The government gave our lands to the churches to Christianize us, modernize us and civilize us. But the churches have abused us. … The government and the churches must be held accountable.
Rev. Bradley Hauff, the Episcopal Church’s missionary for Indigenous ministries, who is Lakota and a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, said faith groups need to confront their history of working together on schools.
Even if we in the church don’t want to recognize it, it’s the truth, and we need to recognize it and heed it. We have worked hand in hand with the government in the process of assimilation, he said. Most if not all of the Christian denominations that were present in America at the end of the 19th century operated at least one Native boarding school.
At its General Convention in July, the Episcopal Church plans to vote on probing its role with the schools and acknowledging its responsibility for causing trauma to generations of Native Americans.
Maka Black Elk, Executive Director of Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School, founded in 1888 by Jesuits in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, agreed that religious groups should consider their past. The Lakota staff, language, and rituals are central to the modern Red Cloud School, which serves Christians as well as followers of native spiritual traditions.
As today we recognize that there are many indigenous people who identify as Christians…and value this part of their identity, we need to engage deeply with this story, he said.
All evangelism must be rooted in peoples agency and (be) non-violent, added Black Elk, who is Oglala Lakota. This is a big part of our discussion today. This is a larger issue for the great Catholic Church, not just for us.
In April, Pope Francis apologized in the Vatican to the native delegations of Canada for the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church in the operation of the schools, where many children were abused and died of diseases and other causes. Francis considers apologizing again on Canadian soil in July.
The Friends Committee on National Legislation, a lobby affiliated with the Quaker movement, which operated several boarding schools, said in a statement that this week’s internal report should spur Congress to approve the Truth and Healing Commission.
Further, we call on the religious community as a whole to share records and records of their administration of these schools, the committee said. Only with honesty and transparency can we begin to move towards a fairer future.
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.