American churches facing boarding school regulations

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Students at a Presbyterian boarding school in Sitka, Alaska in the summer of 1883. American Catholic and Protestant denominations operated more than 150 boarding schools between the 19th and 20th centuries. Native American and Alaska Native children were routinely separated from their tribal families, customs, language, and religion and brought to schools in an effort to assimilate and Christianize them. (Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia via AP, File)

As Native Americans cautiously welcome Pope Francis’ historic apology for abuses at Catholic residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada, American churches are preparing for an unprecedented reckoning with their own legacy of operating such schools.

Faith-based schools are set to feature prominently in a report from the US Department of the Interior, led by the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland, to be released later this month. The report, prompted by the discovery last year of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada, will focus on the loss of life and lingering trauma that the American system inflicted on Indigenous children from the 19th to the mid of the XXth century.

From Episcopalians to Quakers to the Catholic dioceses of Oklahoma, faith groups have launched or intensified efforts over the past year to seek out and atone for their previous roles in the boarding school system, which Indigenous children have been forced to associate – cutting them off from their families, tribes and traditions.

While the pontiff’s April 1 apology was directed at Indigenous groups across Canada, people were listening south of the border.

“An apology is the best way to start a conversation,” said Roy Callison, a Catholic deacon and member of the Cherokee Nation who helps coordinate the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project, which includes listening sessions for those affected by the legacy of residential school. “That’s the first step in trying to get healing.”

Church leaders are preparing. The report “will likely bring to light some very disturbing information,” says a letter circulated last fall to members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by two colleagues who have chaired committees related to the issue. The letter urged the bishops to build relationships with local Indigenous communities and engage “in meaningful and honest dialogue about reactions to the report and the steps needed to move forward together.”

Conditions varied at 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 times of learning, friendship and extracurricular activities.

Indigenous groups note that even the best schools were part of a scheme to assimilate children into a predominantly white Christian society and shatter their tribal identities, customs and languages ​​– what many Indigenous groups call cultural genocide.

“The boarding school process itself is violent and damaging,” said Bryan Rindfleisch, a Native American history expert at Marquette University who helps Oklahoma Catholics research their school heritage.

There were at least 367 boarding schools in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group.

Most were government-run; many others were run by Catholic and Protestant churches.

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