Churches starting to face facts on boarding schools

Government, churches begin to address assimilationist education policies

June 1900, Phoenix. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Red Cloud Indian School is taking the lead among Christian-run schools in coming to terms with its assimilationist past.

The Jesuits have given Red Cloud a $20,000 grant to help in the work, including conducting searches with ground-penetrating radar for unmarked graves, and have allocated $50,000 to hire an archivist for one year to examine the order’s boarding school history at its archives in St. Louis.

School leaders are also working with tribal representatives about searching the school grounds on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for remains of students who died there.

“The Catholic Church needs to recognize that honesty, being forthright and vulnerable are far more powerful and more healing than being reticent, restrictive and closed,” said Maka Black Elk, Oglala Lakota, executive director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School.

Churches are joining the U.S. federal government in facing the often-brutal history of Native boarding schools, which forced children from their families into schools where they were often abused, underfed and used as virtual slave labor. Some died there without ever going home.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna) launched the Federal Boarding School Initiative in June directing the agency to prepare a report detailing historical records of schools operated by the U.S. government.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna). (Photo by Leigh Vogel / Getty Images)

The Initiative, however, has no authority over Christian denominations, which operated about one-third of the approximately 400 Indian boarding schools in the U.S.

With more than 100 schools, various Catholic orders operated most of the Christian Indian boarding schools, some long before President Ulyssis Grant’s 1869 Peace Policy formally created the federal school system.

Christians began operating boarding schools as early as the 1600s when Jesuits and Puritans separated Native children from their families in order to receive “civilizing” Christian instruction.

Christian missionaries were paid by the federal government to operate Indian schools beginning in 1819 with the Indian Civilization Fund Act. But the heyday of federal Indian boarding schools came under Grant’s policy.

Indian Country Today reached out to leadership in the Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Quaker churches, denominations that operated most of the schools, asking what they are doing now to address the history.

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