‘Our ancestors risked their lives and freedom’

Perspective: Archived documents reveal covert resistance to boarding school assimilation

St. Mary’s Catholic Church on the Bad River Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember / Indian Country Today)

ODANAH, Wisconsin — It was the blue ceiling that got me.

Although St. Mary’s Catholic Church is tiny, its vaulted ceiling soars to an unexpected height. It’s an impossible robin’s egg blue or the hue of a blue sky that could never exist. Unexpectedly, it drove my heart into my throat, where it stayed for several minutes. That blue color obliterated journalistic objectivity, placing me back into a wordless, needy childhood.

I realized at last that the ceiling was the same color as the little blue Virgin Mary medal that lived between my mother’s breasts, fixed to her brassiere with a safety pin. That medal would gaze back at me when we laid down in bed together for afternoon naps, at bedtime or just to visit. Those were the times she told me the Sister School stories, her life at St. Mary’s Catholic Indian boarding school and her childhood on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation in Wisconsin.

The little church is all that remains now of the mission school buildings.

Catholic icons and sense of place are forever intertwined in my psyche regardless of my efforts to connect to my Ojibwe language, culture and heritage. Although I follow traditional Ojibwe spirituality and haven’t been a practicing Catholic in many years, Catholicism continues to occupy a corner of my being.

That occupation of the soul, I realize, was part of Catholic missionaries’ plans for Indigenous peoples. Although they achieved their goals in many ways, I recently discovered that my own people engaged in remarkable acts of stealth resistance to an assimilationist agenda whose aim was to obliterate our world view.

During my recent visit to the old Bad River mission grounds and the Mother House of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, the order of nuns who taught at St. Mary’s, I gained unexpected insights into ways that our ancestors worked within a rigid system of oppression to preserve and pass along our precious gifts of culture and language.

For the first time, I also began to understand the barriers for Catholic leadership in facing the church’s role in forwarding colonial, assimilationist Native policies.

Like many Catholic orders that operated Indian boarding and day schools, the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have embarked on a campaign to examine their organization’s role in the assimilation process that aimed to strip away Indigenous culture and language. While heartfelt and sincere, their efforts seemed vague and overly cautious, however. As Sister Eileen McKenzie, president of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, said during an interview with Indian Country Today, “We are in a big learning curve about our history at St. Mary’s.”

St. Mary’s Mission: ‘This place is the Devil’

Over the past two or three years, the sisters have begun to realize there are issues over their past work with Native Americans, she said.

“We’ve been doing a lot of webinars and research around the issues and thinking about what this means of our complicity in federal and church policies that were unjust and genocidal,” McKenzie said.

Historic oppression

My family’s boarding school experience of brutality, repression and shame for being Native plays an ongoing role in mine as it does in the lives of many Native people. There is an ongoing effort in Indian Country, predating by decades the recent media focus on discoveries of graves at Canada’s Indian residential schools, of trying to gain attention of church and government leaders on their roles in assimilationist boarding school policies.

The fallout of historic boarding school trauma dwells with many of us every day. Therefore, it’s difficult to believe institutions that played such a primary role in creating this trauma view it as a part of a distant past.

“We are learning and walking tentatively to see if we can help move to a place of healing while reconciling with the truth,” McKenzie said.

This story was originally published by Indian Country Today. It is republished here with permission.

The sisters recently donated $250,000 toward the establishment of the Mashkiiziibii (Medicine River) Culture Revitalization and Youth Center in Bad River and have reached out to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition indicating support. They are also sharing their archives, but most of the work seems to be limited to webinars and Zoom conversations.

“We are looking at dismantling racism and learning how our church was complicit in colonialism,” McKenzie said, pausing briefly. “It seems like we’re not doing anything but we are learning; we want to be engaged and have a relationship with the Native community in order to ask what they need.”

She added, “I would say perhaps there’s a fear of acting too quickly.”

Clearly she, the sisters and the Catholic church are all struggling with how to proceed in addressing the public emergence and focus on the churches’ ugly Indian boarding school past.

Pope Francis’ apology to Indigenous peoples of Canada for the “deplorable abuses” they suffered at the country’s residential schools, run almost exclusively by Catholic orders, is focusing the world’s attention on the long-standing role that the church has played in forwarding and benefitting from colonial policies.

It was, after all, church and Vatican edicts such as the Doctrine of Discovery that are foundational to Catholicism and Christianity in the Americas. The doctrine is composed of papal bulls or orders handed down by Catholic popes authorizing agents of European monarchs to dominate Indigenous lands and people by any means necessary.

The Romanus Pontifex bull was handed down in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V authorizing European agents to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

Subsequent bulls supported the dehumanization of those living on lands in the Americas, according to the Upstander Project, and the dispossession, murder and forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples.

The doctrine has shaped the entirety of the White settler relationship with Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and continues to color an inequitable, paternal mindset towards them. These historic papal edicts are the genesis of U.S. federal Indian law in the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning with the Marshall Trilogy starting in 1823 with Johnson v. M’Intosh which adopted the doctrine as the origin of American property title. Indeed, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously drew on the doctrine in her 2005 decision in Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation.

Pope Francis did not rescind the papal bulls underlying the Doctrine of Discovery in his apology, a point that was not lost on Indigenous peoples. To do so could be interpreted as a commitment to dismantle the institutional power structure of the church.

Regarding the pontiff’s omission, Gerald Antoine, who led a First Nations delegation to meet with the Pope in March, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, “In respect of the spirit of this journey for the requested pardon (from the church), it will require the full acknowledgement and the rescinding of the seed that resulted in the coordinated efforts by the state, the church and the police services…in implementing these destructive and vicious processes.”

If the Catholic Church is to truly atone, I realized, all they’ll have to change is everything.

Stepping into the vast Mother House with its scrubbed wooden surfaces, statues of saints and angels instantly transported me back to St. Patrick’s Catholic School where I attended class from 1st grade through part of 8th grade.

Reentering those unequivocal Catholic spaces evoked an unexpected visceral quality of how my childhood memories of my mother are so closely intertwined with church iconography. Being near her while hearing her poignant little girl memories of her harsh life at the Sister School were the times I felt closest to her, a recipient of her love, confidence and attention.

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Mary Annette Pember, ICT
Mary Annette Pember, ICT

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for ICT.