A new report from the Home Office on the legacy of boarding schools for Native Americans underscores the attentiveness of the U.S. government …
A new Home Office report on the legacy of boarding schools for Native Americans highlights how closely the U.S. government has worked with churches to Christianize them as part of a project to separate them from their culture, their identity and, ultimately, their land.
The role of churches is a minor part of a report on an investigation by the Federal Indian Boarding School initiative released on Wednesday following the annual review sparked in 2021 by the discovery of hundreds of potential graves in former boarding schools in Canada. Much is devoted to the government’s responsibility for the actions and policies of its own officials.
But it details how in the 19th and early 20th centuries the government provided funding and other support to religious boarding schools for indigenous children to an extent that would normally be prohibited by the rules separating the church from the state. Churches also had influence with 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 experts in the field and has been the subject of federal reports in past generations, the latter brings it to a wide audience at a time when many Americans are just beginning to learn about boarding schools.
A 1969 report by the Home Office citing a Senate investigation acknowledged that “federal policy toward the Indian was based on a desire to deprive him of his land. Education policy was a function of our land policy. ”
Central to this was training Native Americans in professions that were less demanding — though often unsuitable for available jobs — in addition to severing tribal ties.
Christian conversion was also key, the report said, citing a 1886 Indian Commissioner’s document that despised Indian spiritual traditions and argued that the government should provide “encouragement and cooperation” to missionaries.
“Government assistance allows them to carry out their missions and enables … to bring these people, whose paganism was the main obstacle to their civilization, to the light of Christianity,” the commissioner wrote at the time.
This week’s report also says the government funded the schools with money kept in trust for the tribes, as compensation for the land they ceded. The Supreme Court ruling of 1908 stated that “the ban on the federal government spending money on religious schools does not apply to the funds of Indian treaties,” it said.
And it, citing a Senate investigation in 1969, states that in the 19th century, the U.S. military was “often involved to reinforce missionary orders.”
The report identifies 408 boarding schools for indigenous children in 37 states and former territories that were either managed or supported by the government between 1819 and 1969. Although it did not say how many were led by the church, a previous report by the National Indean American Coalition for Boarding School Rehabilitation found that there were more than 150 of them, about half of them Catholic and Protestant groups.
At a congressional hearing Thursday on a bill that would authorize the Truth and Rehabilitation Commission to investigate boarding schools modeled on a similar school in Canada, Witness Matthew Var Bonnet testified about his childhood experience at St. Francis Boarding School in the South. Dakota. The priests who ran the institution sought to separate him from his parents and culture, and sometimes subjected him to sadistic mockery.
“Boarding schools have been sanctioned by the United States government,” said 76-year-old Var Bonet, a Sikang Lakota from the Rosebad Siu Reservation. “The government has given our lands to the churches so that they can Christianize, modernize and civilize us. But the churches treated us wrong. … The government and the churches must be held accountable. ”
Rev. Bradley Huff, an Episcopal Church missionary for indigenous ministry who is a Lakota and a member of the Aglala Siou tribe, said religious groups must face their history of cooperation in schools.
“No matter how much we in the church want to admit it, it is true, and we must acknowledge and reckon with it. We worked hand in hand with the government in the assimilation process, ”he said. “Most, if not all, of the Christian denominations that were present in America in the late 19th century had at least one boarding school for the indigenous people.”
At the General Convention in July, the Episcopal Church plans to vote to investigate its role in schools and recognize its responsibility to injure generations of Native Americans.
Maca Black Elk, executive director of truth and healing at the Indian Red Cloud School, founded in 1888 by the Jesuits in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, agreed that religious groups should reckon with their past. The collective lakota, language and ritual are central to the modern school of the Red Cloud, which serves Christians as well as followers of the spiritual traditions of the Indians.
“While today we recognize that there are many indigenous people who identify themselves as Christians … and value this part of their identity, we need to delve deeply into this story,” he said.
Any evangelization must be “based on the will of the people and (be) non-violent,” added Black Elk, who is Aglala Lakota. “This is a big part of our discussion today. This is a broader issue for the great Catholic Church, not just for us. ”
In April, Pope Francis apologized in the Vatican to indigenous delegations from Canada “for the deplorable behavior of those members of the Catholic Church” in running schools where many children were abused and died of disease and other causes. Francis plans to apologize again on Canadian soil in July.
The Committee of Friends on National Law, a lobby related to the Quaker movement that runs several boarding schools, said in a statement that this week’s Home Affairs report should push Congress to approve the Truth and Recovery Commission.
“In addition, we urge the religious community as a whole to share records and reports on their administration of these schools,” the committee said. “Only through complete honesty and transparency can we begin to move towards a fairer future.”
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