“From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. Thousands of children died there of disease and other causes, with many never returned to their families.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which today is the largest Protestant denomination in [Canada].” (Source: Indian Country Today)
The U.S. government ran a parallel ‘residential school’ system to ‘re-educate’ Native American children, that recruited Christian denominations in the 19th and 20th centuries, seizing on feelings of cultural and religious superiority to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Thanks to incoming Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, the U.S. is launching the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, to search U.S. schools for possible burial sites of Native children.
So far, nine schools have been searched and the bodies of over 2,000 children have been found on the school grounds, mostly in unmarked graves. Between Canada and the U.S., there are still 497 schools to go.
Friends, we are in for a reckoning. These first days of July brought us ‘Canada Day’ and ‘Independence Day,’ and many of us were too heartsick to celebrate. This isn’t to say that there aren’t elements of our heritage worth celebrating, but — for those of us of European descent in particular — we need to reckon with our identity as settler colonizers, living on stolen land. Indeed, the idea of fixed private property in general is foreign to the lifeways of this continent, and these acquisitive habits have contributed to the objectification and dying of the planet, not only her human inhabitants.
If you consider yourself an aspiring follower of Jesus, please hold these children in your conscience and consider his words:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
What Can We Do? (Inside and Out)
Jesus warned humanity—and his aspiring followers in particular—that there really are no secrets. Formerly-celebrated practices that we’ve buried in selective amnesia will come back into cultural memory, and will be judged accurately:
“The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light; what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!” (Jesus in Luke 12:2–3, New Living Translation)
Before we consider what we might be able to ‘do’ in the face of such atrocity, it’s important to begin digesting this pain, outrage, and shame on the level of being. As yet another of history’s tragedies comes into our awareness, we do well not to flinch away. If you’re a North American of European descent, you can hold your ancestors with respect while recognizing that their destructive attitudes and actions toward the original inhabitants of this land were rooted in delusional white supremacy. I invite you to breathe into this reality, holding it with grace and truth.
I encourage you to integrate this reality through prayer (either silent, contemplative prayer, or conversational, emotionally-honest prayer), and journaling. Perhaps do some mirror work, or silent connection with another, as described in the appendix of my book with Fr. Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance(and in the bonus chapter you can access for free, here.) Let the reality that many Christian denominations eagerly took place in the cultural erasure and bodily harm of Native American and First Nations children settle into your nervous system. You don’t have to hold this painful truth in your heart alone; you can let your heart resonate with the sacred heart of Jesus, who bears all sorrows and transforms them, through kenotic release.
And when you’re ready to walk out this repentance—a changing of direction—here are some practical things you can do. Some of what follows is lightly adapted from Healing for Churches at boardingschoolhealing.org, and an article from Healing Minnesota Stories profiling the same organization. (Thanks to Jonathan Stegall for bringing these to my attention!)…
History and Background
During the 19th and into the 20th century, Native American children were forced or pressured to attend Christian and government-run boarding schools or day schools. The purpose was to ‘kill the Indian and save the man.’
The churches may have taken on this mission with the best of intentions, given their shared beliefs at the time. But in fact, the schools carried out a deliberate policy of ethnocide and cultural genocide. Children were punished for speaking their native languages, banned from conducting traditional or cultural practices, shorn of traditional clothing and identity of their native culture. Many were sent far from their homelands and cut off from their family. Most were taught that their culture and traditions were evil and sinful, and taught that they should be ashamed of being Native American. Countless children were frequently neglected and even abused physically, sexually, and psychologically.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so poignantly put it:
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations.”
Which Churches Were Involved?
In 1872, as the boarding school program got underway, the Board of Indian Commissioners allotted 73 Indian agencies to several denominations, as follows (with the number of schools each denomination ran in parentheses):
Dutch Reform (2)
7th Day Adventist (1)
What Congregations and Individual aspiring Jesus-followers can do:
Conduct and disseminate research on your denomination’s involvement as operators, promoters, managers, teachers, and funders of Indian boarding schools.
Through processes of reflection and repentance, develop and adopt official statements of acknowledgement and apology.
In consultation with the Coalition and the affected Native communities, take appropriate actions to make amends.
Call on Congress and the President to establish a National Commission to learn the truth about the historic and ongoing impacts of the boarding schools on Native families, and recommend actions that support truth, reconciliation, and healing.
Many churches and religious organizations around the world have already started to take action. Will you join them? Go here to see if your denomination is already taking action to address these atrocities.
Recent decades have unearthed a rich vein of reflection from authors, activists, and leaders who are both Native American and Christian. Here are my top recommendations:
This is something I’ve learned from my wife, Jasmin Pittman Morrell, as she names in film reviews in publications like The Porch Magazine: While awareness of the suffering of marginalized communities is important, art produced by white people (or for the ‘white gaze’) often fetishizes BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People-of-Color) suffering, while ignoring BIPOC joy.
Pain and joy often go hand-in-hand, of course. And some of the most beautiful art emerges from the cauldron of grace under fire. But if all we think about when reflecting on Native American and First Nations people is poverty, oppression, and death, we continue dehumanizing the original inhabitants of our continent while diminishing our own cultural appreciation.
Do yourself a favor: Consider one of your favorite art forms, and then Google Native American and First Nations creators! You’ll be glad you did. Here are a few ideas to get you started: