Skip to main content

Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

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 Pueblo, 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.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Friday, April 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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.

Read more about boarding schools:
Deaths at Chemawa
A Mother's Prayer: Bring the children home
St. Mary's Mission: 'This place is the Devil'
Are your ancestors on the list?

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.

Catholics

Catholic leadership – including those at the Vatican and in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the highest level of the church’s authority in the U.S. – have routinely dodged responsibility for its role in operating Indian boarding schools.

The church has not yet apologized for its role, though officials said they are cooperating with the government’s investigations.

“Earlier this year when the U.S. Department of the Interior announced their investigation into the boarding school period in our country, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed our desire to be of assistance,” Chieko Noguchi, director of public affairs for the conference, wrote in an emailed response to questions from Indian Country Today.

Noguchi made reference to a plan to “foster dialogue with the Native and Indigenous communities,” but did not provide details.

“The USCCB does not have governance over bishops, dioceses, religious orders, parishes, or schools,” Noguchi said. “The Conference, which traces its origins to a predecessor organization founded in 1917, never played a role in running these schools.”

Leaders at the Jesuit-run Red Cloud Indian School, however, aren’t waiting for Catholic administrators to create a plan. The school began undertaking what it calls a Truth and Healing process in 2020, seeking to hear the stories of former students, opening its archives and creating a plan to search for unmarked graves on the school’s grounds and cemetery.

Red Cloud School, formerly called the Holy Rosary Mission, was founded in 1888 in Pine Ridge on Oglala Lakota lands and boarded students for nearly a century. Today the school, renamed in 1969 after the Oglala Chief Red Cloud, no longer boards students overnight.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is seen from the burial place of Chief Red Cloud, the 19th century warrior, on Sept. 30, 2021 in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Red Cloud defended against U.S. land grabs but eventually invited the Jesuits to start Holy Rosary Mission, now the Red Cloud Indian School. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

Founded in the 16th century, the Jesuits, a Catholic mission order traditionally focused on education, has a long, complicated history with Native people. In 2011, the Oregon province of Jesuits settled hundreds of lawsuits naming scores of sexually abusive priests predominately in Native communities in Alaska, Washington and Oregon.

“We (at Red Cloud) are one of the Catholic institutions that has been a leader in pulling other Catholic organizations forward in facing the church’s boarding school history,” said Black Elk. “Many Native people want us to move quickly on the ground-penetrating radar work, but we realized it’s important to include the voices of tribal leadership, survivors, medicine people and the entire community in any work that is done.”

Among the concerns are how to handle the finding of any remains at the site, and addressing the impact that could have on current Red Cloud students and the community.

An historic cemetery is located at Red Cloud in which some very old markers are no longer visible; there are also stories in the community of bodies buried outside the cemetery.

“We want to make sure everybody understands how the radar technology works including its limitations; unfortunately it’s not like an X-ray that will show bones but it can tell us if the ground has been disturbed,” Black Elk said.

Some former Holy Rosary attendees look back positively on their boarding school education.

“It depends on who you talk to,” said Patricia Catches the Enemy, 80, who lives nearby.

She said she didn’t witness any abuse but had “some sadness, having to leave my home and being forced to go into a school.”

While Lakota staff, language and ceremony have increasingly become central to Red Cloud, the school has never fully reckoned with its history, which has alienated many Lakota living on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Critics inside and outside of Red Cloud say the school still has work to do.

Basil Brave Heart, who attended Holy Rosary in the 1940s, still lives on the Pine Ridge reservation where he helps others heal from trauma through traditional ceremony.

“The physical abuse was difficult,” he said. “But when they took my language away, they took my moral compass.”

Basil Brave Heart, 88, who attended Red Cloud Indian School when it was known as Holy Rosary Mission, sits for an interview Sept. 30, 2021, in Pine Ridge, S.D. "Physical abuse was difficult. But when they took my language away, they took my moral compass," Brave Heart said. "The language we speak is the way you think, the way you pray and the way you conduct your ceremonies." (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

The Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission leaders announced they will be meeting to discuss opening up its archives currently held at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The archives include records from all Catholic Indian mission schools that operated from 1877 to 1977.

In the larger financial scope of the Catholic Church which it is considered one of the wealthiest institutions in the world, the amount allocated for the effort seems quite small.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

“Could they do more? Absolutely,” said Black Elk. “It is definitely our hope that the Jesuits and church will continue to underwrite more of this work.”

He noted that the Red Cloud School is almost totally supported through donations; student tuition is $200 per year with scholarships available for those in need. Five-hundred students attend the four schools that make up Red Cloud, and more than 60 Gates Foundation Scholars have graduated from the school.

One of the stumbling blocks for the church in addressing its boarding school history, however, is fear of another wave of litigation like the lawsuits stemming from sexual abuse by priests, noted Black Elk.

“There is so much lack of knowledge about this history, especially among White Catholics; it’s also true of the Jesuits who tend to look at our history with rose-tinted glasses,” Black Elk said.

Despite many calls from Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada, the Catholic church has not apologized for its role in operating Indigenous residential and boarding schools.

The church has also chosen not to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, considered by many to be foundational in authorizing Christian European domination and superiority over Indigenous peoples. First presented in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V as the Papal Bull, a public decree issued by a pope, it establishes legal, spiritual and legal authorization for the European colonization and seizure of lands, and the killing of Indigenous peoples who resist.

Today, there are 26 Catholic day schools in the U.S. that serve Native Americans; none includes overnight boarding.

Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian officials believe there could have been as many as 30 boarding schools operated by the Presbyterian Church, but no one knows for sure.

“Officially, we don’t have a number,” said Irvin Porter, associate for Native American Congregational Support for the Presbyterian Church/USA. “We need more documentation.”

To that end, the Presbyterian Historical Society, the national archives for the church, announced the creation of a list of schools in December. The list is not comprehensive; several entries in the guide link to Pearl Digital Collections where scans of archival materials, including institutional records and photographs, are available.

The church also issued an apology in 2016 to U.S. citizens of Native ancestry, to “those who were and are part of stolen generations during the Indian assimilation movement.”

It reads in part, “Our burdens include dishonoring the depths of the struggles of Native American people and the richness of your gifts. Therefore, we confess to you that when our Presbyterian ancestors journeyed to this land, we did not respect your own Indigenous knowledges and epistemologies as valid.”

In 1877, a Presbyterian missionary opened Wrangell mission school among the Tlingits in Sitka, Alaska. The church no longer operates schools focused on educating Native students.

In 2016, the church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.

Quakers

Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, operated more than 30 Indian boarding schools in the U.S.

Paula Palmer, founder of the Quaker ministry, Towards Right Relationship with Native People, wrote that Quakers were some of the staunchest proponents of cultural genocide. They advocated removing children from their families believing, “the whole character of the Indian must be changed.”

Thomas Lorraine McKenney, a Quaker, was the first superintendent of Indian Trade in 1816 and a key figure in developing U.S. Indian policy. He advocated for a federal policy of education and civilization through a network of schools run by missionary societies.

Some Quaker groups have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, and in 2015, the New York Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends called on all Quaker groups to repudiate the doctrine.

Quaker leadership did not respond to Indian Country Today’s email asking if they plan to open their boarding school archives or create any physical response to their boarding school history.

The Quaker church does not appear to currently operate any schools focused on educating Native students.

United Methodist Church

The Methodist church is just beginning to scratch the surface of its history with Indian boarding schools, according to the Rev. Charles Brower, Inupiaq, pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Nome, Alaska.

The church operated about 20 schools that included boarding and day schools beginning in 1840, and those early Christian Indian schools served as models for federal schools like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, considered the model for boarding schools that followed, according to Rev. Ashley Dreff of the church’s general commission on archives and history.

Dreff and associates are currently looking through the church’s archive repository in order to reconstruct Methodist’s involvement with Indian education.

Rev. Chebon Kernell, Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) and an ordained elder in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, expressed concern that church leadership is reluctant to face its history with Native peoples.

“Unfortunately, this reluctance is an indictment on the complacent nature of many denominations in giving full transparency to the church’s involvement with boarding schools,” Kernell said.

In 2016, the United Methodist Church resolved to condemn the Doctrine of Discovery. The church also enacted a confession to Native people in which it apologized for its sins, intended and unintended, against American Indians. The apology, however, does not include Methodist’s work with boarding schools.

The United Methodist Church does not appear to currently operate any schools focusing on Native students.

Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church operated at least eight Indian boarding and day schools.

“While records are unavailable, we know that the Episcopal Church was associated with Indigenous schools during the 19th and 20th centuries,” according to a joint statement issued in July by Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies.

“We must come to a full understanding of the legacies of these schools,” according to the statement. “We call the executive council to deliver a comprehensive proposal for addressing the legacy of Indigenous schools at the 80th General Convention in July 2022, including earmarking resources for independent research in the archives of The Episcopal Church, options for developing culturally appropriate liturgical materials and plans for educating Episcopalians across the church about this history, among other initiatives.”

The Episcopal Church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009 but has not issued an apology.

Looking ahead

To date, most of the work by Christian denominations in facing their histories of operating Indian boarding schools is being done by individual congregations or religious orders.

Momentum toward facing this bitter legacy may be growing, however, as the public grows more aware of the roles played by Christians in forwarding assimilationist education policies towards Native peoples. The efforts may get a boost from the Department of the Interior, which is expected to publish its findings from the Boarding School Initiative in April.

“We all need to work together on this,” said the Rev. Bradley Hauff, a Minnesota-based Episcopal priest and missioner for Indigenous Ministries.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. 

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.