Skip to main content

Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Deborah Parker wept Friday when she heard about Pope Francis’ historic apology to Indigenous Peoples for the “deplorable” abuses they suffered in Canada’s Catholic-run residential schools.

Francis begged forgiveness during an audience with dozens of citizens of the Metis, Inuit and First Nations communities who came to Rome seeking a papal apology and a commitment from the Catholic Church to repair the damage. The first pope from the Americas said he hoped to visit Canada around the Feast of St. Anne, which falls on July 26.

A papal apology on Canadian soil was among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action. The Commission was established in 2008 as part of Canada’s 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The Commission formally ended its work in 2015.

More than 150,000 Native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.

Nearly three-quarters of Canada’s 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations.

The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, with students beaten for speaking their Native languages. That legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservations.

“I feel like the pope’s apology is a good, healthy start to a long road of healing, especially for those of us in the U.S.” Parker said.

Indigenous leaders tell pope of abuses at residential schools
First Nations meet with pope over Canada school abuses
Report on federal Indian boarding schools due
US boarding schools to be investigated

Parker, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes, is chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Based in Minneapolis, the coalition is a non-profit organization working for truth, healing and justice for boarding school survivors and descendants in the U.S.

Deborah Parker, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes, is chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. (Photo courtesy of coalition)

Although the U.S. has a more extensive history of federal and Christian denominational Indian boarding schools in which families were coerced into sending their children, little has been done to reckon with this country’s egregious history. It’s estimated that there have been more than 400 Indian federal and Christian boarding schools in the U.S.

Various Catholic orders operated more than 100 Indian boarding schools in the U.S. during Ulysses Grant’s Peace Policy that began in 1869; Grant’s policy of assimilation through education was an alternative to extermination of the country’s Indigenous peoples. Canada based its Indian residential system on schools in the U.S.

Scores of Catholic and other Christian denominational Indian boarding and day schools predated the Peace Policy; the exact number, however, is unknown.

Most Catholic Indian schools received federal funding either directly or through payments of Indian trust and treaty funds. Approximately 26 Catholic Indian schools continue to operate in the U.S. today. Only one, the St. Joseph’s Indian School in South Dakota offers boarding.

A report by ABC News Nightline speculates that hundreds of thousands of Native children were sent to U.S. boarding schools. The actual number, however, is unknown.

Last May, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced the discovery of 215 gravesites near Kamloops, British Columbia, that were found using ground-penetrating radar. It was Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school and the discovery of the graves was the first of numerous, similar grim sites across the country.

President of the Metis community, Cassidy Caron, speaks to the media in St. Peter's Square after their meeting with Pope Francis at The Vatican, Monday, March 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The news of discovered gravesites rippled around the globe igniting curiosity and interest in a part of Indigenous history that has mostly been forgotten or overlooked by non-Native peoples.

In response to the news, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland issued the Federal Boarding School Initiative with Tribal Communities in June calling for a report compiling records of Indian boarding schools. That report was scheduled to be delivered Friday to Haaland.

According to a statement issued by the Interior on Thursday, “The analysis that has been undertaken is expected to form the basis for future efforts intended to honor Tribal Nations and the families of the Indigenous children who may be interred at boarding school sites, as well as to provide a foundation for ongoing research, site visits, and stakeholder engagement to address the intergenerational impact of these assimilationist policies."

Assembly of First Nations member Rosanne Casimiro Ttes talks to journalists outside St. Peter's Square at the end of a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Thursday, March 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and is the first Native American to serve as secretary of the Interior. In an editorial for the Washington Post, she shared the news that her maternal grandparents were stolen from their families and forced to live away from their parents and attend an Indian boarding school.

Haaland’s initiative, however, does not contain any penalties or legal requirements for action on the part of the federal government.

In the U.S., Indian boarding school history occupies a long ago dim past; former executive director of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, Christine Diindiisi McCleave speculated that fewer than 5 percent of the U.S. population is aware of this country’s past assimilationist federal Indian boarding school policies.

The pope’s apology and Haaland’s Initiative, however, may signal that the U.S. is beginning to examine its past policies towards Indigenous peoples, according to Parker.

“Maybe the U.S is finally ready to look at its past, at the crimes committed against Indigenous peoples.”

Parker, Coalition leaders and some U.S. politicians are lobbying for passage of Senate Bill 2907, and House Resolution 5444, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools Act. In addition to making school records available to survivors and families, the act would authorize the commission to investigate the impacts of boarding school policies, development recommendations on protecting unmarked graves, support repatriation and discontinue the removal of Native children from their families by government social service and adoption agencies.

“We need congressional hearings as well as field hearings in which survivors and others can come forward and share their stories and explain why this Commission is needed in the U.S.” Parker said.

As part of the Settlement in Canada, survivors and families told their stories in a number of hearings convened throughout the country.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, during a Tribal Nations Summit in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

After hearing the stories all week, Francis told the Canadian Indigenous delegations that the colonial residential school project ripped children from their families, cutting off their roots, traditions and culture and provoking inter-generational trauma that is still being felt today. He said it was a “counter-witness” to the same Gospel that the residential school system purported to uphold.

“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord,” Francis said. “And I want to tell you from my heart, that I am greatly pained. And I unite myself with the Canadian bishops in apologizing.”

The trip to Rome by the Indigenous was years in the making but gained momentum last year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves outside some of the residential schools in Canada. The three groups of Indigenous met separately with Francis over several hours this week, telling him their stories, culminating with Friday's audience.

First Nations' Chief Gerald Antoine echoed the sentiment, saying Francis recognized the cultural "genocide” that had been inflicted on Indigenous.

“Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for. And certainly one that will be uplifted in our history," he said. “It’s a historical first step, however, only a first step.”

Read the Pope’s full apology here.

As part of a settlement of a lawsuit involving the Canadian government, churches and the approximately 90,000 surviving students, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities. The Catholic Church, for its part, has paid over $50 million and now intends to add $30 million more over the next five years.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Francis' apology and said he looked forward to having him deliver it in person in Canada.

“This apology would not have happened without the long advocacy of survivors who journeyed to tell their truths directly to the institution responsible and who recounted and relived their painful memories,” he said. “Today’s apology is a step forward in acknowledging the truth of our past in order to right historical wrongs, but there is still work to be done.”

The Canadian government and churches that ran schools were required as part of the Residential School Agreement to open their archives and allow records to be digitized and shared with survivors. The Catholics have resisted the order but in March allowed researchers to access the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate at the Vatican.

According to the Washington Post, Indigenous delegates asked Pope Francis to release more church records to help in identifying children who died at the schools; they criticized the church for failing to meet this obligation that is part of the Indian Settlement Agreement. Delegates also called for Catholic churches and the Vatican to return Indigenous artifacts and for the pope to revoke the 15th century Doctrine of Discovery which served to justify colonization of the Americas.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits a memorial at the Eternal Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, that's in recognition of discovery of children's remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)
The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen on Tk'emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on May 27, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been found buried on the site of the former residential school. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press via AP)

Leaders at the Boarding School Healing Coalition are working with the Interior to digitize records in the U.S. In a statement from the White House, President Biden’s 2023 budget for Indian Country includes a $7 million allocation for the boarding school initiative which “includes a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”

Although the Haaland’s Boarding School Initiative applies to federal schools, several Christian denominations and Catholic orders are also examining their archives and creating reports about their collections according to Parker.

“Churches are trying to get ahead of this and any possible negative information; some folks are concerned that churches may hide records so they won’t be accountable for past atrocities,” Parker said.

She noted that many of the church committees convened to do this work seldom include Indigenous people.

“We at the Coalition have stated our concerns as well. We strongly believe that any research into Indian boarding school archives needs to be done by Indigenous peoples,” Parker said.

In response to an email from Indian Country Today requesting comment on the pope’s apology, Chieko Noguchi, director of public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote, “While the Holy Father was specifically addressing the history in Canada, the U.S. bishops are similarly committed to bringing real and honest dialogue on the boarding school period in the United States. Last year when the Interior announced their investigation into the residential boarding school period, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) expressed our desire to be of assistance. While the results of the federal government’s report have not yet been released, the USCCB has encouraged dioceses and state Catholic conferences to dialogue with their local Indigenous communities. We acknowledged that we must approach the history that is being brought to light with sensitivity and humility. We hope these are steps on that path towards healing and heightened awareness so that this history is never repeated. Fostering dialogue and engaging in other efforts to reconcile involvement remains an important priority of the USCCB on the issue of boarding school accountability as we walk with the impacted communities in their path towards healing.”

Parker expressed concern, however, over U.S. Catholic leadership’s wish to atone for their past.

Pope Francis celebrates Easter Mass at St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican Sunday, April 4, 2021, during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Filippo Monteforte/Pool photo via AP)

“Apologies are not enough,” she said.

Kathleen Holscher, professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at the University of New Mexico, expressed hope that Pope Francis’s apology will act as a wake-up call for U.S. Catholic leaders.

"Catholic religious orders who ran boarding schools in the United States, and other US Catholic institutions (including colleges and universities), lag behind both their Canadian counterparts and the Vatican in putting forth even the most basic efforts to own up to the devastating history of Catholic boarding schools in this country,” said Holscher who holds the endowed chair of Roman Catholic studies at the university and is currently working on an essay about clerical sexual abuse that happened at Native missions.

Maka Black Elk, executive director for truth and healing at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota was especially pleased to hear Pope Francis talk about how good and important it is to feel indignation over boarding and residential school history.

“I think he was saying it’s not right to accept evil or grow accustomed to it; we need to be angry about this. It’s an important step in overcoming some of our fear,” Black Elk, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, said.

Red Cloud school, a Catholic Jesuit school, opened its doors to students in 1888 and still operates today although boarding was discontinued in 1980.

Black Elk described a call he received from a local boarding school survivor immediately after hearing the pope’s apology.

“He was so moved by the apology; his call reminded me that the most important people in this work are the survivors themselves,” Black Elk said.

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Like this story? Support our work with a $5 or $10 contribution today. Contribute to the nonprofit Indian Country Today. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.