Minnesota Catholics examine church’s role in Indian boarding schools

MINNEAPOLIS – Doll is approximately 6 inches tall, handcrafted in red leather, with beige belt and headband around her long black hair. He is a male warrior, holding a bow.

“It’s actually me,” D. Richard Wright said of the doll.

Wright, a parishioner at the Gichitwaa Kateri Catholic Church in Minneapolis, did so as part of an effort to address recent discoveries in Canada of what are believed to be hundreds of children’s graves at the sites. former residential schools.

Some Twin Cities Native Americans – mostly women – got together to make “spirit dolls” representing the children in some of these tombs, resulting in an exhibit called “215+” shown at the end of last year until January at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts. Center in St. Paul.

Wright, 72, is a member of the Leech Lake Ojibwe Band. He made the doll, he said, not because he attended residential school – he didn’t, but his father and grandparents did – but because he wanted to symbolize what he sees as the need for American Indians “to lay down our warrior mentality” and “find a way to deal with what is happening in a positive way”.

Among Native Americans, seeking information to understand the history of the residential school era is widely accepted as the first step toward healing and justice.

The discovery in May 2021 of approximately 200 unmarked graves on the campus of the long-closed Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia drew attention to the history of residential schools in Canada as well as the United States, where the practice began in the 19th century. .

The Kamloops findings prompted the US Department of the Interior to launch the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative last June, described as “a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”

The department’s report, submitted to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and made public on May 11, sheds light on the abuse suffered by many of these children in these public schools and also identifies burial sites in more than 50 of the former schools. .

As the United States begins to grapple with this chapter in its history, so does the Catholic Church.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, or NABS, has compiled what is generally considered the most comprehensive, though incomplete, list of American Indian boarding schools. The data shows that at least 84 of the 367 identified schools were operated by Catholic institutions under contracts with the US government. A group of Catholic archivists believe there were many more.

Last summer, employees of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis began looking into what was already known about his involvement in boarding schools, including one he ran in west-central Minnesota in the late 1800s. Efforts are underway to share archdiocesan records with tribal nations.

As Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the other bishops of Minnesota work to build and strengthen relationships with tribal leaders, Archbishop Hebda asked for prayers that the church “may be able to shed the light we need on the facts”. of what happened” and possibly create a “mutual plan between tribal leaders and Catholics in our state to respond in some way.”

Allison Spies of the Archdiocesan Office of Archives and Records Management said there are more than 15 schools in Minnesota. She works to identify those exploited by the Catholic Church. Among them was the Catholic Industrial School for Boys at Clontarf in Swift County, about 150 miles west of the Twin Cities, which the Archdiocese administered from 1877 to 1892. From 1884 most of its students were American Indians.

Spies began reviewing the records in August, and in November she joined the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Accountability and Healing Project on Native American Affairs.

She now coordinates the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s efforts to identify archival information held by dioceses in the state and share it with Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations.

This work is the initial result of a December meeting between Catholic bishops and Minnesota tribal leaders and representatives to discuss how the church can help tribal efforts to gather information about schools.

Maryanna Harstad is program director at Gichitwaa Kateri, an archdiocesan parish established to serve Native American Catholics. She was adopted from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe as a child by a Catholic couple in Minneapolis.

When she was 18, she was able to identify her tribe through the Minnesota Department of Social Services. She contacted her mother, who also told her about her biological father. They met, she learned, at a boarding school.

Harstad was born when her mother was 24, the second of her five children, all of whom were removed from her mother’s home due to her alcohol problems and depression. Harstad thinks her mother’s life might have been different had she grown up with her family.

She said she would like non-Indigenous Catholics to “try to see the traumatic legacy of the residential school era from an Indigenous perspective. And I realize that is a difficult thing. But in any kind of situation, if you try to look at it from the point of view of those who felt the impact, it’s a place with more understanding” than trying to justify those who caused harm. wrong.

For American Catholics, the revelations of the boarding school era mean wrestling with accounts from some survivors of horrific treatment in schools, including from priests and nuns. There is also the question of involving Christians in the first place.

At Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Maka Akan Najin Black Elk works as the Executive Director for Truth and Healing. He has become a key voice linking native and church efforts to address the history and legacy of residential schools.

Red Cloud Indian School, once a boarding school attended by his grandfather and great-grandfathers, is now a Lakota language immersion school.

Efforts at school focus on facing the reality of life in boarding schools. This is where the church must reach out to American Indians, he says.

“It’s a story that mainstream America hasn’t known and it hasn’t been taught, it’s not talked about,” Black Elk said. “For Aboriginal people, this is nothing new. It’s not shocking. It’s a family story.

Black Elk, who is Catholic, said he saw the Catholic Church trying to “make sense” of the boarding school story.

“It starts with confronting history,” he said. “It starts with learning it, knowing it. It starts with some sort of acknowledgment of that history, especially if you’re doing it for the first time.

The next step, he said, is to “take the time to understand it, to understand its impact and to understand why this story is still relevant today and its legacy, and also to understand its complexity, that it’s not a black-and-white, but that it takes time to struggle and chew it all up.

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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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