Have you heard about graves being found at residential schools in Canada and wondered what the Catholic Church has to do with any of it?
You are in wide company, as knowledge of Native history and experience in both the U.S. and Canada has a long way to go. Native people have experienced long and complicated relations with Catholicism and the Catholic Church. Residential schools in Canada and boarding schools in the U.S. were a key part of the assimilation strategy from the mid-19th century, the central idea of which was to break the connections of Native children with their people and culture. Survivors of the schools have spoken for years about the harms witnessed there and have attested to the presence of more burial sites.
Christian practice was mandatory at boarding schools and residential schools, including government-run schools. Because of this, it is generally not helpful to try and lessen the historical impact of Catholicism in the genocidal actions of these schools. The ideas propagated by the Church planted the seeds, no matter who ended up listed as administrator.
In both Canada and the U.S. the road to the boarding school strategy of assimilation was laid centuries before the first boarding school was created - and the Doctrine of Discovery lies at the root. The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a host of documents, but is mostly associated with the final papal bull Inter Caetera. Beginning in the 1100s, various papal bulls and decrees built up the idea of religious territorial sovereignty. Then came Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493). These papal bulls authorized the enslavement of local people and the Christian domination and superiority in "discovered" lands. The damage of spiritual justification for policies that advanced white supremacy cannot be overstated.
Prior reports in Canada estimated that 6,000 children died at residential schools, with only about 4,100 identified. We have since learned that this number is far too low. Newer estimates say 15,000 children died at residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Canada was meant to issue a comprehensive report on residential schools in Canada. Yet, so far, over 1,000 unidentified graves have been found at residential schools that are not included in the TRC’s final report - and these numbers could still be too low. The U.S. has never compiled nationwide statistics.
In June 2021, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative: "The primary goal will be to identify boarding school facilities and sites; the location of known and possible student burial sites located at or near school facilities; and the identities and Tribal affiliations of children interred at such locations."
Many records are held by private entities, like Catholic religious orders, and are unavailable to tribes, families, and researchers. Without these records, it is difficult to impossible to understand daily conditions at the schools or identify the bodies found - preventing return to their people and family. It is unclear what actions can be taken when a religious order refuses to turn over records, but such protective measures further damage trust in institutional justice.
Also in June 2021, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) announced a “delegation of Indigenous people to meet with the Holy Father to foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing” in December 2021. Individual delegations of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit will meet with Pope Francis before a final audience all together on December 20th. A letter to Indigenous people in 2018 stated, “After carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the Bishops of Canada, [Pope Francis] felt that he could not personally respond” to formal calls for a papal apology. The 2021 meeting would be a great opportunity for Pope Francis to lead the way in public, personal, and repeated apology and acknowledgement of the centuries of harm done to Native peoples.
Native people are not a monolith - individuals, families, bands, tribes, and nations have all experienced boarding or residential schools in their own unique way. But we all can come together to seek justice for those lost, and to advocate for honesty and healing without platitudes. Harms to and ignorance of Native experience has stretched for generations. It will likely take many more generations to come to terms with our full history as a Church, country, and people.
But what a gift to be invited to take up that torch and carry it forward. Find out whose land it is where you live, work, and pray. In the U.S., you can learn from and support the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. This is an opportunity for all of us to bring knowledge into our parish and community and let more light in.