Painful legacies: Acknowledging the church’s role in atrocities at Indigenous boarding schools

Native American students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, around 1900.

The reckoning has already started in Canada, where the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children were discovered earlier this year — at least 215 children, some as young as three, discovered in May 2021 at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, and at least 751 graves discovered in June 2021 by the Cowessess First Nation at Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. The Catholic Church was involved in running both schools.

The accounting is coming for the United States, where Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has pledged a comprehensive review of residential boarding school records to uncover possible burial sites of Native American children, with a report due by April 1, 2022.  Previously, Canada convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued a report in 2015 documenting the abuse at those schools and calling what happened over more than a century to Native American children “cultural genocide.”

A member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland has written of her own family’s experiences, stating that some studies suggest that nearly 83% of Native American children were in the boarding school system by 1926. Her maternal grandmother, speaking to Haaland of this pain for the first time, told of how a priest rounded up the children from her village and put them on a train; described the piercing loneliness she endured as an 8-year-old girl far from home.

“My family’s story is not unlike that of many other Native American families in this country,” Haaland wrote. “We have a generation of lost or injured children who are now the lost or injured aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents of those who live today.”

Chiracahua Apaches arriving at the Carlisle Indian School

And while the details are still emerging from the historical record, it’s certain the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has played a role in this painful history and will be part of the accounting. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition list of 367 Native American boarding schools in the U.S. includes 21 with Presbyterian connections — second only to the number of schools affiliated with Catholics, although it states the list may not be complete.

Even at particular institutions, the history twists and turns. Presbyterians were involved with running some schools for decades. Others were founded by Presbyterian missionaries, then turned over to the federal government after only a few years. Some boarding schools later became day schools.

“Officially, we don’t have a number,” although unofficially he’s heard there may be as many as 30 Presbyterian-related boarding schools, said Irvin Porter, the associate for Native American Congregational Support for the PC(USA). “We need more documentation. We need to know the exact names and locations of those schools that the church was responsible for. We need to understand what happened at those schools.”

Porter, with family ties to the Pima, Nez Perce and T’hono O’odham tribes and with many relatives who attended boarding schools, says not all that happened at the boarding schools was negative. For some, especially in more recent years, the schools provided opportunities for education, leadership development and deep friendships. But Native communities also know well the stories of abuses from their elders, of the intergenerational trauma that resulted — and the role that white Christians set on evangelizing and Westernizing Native Americans played in allowing that to happen.

“For the church, understanding that legacy better would help round out our knowledge of the history of our denomination’s work with Indian people,” Porter said. “There are churches and reservations that still blame the church because they let it happen. They let it happen in the name of God.”

Sioux children in 1987, before entering school

Confessions and apologies

In 2017, the PC(USA) formally apologized to Native Americans in Alaska, at the direction of the 2016 General Assembly, which instructed that an apology made “especially to those who were and are part of the ‘stolen generations’ during the Indian-assimilation movement, namely former students of Indian boarding schools, their families and their communities.”

In October 2016, Curtis Karns, then executive presbyter of the Presbytery of the Yukon (Karns retired from that position Aug. 31), presented a first apology in Fairbanks at the close of the meeting of the Alaska Federation of Natives.  And in February 2017, a delegation of Presbyterians led by J. Herbert Nelson, the PCI(USA)’s stated clerk, and Gradye Parsons, who preceded Nelson in that role, issued a second apology.

Parsons stood before a crowd at an elementary school in Barrow, Alaska – now known by its Indigenous name of Utqiaġvik – and read a formal apology, with James Nageak translating his words from English into Iñupiaq, during a three-day renewal and healing event. “It was a very big deal,” Karns said in an interview, with the Indigenous people taking the lead in planning the event.

That included discussion of what comes next — of the need for reparations and healing. “It wasn’t just giving an apology and walking away,” Karns said.

Choir at Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota

A haunting history

The photos are haunting. Rows of Native American children wearing military uniforms, their long hair – for many a symbol of power and strength – chopped short upon arrival. Children kneeling by their cots, their hands clasped in required prayer, stern-faced teachers standing watch.

First Nations families camping as close to the school as they could, just outside the fence, waiting and watching for their children.

In the late 1800s, white settlers moved further west, using the Dawes Act of 1887 to claim more and more of the Native lands.

Omaha boys in cadet uniforms at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania

With that legislation came compulsory education for Native American children at residential schools, and the policy known as assimilation. It rested on the racist belief – supported both by the government and by missionaries of the church – that all that was Native was inferior, and needed to be cast out and replaced by white, Western ways. Captain Richard H. Pratt, the superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, wrote in 1892 that while one general contended “the only good Indian is a dead one,” he favored forced internal transformation: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

The methods: Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Children punished for speaking their native languages or following their traditions. Indigenous names changed to Western ones. A strict, regimented schedule with lessons – Bible study, farming, sewing, lessons in English – from dawn to dusk.

In Alaska, Presbyterian missionary S. Hall Young insisted on using English only at Native schools in Sitka and Fort Wrangell — refusing to allow the Bible to be translated into the Tlinglit language.

“We should let the old tongues with their superstition and sin die, the sooner the better, and replace these languages with that of Christian civilization, and compel the natives in all our schools to talk English and English only,” Young wrote in 1880. “Thus we would soon have an intelligent people who would be qualified to be Christian citizens.”

Girls pray beside their beds at Phoenix Indian School in nArizona

A lasting impact

For Indigenous people in Alaska, the impact of the white missionaries – the “collision of the cultures,” as Karns put it, “when Western civilization ran into Indigenous culture” – has played out over generations. It started with disease.

The white missionaries and traders who streamed in beginning in the late 1800s brought with them “all the Western diseases came that had never been there,” Karns said.  The local people didn’t have any immunities. So smallpox and diphtheria and all these diseases were just wiping people out. Wiped out whole villages.”

Karns spoke to a woman from the village of Shaktookik, who told him that in 1900, the village had about 250 residents. By 1925, seven people were left.

Seeing the suffering, the churches sent doctors and started hospitals, and “really made a difference with their caring medical ministry,” Karns said. “That saved lots of lives and had a powerful evangelical effect too, because it was exhibiting care and love.”

But the pain was profound. “Those people who survived came from a culture where you don’t complain, which is not helpful for grieving,” Karns said. Then the government decided to teach Native people Western ways, “so they confiscated their children and sent them to boarding schools. … The children were told not to speak their language; their values were denigrated. In my conversations with people, you find that different generations of people going through a given school had really different experiences, depending on how the administration ran things. Sometimes it was really bad. Always it was separating people from their families. And that by itself did huge damage.”

As part of their reparations work, in 2017 the Presbytery of Yukon in Alaska began Intergenerational Arctic Ministries to facilitate faith-based healing for Native Americans in Alaska experiencing intergenerational trauma and grief. For many, “spirituality is a key identifier of their identity as a culture,” Karns said. “We’re trying to deal with addiction, domestic violence, other violence, depression, suicide, isolation — all of the social effects of cultural breakdown” of Native communities, the result of decades of policies, laws and practices that stripped away land, control, culture and power.

Working in four North Slope villages, Intergenerational Arctic Ministries trains local Iñupiaq leaders to conduct listening sessions, connecting with local pastors and churches to offer Bible study, 12-step programs and initiatives designed to bring about healing “so that people are made whole,” Karns said.

The history is complex — with siblings from the same family sometimes having different boarding school experiences, some more positive and some more painful.

The churches started some schools, then handed control off to the government – among them, the Wrangell Institute Boarding School, which became a boarding school in the 1930s but first existed as the Fort Wrangell Institute Tlingit Industrial School, founded by Young, the Presbyterian missionary and colleague of Sheldon Jackson.

“After the government took over there was a decade with seriously abusive practices, physical abuse and even sexual abuse in the Wrangell Institute Boarding School,” Karns said.  “More recent generations of people that went through did not experience that, and they talk about how valuable the friendships they got there have been, there are a lot of good things they talk about.”

Some families did not talk about what had happened. Some are still trying to trace the ripples of trauma through the generations.

An elder from Utquigvik Prresbyterian who helped start Intergenerational Arctic Ministries told Karns of her boarding school experience. “I used to say it just didn’t affect me very much,” she told him. “All these good things happened. Then I remembered what happened when I came home from high school. There was forever a barrier between my very traditional mother and me. We could never cross that barrier. All those things that normally happen that build life-long generations of bonds between women were wiped out.”

She stopped speaking. Then, “she just started crying.”

Gravestones of Native Americans, including children, who died at the Carlisle Indian School, a boarding and industrial school from 1879 through 1918, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The school — now called the “Carlisle Barracks” — controversially strove to immerse its students into mainstream Euro-American culture. It gained fame when Jim Thorpe, one of its students, became an Olympic and football and baseball star. Remnants are preserved within the U.S. Army War College.