A database about Native American boarding schools affiliated with the Catholic Church is a resource and a step toward healing, advocates say.
By Gina Christian, OSV News
(OSV News) — A new resource for tracking Native residential schools affiliated with the Catholic Church marks a major advance toward healing the wounds of systemic abuse, said one project organizer.
“While there are more steps for the Catholic Church to take to move toward truth, healing and reconciliation, this list is a powerful step forward,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
On May 9, Black Elk and a group of archivists, historians, tribal members and other supporters unveiled a list of some 87 Catholic-run Native boarding schools that had operated in 22 U.S. states prior to 1978. The schools were among more than 400 overseen by the U.S. federal government in the 19th and 20th centuries, with many sites operated by Christian churches and organizations.
The list, accessible online at http://ctah.archivistsacwr.org, provides school names, locations and dates of operation, along with the dioceses in which the facilities were located and the orders that operated and staffed them.
The information was drawn from publicly available resources, including the Marquette University Guide to Catholic Records about Native Americans in the United States, official Catholic directories and Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. A number of religious communities and dioceses also worked with organizers to confirm or correct the data.
The list expands and corrects information previously published by the U.S. Department of the Interior and by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, while providing guidance on sourcing archival material for each school.
Established in both the U.S. and Canada, the institutions, many of them operated by religious orders, sought to forcibly strip Indigenous children of their culture and language, while assimilating them to a European and Christian way of life. Thousands of students were physically, mentally and sexually abused in the process.
Recent years have seen the Catholic Church begin to reckon with the residential school legacy. In July 2022, Pope Francis made a penitential pilgrimage to Canada, during which he formally apologized for the church’s role in that nation’s residential school system.
Months later, the Vatican’s Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development issued a March joint statement repudiating the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a concept first formulated to support European claims to land beyond continental Europe. The statement, which also was affirmed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it was “only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.”
Organizers of the new boarding school list said on their website that “the Catholic Church … has an obligation to understand the scope of its own role” in the history of the residential school system. The list itself “responds to the clear request from Tribal Nations for access to archival records in Catholic repositories,” noting that “families and communities of boarding school survivors and their descendants deserve prioritized access to information regarding their own histories.”
Denise K. Lajimodiere of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, who developed the initial list of residential schools in the U.S., described the new release as “history-making.”
Basic information about the schools is “critical information that must be known for the truth-telling and the reconciliatory process to take place,” said Jaime Arsenault, tribal historic preservation officer for the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and group member.
Enabling survivors and descendants of the boarding schools to more easily access the information “will allow for subsequent generations to achieve healing,” Black Elk told OSV News.
Assembling the list was an achievement in and of itself, said Kathleen Holscher, associate professor of religious studies and American studies and holder of the endowed chair in Roman Catholic studies at the University of New Mexico. Although a universal entity, the Catholic Church remains “decentralized,” with records privately held, Holscher told OSV News. Boarding school records can be particularly problematic, she noted.
“You do have some religious entities and particular congregations who are worried about litigation, and who are just scared to open up their records,” Holscher said. Research is further hampered when religious congregations merge or close altogether, she added.
Black Elk said he and his fellow group members were “thankful to the USCCB, particularly its Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, for being supportive and part of the process” in compiling the list. He noted that reaction among Indigenous communities to the list will be “mixed,” since “Indigenous people are not a monolith.”
“There will be some who are very vocal about how this isn’t enough and that there needs to be more, and I understand those sentiments,” said Black Elk. “And then there are also Native people who are grateful the church is doing the work it needs to do, and who know there will be more to come.”
Acknowledging the “intergenerational trauma” is only the beginning, he said. “In this work we also need to talk about intergenerational healing,” he said. “Something like this list will also hopefully help contribute to that.”
Featured image: Maka Black Elk, seen in an undated photo, is executive director for truth and healing at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. (CNS photo/courtesy Red Cloud Indian School)