Pope Francis made a surprise announcement earlier this fall that he would visit Canada “on a pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples. The announcement raised hopes of a formal apology from the Vatican for the church’s centurylong role in the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families to attend religious boarding schools for the purpose of assimilation.
It also signaled that the only way forward for the church and Indigenous peoples is through truth and reconciliation, with the church acknowledging its role in perpetuating colonization and joining Natives and non-Natives alike in grieving and healing collectively. A path forward following the seven steps to healing, as shared in my book “Decolonizing Wealth,” will help everyone work toward reconciliation and put this dark chapter behind us.
The roots of religious boarding schools stretch back to the 15th century, when the church established the Doctrine of Discovery. This series of religious documents that condoned the enslavement or killing of Indigenous peoples who would not convert to Christianity became a justification for colonization and oppression.
In the late 1800s, several Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church collaborated with the American and Canadian governments to use the doctrine as justification for another form of oppression — religious boarding schools. Over several decades, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken by force to more than 350 religious boarding schools to be assimilated into white society.
The practice ripped apart Native families, separating children from their culture and language and subjecting them to physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual abuse and neglect. The reasoning behind the attempted cultural genocide was simple, according to an architect of the program: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
The practice continued well into the 20th century, and its effects are still being felt today. Native children in America were consigned to religious boarding schools until as recently as the 1980s; in Canada, the practice continued into the 1990s.
The lasting impacts are still evident in the high rates of poverty, mental illness and addiction across Native communities. Many are still being forced to reexperience this trauma. The Canadian government this year discovered hundreds of unmarked graves around the sites of former residential schools, while bodies of children or records of their deaths are also being found at sites in the U.S., including new documentation of 102 children who died in Nebraska.
Faced with a reckoning over this shameful history and the church’s role in the attempted genocide, we must ask: What are our religious leaders going to do about the harm they perpetuated? Here are a few ideas from my book and the seven steps to healing.
First, the church — and faith communities of every doctrine — must acknowledge history and own up to the truth of their own participation or complicity in harming people. This will involve collective grieving as harsh truths emerge from this devastating history, especially for those that were part of an organization that helped cause harm of this scale.
The church must then apologize to affected individuals and communities. Some religious leaders have already taken this important step. A Minnesota nun recently apologized for her local church’s role in operating a boarding school, one of the first direct apologies from a religious order to a tribal nation in the United States. It should not be the last.
These words must have actions behind them. The church could start by paying reparations to Native American communities and engaging those communities on what reparations mean to them. Reparations can come in many different forms, but tangible compensation centered on helping individual communities begin to heal would be a major step in making amends.
Another avenue is to support Indigenous-led organizations that are already doing the work on the ground to advance reparations, heal those facing trauma and support Native communities.
The church should also publicly support truth and healing commissions on Native American boarding schools. Canada established a truth and reconciliation commission that helped shine a light on the treatment of First Nations Canadians; discussing its findings, the chair acknowledged that religious and government leaders carried out “cultural genocide” in the boarding schools.
However, no such commission exists in America. Native-led organizations are working to file a submission with the United Nations calling for a full accounting of the practices in the U.S., while American lawmakers have introduced a bill to establish a commission on boarding school practices. The church lending its sizable influence to the overall effort would help a commission become a reality.
Finally, the church and its allies must heal spiritually. White communities, especially those who had a direct hand in the kidnapping and separation of Native American children from their parents, need to engage in a deep spiritual journey to unpack, process and learn from their past and present. This is not about feeling bad or wallowing in shame. Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect and engage in genuine healing.
That includes individuals asking important questions of themselves and of their broader faith, such as: What are my values as a person, and how do they match the values of my religion or church? Who am I putting my faith behind? Who do I need to apologize to and make amends to? What is my role, as a person of faith, in contributing to a movement of truth and healing?
Native American boarding schools were one of the darkest chapters of our shared history, inflicting a deep intergenerational trauma that continues to harm Indigenous communities today. The truth, however, is that colonization traumatizes everyone it touches, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike.
Healing will be long and difficult for all. Yet amid this pain, there’s an important opportunity for the church and all religious leaders to lead us on this journey. Only through acknowledging history, holding ourselves and each other accountable, taking ownership, and joining Native and non-Natives alike in grieving can we collectively begin the healing necessary to repair and move forward together.