American churches rely on traumatic legacy of residential schools

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The discoveries of hundreds of anonymous graves in former residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada prompted new calls for judgment on the traumatic legacy of similar schools in the United States – and particularly by the churches that operated many of them. .

American Catholic and Protestant denominations operated more than 150 residential schools between the 19th and 20th centuries, researchers say. Native American and Alaskan children were routinely separated from their tribal families, customs, language and religion and brought to school for the purpose of assimilating and Christianizing them.

Some American churches have relied on this activity for years through ceremonies, apologies and archival investigations, while others are just beginning. Some advocates say churches have more work to do to open their records, educate the public about what has been done in the name of their faith, and help former students and loved ones tell their stories of family trauma.

“We all need to work together on this,” said Rev. Bradley Hauff, a Minnesota-based Episcopal priest and missionary for Native ministries with the Episcopal Church.

“What is happening in Canada is a wake-up call for us,” said Hauff, who is registered with the Oglala Sioux tribe.

This painful story has attracted relatively little attention in the United States compared to Canada, where recent grave findings highlighted what a 2015 government commission called “cultural genocide.”

This is starting to change.

This month, senior officials of the Episcopal Church of the United States recognized the need for the denomination to heed its involvement in such residential schools.

“We need to come to a full understanding of the legacy of these schools,” read a July 12 statement from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Reverend Gay Clark Jennings, speaker of the denomination’s House of Representatives. They called for the denomination’s next legislative session in 2022 to allocate funds for independent research into church records and to educate church members.

Students write on a blackboard at Red Deer Indian Industrial School in Alberta. In Canada, where more than 150,000 indigenous children have attended residential schools for more than a century, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented 3,201 deaths in poor conditions. United Church of Canada Archives via AP

Home Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as Secretary to the US Cabinet, announced last month that her department would investigate “the loss of life and the lasting consequences of residential schools.” This would include seeking to identify schools and burial sites.

American church groups were affiliated with at least 156 of these schools, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a private group formed in 2012 to raise awareness and address institutional trauma. That’s over 40 percent of the 367 schools documented to date by the coalition.

Eighty-four were affiliated with the Catholic Church or its religious orders, such as the Jesuits. The other 72 were affiliated with various Protestant groups, including Presbyterians (21), Quakers (15), and Methodists (12). Most have been closed for decades.

Samuel Torres, director of research and programs for the coalition, said the church’s apology can be a good start, but “there is a lot more to do” to involve members of the indigenous community and educate the public.

Such information is crucial given the lack of knowledge most Americans have about schools, he said, both in their impact on Indigenous communities and in their role “as a weapon for it. acquisition of indigenous lands, ”he said.

“Without this truth, the possibilities for healing are really very limited,” said Torres, who is a descendant of Mexica / Nahua ancestors, an indigenous group in present-day Mexico.

Hauff noted that the experiences of former students, such as his own parents, varied widely. Some said that even in the midst of austerity, loneliness and family separation, they received a good education, made friends, learned skills and spoke tribal languages ​​freely with their peers. But others spoke of “unspeakable and cruel abuse,” including physical and sexual assault, malnutrition and punishment for speaking indigenous languages.

“Even though some of the kids said they had a positive experience, it came at a price,” Hauff said. “Our church has worked hand in hand with the government to assimilate these children. “

In Canada, where more than 150,000 indigenous children have attended residential schools for more than a century, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented 3,201 deaths in poor conditions.

The United Church of Canada, which operated 15 of these schools, apologized for its role, opened its archives and helped identify burial sites.

The response of the Catholic Church in Canada remains controversial. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in June he was “deeply disappointed” that the Vatican failed to issue a formal apology. Pope Francis expressed his “sadness” over the discovery of the graves and agreed to meet at the Vatican in December with the school’s survivors and other indigenous leaders.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, meanwhile, said it would look for ways to help with the Home Office’s investigation.

“We can’t even begin to imagine the deep sadness these findings are causing in indigenous communities,” said spokesperson Chieko Noguchi.

America magazine, affiliated with the Jesuits, urges American Catholic bishops not to repeat their mismanagement of cases of child sexual abuse by priests.

“The church in the United States must demonstrate that it has learned from… such failures,” the magazine said in an op-ed.

Other churches have dealt with their inheritance to varying degrees.

Presbyterian Church (US) leaders traveled to Utqiagvik, Alaska in 2017 to make a drastic apology to a crowded school auditorium for the treatment of natives in general, and more specifically for the way they exploited residential schools.

Reverend Gradye Parsons, the denomination’s declared former clerk, told the assembly that the church had “despised its own proclaimed faith” by suppressing Indigenous spiritual traditions amid its zeal to spread Christianity. “The church judged when it should have listened. “

The United Methodist Church hosted a repentance ceremony in 2012 for historic injustices committed against Indigenous peoples. In 2016, he recognized his role in residential schools in tandem with a government effort to “intentionally” destroy traditional cultures and belief systems.

Yet the Native American International Caucus of The United Methodist Church recently urged the Church to do more “to uncover the truth about the role and responsibility of our denomination in this reprehensible history.”

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