Catholic dioceses investigate their role in boarding schools for Native Americans

Catholic dioceses in the United States began to investigate their role in running boarding schools for Native American children in the late 1800s and 1900s, including seeking evidence of students who may have died in the institutions.

The investigations underway in many dioceses follow an investigation by the Department of the Interior launched in June into the institutions set up by the federal government to assimilate young Native Americans. Indigenous students were sometimes victims of physical and emotional abuse, and thousands of people may have died from accidents, illnesses and other causes. Most schools were closed in the 1970s.

In recent weeks, leaders from four Minnesota dioceses have met with tribal leaders to determine how best to investigate several now closed boarding schools affiliated with the church. The effort will involve examining records at places like St. Paul’s Industrial School in Clontarf, Minn., where at least 14 students died of tuberculosis in the late 19th century, said Jason Adkins, principal executive of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

“At a minimum, we want to help tribes report on who attended schools and identify if there are any remains that can be taken home to reservations,” he said.

In December, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States hired a researcher to look into the history of the religious order of Native American residential schools in the United States.

A memorial for 14 students who died at a boarding school in Minnesota.


Mark Wasson/West Central Tribune

Ted Penton, secretary of the order’s Office of Justice and Ecology, said the order ran Native American boarding schools from the 1830s through the 1970s, mostly in the Great Plains, Rockies and Alaska, but the order did not know how many, when they operated, or if any had cemeteries where students could be buried. The order plans to inventory its archives and aims to make them public, he said.

The Jesuits’ investigation was prompted, in part, by the insistence of Native American staff at one of its schools, Red Cloud Indian School, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Penton said. .

In November, two prominent bishops in areas with large Native American populations — Gallup, NM and Oklahoma City — sent a letter to their fellow bishops, urging them to review the history of boarding schools in their areas and comply with the investigation by the Ministry of the Interior. .

The federal investigation was launched by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and is seeking to determine how many students died and where they are buried. The investigation was sparked by the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at a church-run boarding school in Canada in May.


How should the Catholic Church approach its treatment of Native American children? Join the conversation below.

More than 100,000 Native Americans attended at least 367 boarding schools, according to scholars and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Christian denominations operated nearly half of the schools, with the Catholic Church operating about 84, according to the Coalition.

Native American advocates said the bishops’ letter signals that the US Catholic Church is for the first time formally urging local dioceses to examine their role in running boarding schools.

“It is imperative that the Catholic Church and other denominations do the hard work to locate and share their records,” said Deborah Parker, director of policy and advocacy for the Boarding Schools Healing Coalition.

The group “has been calling on churches to share their records for years, and there can be no more delay,” she said.

Part of the challenge, according to church officials, is that schools often fell under the umbrella of local parishes and religious orders that kept their own records. In other cases, the documents could be elsewhere.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City has initiated listening sessions with the families of former Native American boarders. He also recently teamed up with a researcher from Marquette University, home to a wealth of material on church-run schools, to dig into its archives.

Michael Scaperlanda, chancellor of the archdiocese, said the search will include an investigation into whether any children are buried at any of the Oklahoma-area school sites. A report will be released on the findings and the archdiocese will determine how to proceed, he said.

“We have learned over the past few years that being completely transparent about the good, the bad and the ugly of our past is the path to healing and reconciliation,” he said.

Write to Dan Frosch at [email protected] and Ian Lovett at [email protected]

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Nohemi M. Moore