Despite papal apologies, some Native Americans struggle to forgive

The legacy of residential schools has been passed down to present-day Native Americans.

Jody Roy’s uncle was sexually and physically assaulted in Canada. Terry Cornell had three family members who never returned from boarding school in the United States


So when Pope Francis apologized to Native Canadians for the way many members of the Church and faith communities cooperated in plans of cultural destruction and forced assimilation in residential schools, Native Americans, like many Aboriginal Canadians, said forgiveness was difficult – despite their Catholic faith.

“They snatched these children away; they took them out of their hands and out of their arms,” said Roy, an Ojibway who is director of the St. Kateri Center in Chicago.

“The US government’s policy of assimilation was nothing short of murder,” said Terry Cornell, whose heritage is Irish and Cheyenne Arapahoe. “It was just a cash grab. The government paid these agencies to kill the Indian inside them.

“The historic trauma is real,” Cornell said, adding, “not just from the deaths, but from everything that was done to these people.”

Cornell and Roy are part of the coordinating team for the Catholic Residential Schools Accountability and Healing Project, more commonly known as AHP.

Cornell said he thought it would be really hard for many Native Americans to even accept an apology and that as a Catholic he struggled inwardly, even though he believed in the Catholic concept of forgiveness.

He recounted visiting his grandmother in Oklahoma and said the enormity of the situation didn’t really hit him until he was an adult.

“She would start telling stories and then she would break down and cry,” Cornell said. And even today, in the United States, “they find bodies of young children, as young as 3 years old” in former boarding schools. The government owned the schools and had contracts with various agencies – including some religions – to run them.

“Why did it take so long for the Catholic Church” or others to recognize what happened to Native Americans? He asked. Native Americans “are always at the back of the line. They are almost invisible.

“How do you forgive what was done to you?” he added.

Roy said his mother was the youngest of 12 siblings and was lucky to be a year too old to take along. But she attended day school, which “was just as tough,” Roy told CNS.

She said the stories about her uncle were the worst she had heard.

“He was sexually abused, he was physically abused and obviously mentally abused” when he was in residential school from grades 1 to 8, she said.

When the Canadian government offered a compensation plan to survivors, it took the minimum. First he told his story, then the authorities came back and wanted to record him. She said he decided “it’s not worth reliving those moments”.

Roy said when his aunt started sharing her story, it helped his aunt’s healing journey.

“She understands that healing has to be done from both sides,” Roy said. She also acknowledged that people’s ancestors did wrong, and people today “face a lot of things: they can’t believe our people did this to your people.”

Maka Black Elk, another AHP member, is Oglala Lakota and is currently leading a truth and healing process for Red Cloud Indian School, a former boarding school in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. He said he understood Pope Francis’ apology provoked a range of emotions, and “it didn’t go as far as some people would have liked”.

“I think what’s really important is that we recognize that for many survivors and residents…a lot of them needed it,” he said. CNS. “It’s a shame it took so long, but it’s important to acknowledge the history that has been written…. And for me, that’s hopeful.

Everyone interviewed said what happens next is important.

Pope Francis cannot “snap his fingers and get things done,” Black Elk said. He said he hopes “more and more bishops and more and more Catholics around the world – and especially in the United States and Canada – will do what the pope calls them to do.” Healing must include steps forward, he said; the pope can ask for it, but the churches and the people on the ground have to enact it.

Cornell said he hoped the apology might ease the burden on survivors. He said he wished “that I could just take their pain away.”

He also said some Native Americans criticized him for serving on the AHP board with other Catholics, but he thinks, “maybe there’s some common ground there.”

He thinks the United States needs a consortium of survivors and tribal leaders to come together and figure out “where do they go from here.”

Roy said she believes Native Americans need the same kind of apology from the Pope in the United States. “I think it has to be done on American soil. It makes a huge difference and impact.

Although, she acknowledged, “For some Native Americans, even with my own peers (they say) ‘It’s a little too late. It took long enough.

Maybe the way forward, she said, is for people to learn history and for Native Americans to learn their languages.

“Knowing that this pain happened to our people…I think the truth needs to be told,” she told CNS. All Americans need to hear the story.

“If they can take our native kids, then they should be able to teach their kids about this, about history.”

Nohemi M. Moore