Confronting the Abusive Legacy of Native American Boarding Schools

Last February, Syracuse University hosted a screening of the 2007 film UNREPENTANT: Kevin Annett and Canada’s Genocide and a public conversation with Kevin Annett. Reverend Annett started his first ministry for the United Church of Canada (UCC) on Vancouver Island in the 1980s. He immediately noticed that in spite of the large Native American population in the community, none of them attended his church. He made a concerted effort to reach out and listen to their stories, and was shocked to learn that UCC-run boarding schools, as well as their Catholic and Episcopalian counterparts, had been directly involved in traumatizing Native American children.

For nearly seventy years, sexual abuse, torture, and murder occurred in these boarding schools. These Christian-run and government-funded boarding schools dedicated to ‘civilizing’ Native Americans were the means by which private interests acquired vast tracts of valuable land; Annett uncovered UCC involvement with the physical and cultural extermination of native populations so their lands could be made available to government and private interests. Annett’s exposure of the UCC’s involvement in these genocidal practices resulted in his being defrocked in 1996. With growing interest among boarding school survivors in filing class action lawsuits against the church, Annett’s dissenting inside voice had to be squelched; the UCC dedicated itself to silencing Annett by encouraging his wife to file for a divorce, cutting funds for his graduate work, and suppressing his publications.

The history of Native American boarding schools clearly illustrates how the US and Canadian governments and various Christian denominations have actively collaborated to “convert” and “civilize” Native people. Under the mantle of “Kill the Indian, save the Man,” Colonel Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1879. Several hundred other schools opened in the following decades that were run by a variety of Christian denominations (Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Quaker, among others) but they were all financed through the US and Canadian governments.

The Thomas Boarding School on the Seneca Cattaraugus Nation Territory, for example, was run by the Quakers to educate and civilize children of the Iroquois Six Nations Territories (including the Onondaga Nation). There are numerous stories of children being taken from their homes, sometimes by force, to travel long distances to live at these schools, sometimes for many years. The children were forced to cut their hair, wear military uniforms and, most tragically, stop speaking their native languages and performing their traditional ceremonies. In some cases, children were incarcerated for trying to escape, and died or were murdered in these schools. All of the students were radically transformed by these experiences. Boarding schools have had a devastating impact for generations of indigenous communities throughout North America. It would be difficult to name anything more destructive to the integrity of traditional knowledge than the boarding school program. Nearly every Native American family has been impacted by these schools.

Most of these schools closed in the 1970 and ’80s, after traumatizing children for decades. With mounting pressure from the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007, there may be growing opportunities for reconciliation. Recently the Prime Ministers of Australia and Canada have apologized to the indigenous people affected by the legacy of boarding schools in their nations. The United States lags behind in these international human rights initiatives.

Of course an apology is only a start. There are underlying religious and cultural issues which are deep and intractable and urgently need to be explored. For example, the history outlined above reveals that the tenets of freedom of religion and the freedom from religion have never applied to Native American traditions. There are also difficult theological issues. Why does Christianity feel such unease with respect to Native American traditions, and seem to require an overwhelming confidence in knowing the nature of God?

As the boarding schools reflect, religious institutions have committed themselves to a dichotomy between “primitive” and “civilized.” Are we suffering culturally and environmentally as a consequence of this? These are urgent questions that require us all—Native and non-Native, Indigenous and Immigrant, Traditional Native American, Christian, and other—to actively resolve through reconciliation.

This post originally appeared on Sightings.

You can see Kevin Annett’s film in its entirety and find out about his book Hidden From History: The Canadian Holocaust at or below:

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