Council Focuses on Indigenous Boarding Schools

Pupils at the Carlisle Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania, circa 1900 | Wikipedia

By Kirk Petersen

The Executive Council is continuing to explore the history of the Episcopal Church with Indian boarding schools, which were part of a government program of forced assimilation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The council is meeting in person for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, gathering from October 25-28 at the Maritime Conference Center in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, on land that was taken from the Piscataway and Susquehannock people, as council member Sarah Stonesifer noted in introducing the discussion on boarding schools.

The council is working to fulfill a mandate to deliver to next summer’s General Convention a comprehensive plan for addressing the church’s legacy of Indigenous boarding schools. The ambitious goal was set in a public statement on July 12, 2021 by the presiding officers of Executive Council: Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings.

The Rev. Dr. Bradley Hauff, missioner for Indigenous ministries and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told the council that “both of my parents were raised in Indigenous boarding schools.” He said his father was raised in a school run by the federal government, and his mother in St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Indian Girls in Springfield, South Dakota. Most of the major Christian denominations operated Indian boarding schools with government funding. The large majority were run by the Roman Catholic Church, but Hauff said there were at least nine Episcopal boarding schools.

“We don’t even know how many Indigenous boarding schools the Episcopal Church operated,” Hauff said. It has “long since been time for us to come to terms with this. This is a beginning, I’m privileged and feel blessed to be a part of it, as I know my colleagues do as well.”

The colleagues he referred to also addressed the council: the Rev. Isaiah Shaneequa Brokenleg, staff officer for racial reconciliation and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Nation), and the Rev. Canon Mary Crist, Indigenous theological education coordinator and enrolled member of the Blackfeet (Amskapi Pikuni).

All three staffers have been hired since 2018. The church’s increasing focus on Indigenous matters took on added urgency this year after horrific stories emerged of abuse and unmarked graves at Indian boarding schools in Canada and the United States. For nearly a century, the government took hundreds of thousands of Indian children from their families, often by force, and placed them in schools designed to suppress their Indian heritage and instill European-American culture and customs.

Brokenleg emphasized that “cultural DNA is passed on to future generations,” but the boarding schools were designed to interrupt that process. “Even though the boarding schools are gone, and the government policies have gotten better, that negative stuff is getting passed on — the abuse, the suicide, addiction, the hopelessness, all of that stuff.” She said people sometimes ask her “‘this was so long ago, why can’t you just get over it.’ This is why you cannot just get over it. Until you heal that cultural DNA, it is going to continue to perpetuate.”

Despite Jesus’ admonition to forgive one’s enemies, “we’re not just going to go out and forgive history that was genocidal,” Crist said. “We are called to recognize the pain of the past,” she said, citing the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa as an example of a path to healing. “Everybody was injured in it, not just the native people. The colonizers were injured in this as well. And why is that? Well from the native perspective it’s because harmony was disrupted among God’s people.”

The July statement from the presiding officers said:

We call upon Executive Council to deliver a comprehensive proposal for addressing the legacy of Indigenous schools at the 80th General Convention, including earmarking resources for independent research in the archives of The Episcopal Church, options for developing culturally appropriate liturgical materials and plans for educating Episcopalians across the church about this history, among other initiatives.

Mandates of similar magnitude often are given by one General Convention to report back three years later at the next General Convention. The project was started after the July letter by an ad hoc committee on Indigenous boarding schools consisting of eight members of Executive Council, with Stonesifer, a lay member from the Diocese of Washington, as convener.

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