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What Role Did TEC Play in Indian Boarding Schools?

Pearl Chanar was 14 when she left Minto, the village in the Alaska interior where she lived with her Athabascan family. She was reluctantly headed to an Indian boarding school 700 miles away in Sitka, a coastal town south of Juneau.

Pearl Chanar

It was August, and aside from writing letters, she would not have any contact with her parents until May. There was no telephone service in Minto in the 1960s, where fewer than 200 people sustained themselves primarily through hunting and fishing.

“I thought maybe they just didn’t want me at home anymore,” Chanar told TLC. “But my father told me, he said times are changing. This way we live is not going to be this way anymore. He said, in order for you to survive outside this village, you have to learn their way.”

Decades later, Chanar has learned “their way.” She went to college, and has retired from a long professional career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She has remained an active Episcopalian, cleaving to the denomination of the church where she sang in the choir as a child.

She now is co-chair of a church commission with a $2 million budget, charged with researching the history of Episcopal complicity in the assimilationist Indian boarding school regime that endured into the 1970s.

She is not entirely comfortable talking about it.

As boarding school survivors, “we’re kind of standoffish,” Chanar said. “We’re suspicious of everyone, of people in general.”

She added, “Don’t expect for us to just open up and speak to you. We’ve put this away for all these 50 years now. We’ve had this well guarded within ourselves, and now, all of a sudden, we’re being asked to tell our stories. … Some will not want to tell their stories.”

“We’re asking people to retraumatize themselves,” said the Rev. Lauren Stanley, canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of South Dakota, and secretary to the commission. She has been in the diocese for 11 years, starting as a priest serving eight tiny churches on the Rosebud Reservation, which is larger than Rhode Island and has a population of 11,000. She worries that the effort may be seen as white people like her telling Indigenous people, “You do the hard work, so we can feel better about ourselves.”

Indigenous boarding schools roared into the consciousness of the church and the country in May 2021, when a tribe in Canada announced it had found a mass grave of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

That particular school had been run by the Catholic Church, but it was widely known for years that other denominations, including the Episcopal Church, also had operated boarding schools on behalf of the American and Canadian governments.

There were horrific stories of Indigenous children being taken forcibly from their parents and sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles away, where the children were forced to cut their hair and abandon their native clothing in favor of stark uniforms. Some children were physically and sexually abused, and punished for using their native languages.

All those things occurred, but that level of mistreatment was far from universal at the hundreds of Indigenous boarding schools that operated throughout the United States and Canada from the 1880s into the 1970s. Tens of thousands of Indigenous children, some of them as young as 5, were forced or coerced or lured into the schools.

Many parents believe a 5-year-old is too young for an overnight sleepover with a friend.

St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls graduation photo, date unknown | Used with permission by the Center for Western Studies, Augustana University

“Not everybody experienced physical abuse. My parents did not,” said the Rev. Bradley Hauff, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and, since 2017, the missioner for Indigenous ministries on the presiding bishop’s staff. “Not everybody was forbidden to speak their language. My parents were not forbidden. Nobody told them they couldn’t speak Lakota. In fact, my father essentially learned to speak Lakota at the boarding school, from his peers.”

His parents met at a federally operated boarding school in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, but his mother later was moved to St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Indian Girls in Springfield, South Dakota. They reconnected in their 20s.

While Catholic Church boarding schools have received much of the negative coverage, 34 Episcopal Church boarding schools have been identified, Hauff said. Thirteen of them were in South Dakota, with smaller numbers in Alaska, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Chanar attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School, which continues to operate today as a boarding school run by the State of Alaska. In earlier years it was operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs — it was not affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The school is on an island off the coast of Sitka, a town in the part of Alaska that ambles down along the edge of British Columbia.

“The only way you could get there is by air or by water. So if any of the boarding school children had any hope of running away or going somewhere, there was no way to get off that island,” she said. (These days, there’s a bridge.) Traveling from her home to Sitka involved four plane flights over two days: from Minto’s gravel air strip to Fairbanks, to Anchorage, to Juneau, to a sea landing off the island.

Chanar did not want to share many details of her time at Mt. Edgecumbe, but said she was not aware of any physical abuse. Students were not punished for speaking their native languages, but there was little opportunity to do so. The students were from throughout Alaska and spoke various Indigenous languages, with English being the only common tongue.

But even if many boarding schools were not abusive, they were all part of a vast assimilationist project launched in the 1880s, with the stated aim of “kill the Indian, save the man.”

“For me, the biggest loss of all would be my [Athabascan] language,” Chanar said. “When I left my village, I could understand my grandparents when they spoke to me in my language. When I came back and I returned from boarding school, I couldn’t put together the words to make a sentence like you do in the English language.”

She was a teenager, immersed in a strange culture, having no contact with her parents for months at a time. And it was hard on her parents and her village as well. One year there was a destructive earthquake in Alaska, and “our parents were getting reports that Mt. Edgecumbe was wiped away, that the tidal wave hit, and we were all gone. And without phones, can you imagine the agony that our parents went through?”

Jim Labelle, an Iñupiaq from Fairbanks, was in Chanar’s graduating class at Mt. Edgecumbe. They have been friends for more than 60 years, and Chanar urged TLC to talk with him.

Labelle is on the board of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), which has a wealth of resources related to the assimilationist efforts, including an interactive map showing the location of more than 500 boarding schools in the United States and Canada.

Locations of known Indian Boarding Schools | NABS

He affirms Chanar’s description of Mt. Edgecumbe as a relatively benign institution, but the same was not true of the elementary boarding school he attended from ages 8 to 14.

In a riveting and disturbing 90-minute telephone call, Labelle told TLC story after story of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that he either suffered or personally witnessed at the Wrangell Institute in Wrangell, an Alaska town about 100 miles southeast of Sitka.

Labelle is not Episcopalian, and Wrangell had no direct affiliation with any church, so in some ways Labelle’s experience is tangential to this article. But out of respect for his candor, here is one story:

“One particular time my friend and I were wrestling, as boys do,” he said, and a staff member saw them. “We both were about 10 years old, and we were just horse-playing and wrestling, and apparently that violated his rule. And we were told to get totally naked, and we were marched into the open shower, where his body blocked the door so we couldn’t escape. And just outside the door was a fire hose that he turned on … and the force of that cold, icy, snowy water just blew us around in the room, and we could barely breathe. I can still remember barely breathing. I was so cold.”

The first thing to understand about the Episcopal boarding school initiative is that there are two of them.

In April 2022, Executive Council approved a multi-year effort “to retain independent historians to study and document the extent of the Episcopal Church’s complicity in the Indigenous boarding school movement.” The resolution called for a majority-Indigenous committee to oversee the study. The committee also was tasked with gathering information about “the varieties of ways that Indigenous and Native peoples are subjected to unequal treatment by the federal government, state governments, and other authorities,” and with “the development of proposals for advocacy and other action responding to the issues identified.”

Two months later, General Convention passed Resolution A127, creating a fact-finding commission focused solely on researching the complicity issue.

There are separate membership rosters for the Executive Council Committee for Indigenous Boarding Schools and Advocacy and the evocatively named A127 Commission. They have separate but broadly overlapping mandates, and are collectively known as “the commissions.” The two groups quickly began working together and sharing resources, and the obvious question is, why not merge them under common leadership?

Julia Ayala Harris, president of the House of Deputies, is an ex officio member of both commissions and has met with them collectively. She told TLC the possibility of merger had been discussed extensively, and had been rejected for two reasons.

First, maintaining separate rosters has the effect of bringing more Indigenous people into leadership positions in the church.

Second, the purposes of the commissions are different. The advocacy role means the Executive Council committee will work with the Office of Government Relations to pursue reforms on behalf of the church. The committee expires in 2027 unless extended, and is funded as required by the Executive Council. The committee is chaired by Leora Tadgerson of the Diocese of Northern Michigan, and Roth Puahala of Hawaii is secretary.

The A127 Commission is designed to be semi-independent of the church, and has no expiration date. It is co-chaired by Chanar and Warren Hawk of South Dakota. The enabling resolution called for $2.5 million in funding, an unusually large amount. But resolutions only request funding, they do not mandate it, and A127 had to compete after General Convention with dozens of other resolutions seeking $50,000 or $80,000 or whatever.

A127 was assigned $225,000 for startup costs, and in June 2023 Executive Council voted to draw on a budget surplus to increase that to $2 million.

Why so much money? “We have hired an archivist who is going to guide us in this,” Stanley explained. Research is required not just in the churchwide Episcopal Archives, but in the archives of many dioceses. “We have several dioceses that have committed fully to working with us to open up their archives, because even if you didn’t send children, even if you didn’t have anybody or any boarding schools in your diocese, the odds are high that some of your churches, if not the diocese, spent money to support the schools.” The Episcopal Church also was compensated by the federal government for operating the schools.

The commissions will have a booth in the exhibit hall at General Convention. “This is our opportunity to engage the leadership of the church,” Hauff said, and distribute literature and information. “We will be encouraging people to talk to their bishops about supporting the research work that’s happening, and that needs to happen in each and every one of our dioceses.” The commissions also will host a reception and program June 25 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the convention, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

In many hours of research for this article, TLC has not encountered any anecdotal evidence of severe abuse at schools affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Such stories may be out there — the fact-finding is in the early stages.

But whether or not specific incidents of trauma emerge from Episcopal schools, the church for decades participated in — and profited from — an official governmental effort that can be described as cultural genocide. There are truths that need to be told, and the church has made a commitment to telling them.

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