By Joe Ruff
ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis acknowledged with sadness and an apology a federal report released May 11 about abuses of Native American children in government-supported boarding schools — some run by the Catholic Church, including in Minnesota.
For 150 years, hundreds of these schools sought to forcefully assimilate Native American and Indigenous children into white society.
“As a bishop in Minnesota, I read with sadness the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative report released today by the U.S. Department of the Interior,” Archbishop Hebda said in a statement posted on the archdiocese’s website.
“It is an important first step in what I anticipate will be a painful but necessary journey for our country and for our church,” the archbishop said.
In Oklahoma, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop David A. Konderla of Tulsa also called the report a good first step.
“It is important we understand and appreciate our history so we can make better and more informed decisions moving forward,” they said.
The U.S. Department of the Interior identified 408 schools in 37 states or U.S. territories that tens of thousands of children were forced to attend from 1819 to 1969.
At least 53 marked or unmarked burial sites are associated with the schools, and about 19 of the schools accounted for more than 500 child deaths, the report said.
The number of recorded deaths is expected to increase, the Interior Department said. The Indian boarding school era largely coincided with the forced removal of many tribes from ancestral lands.
Archbishop Hebda noted that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has begun working with tribes on relationship building and records review, an effort described in a special report in the April 28 issue of The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper.
The review and The Catholic Spirit stories include information on the archdiocese’s operation of an industrial school near Clontarf, in western Minnesota, which from 1884 to 1892 collaborated with the federal program for Indian boarding school students.
“Particularly disturbing is that today’s report finds that the government chose to contract with Christian entities to operate some of the schools in the hope that Christian formation would strip away the indigenous identity of the children brought to these schools,” the archbishop said.
“The report sadly mentions, moreover, the involvement of Catholic organizations in that process,” Archbishop Hebda said. “Any such instrumentalization of the faith or disrespect for culture is abhorrent. The clear teaching of the Catholic Church today is that Indigenous peoples and cultures are to be respected, and never harmed or sacrificed in the name of evangelization.”
Pope Francis met in April with Indigenous leaders from Canada to discuss their own experience of boarding schools, and expressed feelings of sorrow and shame for the role a number of Catholics played in those schools, the archbishop said.
“Please allow me to also add my heartfelt apology to that of Pope Francis,” Archbishop Hebda said. “I am sorry. I am sorry for the role that our church played as part of the U.S. government’s systemic separation of families, often leading to the intergenerational trauma experienced by so many of our sisters and brothers.”
“There are women and men in our archdiocese and across our state who personally experienced the boarding school system,” he continued. “They are with us now. Their stories must be told and we must listen to them. We must also listen to the voices of the children and grandchildren whose ancestors endured such pain and death.”
In his statement, Archbishop Hebda said he gathered with tribal leaders from across Minnesota in Onamia Dec. 9 to hear their stories and insights. At that time, staff of the archdiocese had already been gathering and reviewing archdiocesan documents related to Indian boarding schools, the archbishop said.
“This work continues today and I am grateful for the experienced professionals who are conducting it,” Archbishop Hebda said.
With the guidance of Minnesota’s American Indian Nations, the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s leadership of the and the state’s Catholic bishops of Minnesota, “a process and portal to share with the tribes the records we have discovered” has been established, the archbishop said.
“Whether and how the records will be made more widely available will be discerned in collaboration with the tribes, he said.
“As an archdiocese, we will continue journeying with our Native sisters and brothers in exploring the ramifications of today’s report and other information that is produced in the future,” Archbishop Hebda continued. “I commit today that archdiocesan staff will continue searching our records and testimonies of the American Indian communities to find the truth, no matter how painful or complicated it may be.”
He urged the priests and faithful of the archdiocese to pray in the meantime that the Holy Spirit “might illuminate a path for all of us in addressing this painful experience in our community as ‘brothers and sisters all’ as Pope Francis reminds us.”
In Oklahoma, Archbishop Coakley and Bishop Konderla said the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project has been launched to learn more about the experiences of Native American students and their families in Catholic boarding schools in the state through 1965.
“It is our hope that these projects will help build a culture of inclusion, healing and understanding related to Native Americans in our state,” they said.
Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.