CDM: In 2020, I wrote an article called “The Catholic Church and U.S. Indian Boarding Schools: What Colonial Empire Has to do With God.” Here’s an excerpt:
“…Since the early 1800s, the Catholic Church and other religious denominations have been inextricably linked to the Indian boarding school history in the United States. Additionally, the US Indian boarding school policy was developed at the height of the US Indian Wars aimed at removing indigenous inhabitants of the land for westward colonial expansion. Therefore, the Indian boarding schools were at best colonization and forced conversion and at worst genocide… it’s not enough just to not physically or sexually abuse native people or children. The churches must stop the spiritual abuse as well. The Church must confront its abuses to Native Americans in the US and repent and atone for its transgressions. They must repudiate the doctrine of discovery which continues to fuel colonial empire to date, and they must commit to a full reckoning of their boarding school pursuits over the last few centuries”
It’s really about examining how the church has furthered this idea of colonial empire. How individuals inside and outside the church have benefited from this attempted genocide from the removal of lands from the racial capitalization of human beings. And so basically, I’m talking about genocide and slavery. Sometimes there’s this defense or this response of, well, that wasn’t me. Why should I be responsible for what my ancestors did? While we’re not expecting people to go to jail for what their great grandparents did, we are expecting them to fully examine how they benefited from those crimes against humanity and to reverse the scales of justice towards equity. A lot of wealth has been built in this country off stolen lands and stolen labor. And what are those wealthy people doing today? To make things right to make reparations to repent and atone to actually deliver justice? This goes beyond just colonization in the United States. This is a humanitarian issue.
VB: Are there any examples or stories of voluntary reparations happening from Church properties or wealth back to Native Communities?
CDM: I think a really good example is in the second Chippewa Tribe in Michigan. The boarding school building there for the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School was sold back to the tribe for $1, so essentially given back to them. But that question about reparations is of course a complicated one.
Who is receiving the apology or the reparations? And when you identify people who call themselves victims or survivors, I think it’s important to ask them what they would like in terms of justice and healing, because it may vary. In Canada, the Truth Commission was the result of a class action lawsuit that was settled by the Canadian government, and in addition to establishing the commission, they interviewed victims of abuse in those schools and assigned a dollar amount to award them for the harms. And that process was really difficult.
What we’ve heard from people after the fact is that it was both confusing and demeaning and enraging to have a dollar amount assigned to abuse. Some of those people said no matter how much money they give me, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m haunted by nightmares. So, yes, monetary reparations can be effective in some cases, but I don’t think that they are the means to an end when it comes to healing. And so, it really will involve, you know, a community-by-community case basis or an individual-by-individual case basis in terms of what the harms were and what they feel reparations would look like.
VB: How can people from diverse faith communties play a role in this healing process?
CDM: We need everyone to be committed to truth and healing. As I mentioned before there’s a bill in Congress right now. Everyone should be contacting their legislators, not just Native people. Because this is a history that we need to fully examine and face as a country. And so there’s plenty that allies can do, whether you’re a person of faith or not, this is an issue for all of us. And so it will take all of us moving forward to truly transform our society.
For more on the legacy of Native American boarding schools, the documentary Independent Lens – Home from School: The Children of Carlisle airs Tuesday, November 23 at 10:00 pm on WTTW Chicago and will be available to stream.