Since 2008, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, Canada has been wrestling with the legacy of the residential school system.
The topic has fueled discussion in the media, community meetings and in faith groups—especially in those churches that ran schools.
Some would say that things aren’t moving nearly fast enough, but there’s no escaping how this has become a topic of national conversation.
This was evident last month, when Pope Francis decided not to apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system made headlines across Canada.
All this attention in Canada is quite unlike what’s happening in the U.S.
Like Canada, the U.S. also had a similar boarding school system for Indigenous children.
In fact, the Canadian residential school system was modelled on it; in 1879 Prime Minister John A. MacDonald sent Nicholas Davin to the U.S. to study its boarding schools for Indigenous children.
Davin’s Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds led to the creation of Canada’s system—the legacy of which we are still dealing with today.
In the U.S., over 250,000 children were removed from their families, some of the forcibly, and sent to over 500 schools.
The goal of the schools was to “kill the Indian and save the man,” in the words ofCaptain Richard Pratt, who helped create what was called the U.S. Indian boarding school system.
Many of these American schools in the U.S. were also run by churches—Presbyterians, Catholics, Quakers, Mennonites, Episcopalians, and others.
Like in Canada, the schools left a legacy of suffering, loss of language, family breakdown and alcohol and drug abuse.
Unlike in Canada, however, little attention is being paid to the issue in the U.S.
Some Americans are trying to change that. One person is Denise Lagimodiere, an associate professor in the school of education at North Dakota State University in Fargo and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Pembina Chippewa.
Lagimodiere—who traces her roots to Manitoba through her great-grandfather Jean-Baptiste Lagimodiere—is President of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit organization building a database of survivor accounts.
She became interested in the issue after learning family members, including her own father, were boarding school survivors.
“I never knew these stories existed because my family members had all maintained silence on their experiences until I began asking questions,” she says.
Her goal is to see something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission occur in the U.S.
America, she says, is “not even begun the truth-telling part, much less get to reconciliation.”
But with no media interest, or attention in Congress, she believes it is up to the churches in her country to put it on the national agenda.
“We need the churches,” she says. “We need them to research their schools, where they were, when they were established, how many students there were. It would be a recognition of what was done to us.”
She would also like to see more of them issue apologies, like the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches have done in Canada.
“An apology to survivors would be a recognition of what was done to Native kids,” she says. “Many survivors need that as part of their healing.”
In her interviews with former boarding school students, she hears “wrenching, heartbreaking, and traumatic” stories of physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition, forced labor, religious and cultural suppression, inadequate medical care, deaths and suicides in the schools.
“The majority had never spoken a word of their experiences to their children or grandchildren,” she adds.
When she asked them what they felt could help heal them from their boarding school experiences, many said they needed to return to their traditional Native spirituality.
They also said that they need to do “something most difficult—to forgive, to get rid of that hatred, after which they could truly be healed.”
That healing for many Indigenous Americans, she believes, will only be fostered and encouraged if the U.S. comes to terms with the way it wronged them through the boarding schools. And she hopes American churches will be among those who lead the way.
Photo above: Carlisle, PA Indian boarding school, 1900. From the May 5, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.