Boarding Schools and Religion

What do we make of it, the long and sickening stories of abuse of Indian children in boarding schools in Canada and our own country? How can men—mostly men, but some women too—have done these things to children?

My friends raised in California Catholic schools laugh now about a nun who liked to rap knuckles with a yardstick, but even that, the hitting of small children by a grown woman pledged to teach them, seems to reflect more on her perverse personality or the crazy institution that had aligned with it than it does on the children.

Sure, there were and are trouble-making children, kids who bring sad stories from sad homes to school with them every day, and work out their home problems by being nasty to other students or contentious with teacher nuns—or any teachers. And there are kids with “just mean” in them that we struggle to understand. But—as we often say—who and where is the adult?

These men—and some women—worked (work?) for the government and for churches. We hear about the Catholics, but other churches ran schools on and near reservations. In fact, in what my mentor, the historian Alvin Josephy, says is the largest breech of the separation of church and state in US history, President Grant set out to remove corrupt Indian agents, who supervised reservations, and “replace them with Christian missionaries, whom he deemed morally superior.” In his “Peace Policy” of 1868, he took administration of the reservations from the War Department and gave it to the churches.

The missionaries proved no more moral as a group than had the government officials they replaced. Or than decades of adult Boy Scout leaders have proven to be. On November 16, 2020, the National BSA disclosed in their bankruptcy filings that over 92,000 former Scouts had reported sexual abuse by members of the organization. Recent stories from the Southern Baptist Convention admit similar sins among their clergy.

Large groups of children in physical and/or social isolation attract do-gooders—and attract those, consciously or unconsciously intent on cruelty. Some, probably tied to their own violent pasts, or carrying mental problems of one sort and another, and others, in the worst cases, intentionally engaging in the school or church or youth group in order to groom children for their sexual pleasure.

What’s the lesson in this? One is that silence aids and abets, another that sins are reiterated in generations. Silence is more nuanced than one word. Silence is lack of sound, lack of voice, but it is also the willful and fear-induced snuffing out of voices and messages. It can also be banal, like the good German burghers who did not smell the crematoriums, like the child that I was who did not notice the lack of Indians from the nearby White Earth Reservation in my Minnesota school.
We talk now of generational PTSD. Generational misbehavior is the other side of PTSD, the perpetrating rather than suffering side of it—although they are undoubtedly side by side in the real world. The lessons are that violence can beget violence, and that sexual abuse can pass through generations.

The first step in resolution is to know the subject. And we should have known! Books and stories of these boarding school tragedies have been here all along. Years ago, the late Canadian Ojibwe writer, Richard Wagamese, told the Canadian boarding school story in the heart-wrenching novel, Indian Horse. They even made a well-received movie with the same title.

Walter Littlemoon was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1942, the same year I was born in nearby Minnesota. He was taken from his parents into a boarding school when he was five, and, after a life of suffering, told the story in a video, “The Thick Dark Fog.” He’d lived that fog of remembrance for almost 60 years when he began to unburden himself. When I showed the video trailer to college students six or eight years ago, they were outraged. (Google it; it’s still there.)

The “evidence” has been there for us to see and read for years. It took time—and graves found with “new” technology revealing Canada’s sins, to lay open these old sins. New technology sometimes excites us, and makes things more real. But the rising consciousness over the past 20 or 30 years of and by Native Americans—Wagamese and Littlemoon are of course part of this—is probably more critical.

And Deb Haaland, our first Native Secretary of the Interior, is rising to the occasion like a phoenix, appointing study groups, giving press conferences, and visiting the sites of child boarding school graves in America.

Bright lights are the best antidote to secret and nefarious deeds. Now we, the people, must make sure that they stay bright and focused. We need contrition, humility, and, when possible, reparations. We need justice for perpetrators. Counselling, mental health, and compassion yes, but we need the words from those still with us, the secret reports from churches and scout troops. Victims and descendants of victims need healing—and so do the perpetrators and the institutions which enabled them.

(Photo: Chemawa Indian School, 1887)