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This story was originally published by ICT, a close publishing partner of Cronogomet.

The U.S. is beginning to face its Indian boarding school history.

Both the U.S. Congress and the Catholic Church took visible steps forward last week in officially taking action on an issue that has long been ignored in the U.S.

Unlike Canada, which embarked on addressing its residential school history in 2007, the U.S. has largely overlooked its Indian boarding school history, which served as the inspiration for Canada’s schools with forced attendance and harsh assimilationist policies.

On Thursday, June 13, a bill pending in Congress that would create a U.S. Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies passed through the markup procedure in the House Education and Workforce Committee – a big step forward on its journey through Congress.

Then, on Friday, June 14, for the first time, the U.S. Catholic Church issued its most formal apology yet for its role in operating approximately 100 Indian boarding schools in the United States. In a 181-2 vote, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops approved “Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry,” which includes an apology. Three bishops abstained.

The back-to-back moves drew praise but also acknowledgement that more work needs to be done.

U.S. Reps. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, a Democrat from Kansas, and Tom Cole, Chickasaw, a Republican from Oklahoma, reintroduced the bipartisan truth and healing bill in Congress earlier this year to launch an investigation into the boarding school past.

“I would not be here if not for the resilience of my ancestors and those who came before me — including my grandparents, who are survivors of federal Indian Boarding Schools,“ Davids said in a written statement. “I am glad my colleagues came together … to advance the establishment of a Truth and Healing Commission, bringing survivors, federal partners, and tribal leaders to the table to fully investigate what happened to our relatives and work toward a brighter path for the next seven generations.”

Cole urged Congress to take action on the proposal in a statement released Monday, June 17.

“We must bring light to this dark chapter in our nation’s history,” Cole said in the statement. “As two of the very small number of Native Americans serving in Congress, Congresswoman Davids and I have a very unique understanding of tribal issues and are committed to ensuring these issues are at the forefront of our congressional colleagues’ minds. We believe that establishing this commission is essential to bringing Native American communities one step closer to healing and peace for themselves, their families, and future generations…”

If approved in the House, the legislation would then move to the Senate for consideration.

Truth and healing

The initial version of the truth and healing bill was introduced in Congress in 2020 by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and then-Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, a Democrat from New Mexico who now serves as Secretary of the Interior under President Joe Biden.

The bill languished in Congress, however, until it was reintroduced earlier this year by Davids and Cole.

The bill’s passage through the markup procedure is a key formal step allowing the bill to advance to the floor for a vote of the full House.

Provisions in the bill, known as H.R. 7227, would:

  • Establish a formal commission to investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government’s Indian boarding school policies, including attempts to terminate Native cultures, religions, and languages; assimilation practices; and human rights violations.
  • Develop recommendations for federal entities to aid in healing the historical and intergenerational trauma passed down in Native families and communities.
  • Provide a forum for victims to speak about personal experiences tied to these human rights violations.
  • Include provisions to investigate documents and research conducted by private individuals, private entities, and non-federal government entities whether domestic or foreign, including religious institutions.
  • Mandate that a comprehensive report be provided to the president, Congress, the attorney general, the Library of Congress, and other federal entities.

The act has been endorsed by a number of Native organizations, including the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the National Indian Health Board, and United Indian Nations of Oklahoma.

Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe and chairman of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, was among those praising the advancement of the bill.

“We are deeply grateful to the committee for passing the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act,” Barnes said in a statement. “For 150 years, the United States carried out policies that aimed to destroy Native American languages, cultures, and families through federally operated and funded boarding schools. It is crucial that we remember and honor the sacrifices of those affected by these policies so that future generations may learn the lessons of this historical period and current generations may find healing through understanding.”

Deb Parker, chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, told ICT that the next step is the passage of the bill.

“Passage of this bill will mean that we can finally have a commission that will examine the atrocities that came out of U.S. boarding schools,” she said. “It will give an opportunity for boarding school survivors to come forward with their testimonies and finally have their moment.”

Deborah Parker, Tulalip, is the CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. She poses for a photo following the Interior Department’s press conference on its federal boarding school investigation in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

Parker, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes, also noted that the language of the bill includes provisions to investigate documents and research conducted by private individuals, private entities, and non-federal government entities, whether domestic or foreign, including religious institutions.

The Catholic Church and other denominations would likely be among the non-federal government entities subject to scrutiny under the act.

“I think that’s why we’re seeing churches coming forward with their story about what happened to Indian children in their boarding schools,” Parker said.

Catholic bishops

In a similar development the day after advancement of the bill, Catholic bishops in the U.S. voted to approve a document that includes an apology to Native Americans for the church’s role in operating boarding schools.

In 2023, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops voted against approving a similar document over concerns that it would pose liability issues for the church, according to The Pillar.

The latest decision came nearly two years after Pope Francis traveled to Canada in 2022 to formally apologize to Indigenous peoples there for the church’s role in operating residential schools in Canada.

The church in the U.S. has mostly been silent on the issue until now.

“We apologize for the failure to nurture, strengthen, honor, recognize, and appreciate those entrusted to our pastoral care,” according to the introduction of the document approved by U.S. bishops.

The document states that the church refutes the ideologies associated with the 15th Century Catholic bulls or letters, known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which were exploited by European and Eurocentric world powers to justify enslaving and mistreating Indigenous peoples and removing them from their lands.

The Bull Romanus Pontifex, on which the Doctrine is based, clearly authorizes the church’s agents to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, domains, possessions and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

“The Catholic Church does not espouse these ideologies,” according to the document approved by the bishops, which notes that “the church played a role in trauma experienced by Native children and left a legacy of community and individual trauma that broke down family and support systems among Indigenous communities.”

Sam Torres, deputy chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, told the Washington Post, however, that the document does not go far enough.

“The sexual and spiritual abuse of Native children by Catholic boarding school operators is not mentioned a single time,” Torres told the Post, which published an investigation into sexual abuse at Catholic Indian boarding schools.

The document, he said, “fails to make sufficient connections between the impacts of historical trauma, and the actions, leadership and responsibility of the Catholic Church.”

Jim LaBelle, Inupiaq, told the Post that he was “elated to some extent and relieved that they would start naming the harm” that was done to Native communities.

LaBelle is a boarding school survivor, having attended the Wrangell Institute, a federal boarding school in Alaska, and is a past president of the healing coalition.

“I think it’s a pretty powerful apology, but I know it’s only the beginning,” he said.

The document approved by the bishops also recommended that the church provide Native Americans with the opportunity to examine their own Catholic sacramental records from reservations and missions, and further recommended that bishops consider enacting a law governing access to older sacramental records.

“These historic records can provide important links to Native peoples and their ancestors,” the document states.

Sacramental records record Catholic rituals associated with birth, death and marriage and can shine further light on the number of deaths associated with boarding schools. Catholic canon law currently prevents “outsiders” from accessing the records.

“Fostering dialogue and engaging in other efforts to reconcile involvement remains an important priority of the [U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops] on the issue of boarding school accountability as we walk with the impacted communities in their path towards healing,” said council spokesperson Chieko Noguchi.

“We haven’t really had the chance to tell our side of the story in U.S. history,” Parker told ICT. “The boarding school act would give us that opportunity.”

As for the bishops’ statements, she said, “They’re coming forward because they know that our bill is going to pass.”

This article contains material from The Associated Press.

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