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Nicholas Black Elk and family, ca 1910. (Source: The Sixth Grandfather, edited by Raymond DeMallie p. 260) Public domain.

Confronting the Native American Boarding School History

By Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
October 2021

How should Catholics react the history of Native American boarding schools in the country? 

Many North Dakotans know something about the Indian boarding schools. They remember the experiences that they, family members, or their ancestors had at the schools. Those memories, sometimes with fondness, sometimes with pain, are part of their family history. They are part of our history.

Nevertheless, the history of the schools received broader renewed attention after the discovery of hundreds of bodies and unmarked graves at former indigenous boarding schools in Canada. This renewed attention has resulted in various private and governmental efforts to investigate and address this part of our nation’s and our church’s history.

The policy was engineered and conducted by the federal government, but the Catholic Church participated in the efforts. From idea was to force indigenous people to assimilate into “white American” culture by placing children in boarding schools around the nation. Although practices differed from school to school, the general policy was to strip them of their tribal identity, forbidding them from using their native language, requiring certain clothes, cutting their hair, and making them attend Christian services. In addition, cruel physical abuse occurred. The schools operated from the 1870s to the 1960s.

The federal government ran 360 boarding schools in 29 states. North Dakota had twelve such boarding schools, some involving the Catholic Church.

Some of these schools were on or near reservations. The reservations themselves were attempts to break Indian communities of their way of life, especially for the nomadic tribes of the Plains.

Here is where the church comes in. The federal government often required Christian denominations serve the reservations and boarding schools. In some cases, the government assigned denominations, which were mostly Protestant. In some cases, tribal leaders requested a particular denomination. On some large reservations in the Dakotas, elders requested and received Jesuits and Franciscans.

To the Catholic religious orders, this was missionary work. They were serving communities in need and also bringing them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, they became part of the country’s systematic attempt to wipe out Indian culture.

Many of the Catholic religious serving these communities came directly from non-English speaking countries. Ironically, they learned native languages only to forbid them in the schools they ran. While they learned English and became more “American,” voluntarily, they cooperated in the federal government’s program to forcibly do the same to indigenous peoples.

Despite the cruelty of the situation and the participation of church ministers in it, many Native Americans embraced the Catholic faith and it endures to this day. Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, the holy man of the Lakota whose cause for canonization has been sent to Rome, is an example of one who embraced the Catholic faith without losing his Lakota spirituality. 

But no amount of good can excuse the bad that was done by our government or our church’s people. The pain of the practices at the boarding schools lives on. The consequences of the forced reservation system are felt to this day.  

How do we, as U.S. citizens and Catholics confront this past? Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, has started the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. The initiative will review the nation’s history with the boarding schools and give special emphasis to identifying burial sites.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops office supports the initiative. In response to the Interior Department’s project, USCCB spokesperson Chieko Noguchi stated:

“We are deeply saddened by the information coming out of two former residential boarding school sites in Canada. We cannot even begin to imagine the deep sorrow these discoveries are causing in Native communities across North America.
"It is important to understand what might have occurred here in the United States. Therefore, we are following closely the announcement last week by the Department of the Interior of a formal inquiry into residential boarding schools. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will look for ways to be of assistance. 
“By bringing this painful story to light, may it bring some measure of peace to the victims and a heightened awareness so that this disturbing history is never repeated.”

It can be tempting to dismiss what happened with a “the past is the past” attitude. Often, however, the past has never truly passed. The Church, especially, understands that we are connected to our past and our future. The federal government’s investigation is a start and it is a start that we should embrace.

Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, pray for us.

What We Do

The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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