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Opinion. On Friday, a subcommittee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry, a 56-page document that aims “to promote reconciliation and healing” and “serve as the renewed welcome for Indigenous Catholics in the life of the Church.”
 

Over the weekend, several mainstream media ran headlines that said the bishops apologized for the treatment of Native American children in boarding schools and Native American communities. 

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After reading the document on Friday, I found the headlines lacking, due to the apology being quite broad and shallow in scope.

The short apology came early in the overall document’s introduction. It reads:

“We apologize for the failure to nurture, strengthen, honor, recognize, and appreciate those entrusted to our pastoral care.”

The apology doesn’t address the pain inflicted by the priests and nuns at Catholic-run Indian boarding schools.

According to the document’s preface, its contents emerged from a two-day listening session for bishops and Native leaders held in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 26 and 27, 2019. 

“From this session was born a renewed commitment to listen more deeply, to reflect, and to put into motion the actions and recommendations emerging from these dialogues,” the document reads.

For whatever reason, it took five years to deliver a shallow apology that could be labeled “too little too late.” It is regrettable that the bishops did not take note of the details that emerged during the ensuing five years about the atrocities committed on Native children in Catholic-run Indian boarding schools.

The report missed the compelling testimony made across 12 regions of the country along the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Road to Healing tour listening sessions. The Road to Healing provided Native Americans affected by the federal Indian board school system an opportunity to share their experiences. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Assistant Secretary - Interior Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community) were present at all 12 sessions held from July 2022 to November 2023. At every stop, survivors, most of whom were elderly in the 70s or 80s, recounted physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. At every stop, Catholic-run boarding schools were mentioned

If only the Catholic Church would have sent representatives to these listening sessions. 

On the Tulalip Indian Reservation in Washington state, they would have heard compelling testimony from a 77-year-old Lakota elder—an eight-year survivor of the St. Francis Indian Boarding School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The Lakota elder told Haaland, Newland, and the assembled audience that it is important to tell the stories, as painful as they may be, about Indian boarding schools so that the cycles of abuse can end and tribal communities can heal.

“In my heart’s memory, I think of the kids who went to school there,” the elder said. “And, so what I am going to say now is (something) I say with a lot of respect to their memories, and their children, and grandchildren. I know what they went through.”

He recalled how children at St. Francis Indian school, including himself, were so badly beaten that they often ended up in the health clinic. The beatings came as the result of young Native children who went to bed and began to cry out of the sheer loneliness of not being with their parents. Instead of the priests or nuns coming to comfort them, the children were beaten to stop them from crying.

Children were given choices on what they would be beaten with, he said. They could choose from a belt, razor strap, willow stick, or a rope that was referred to as a “Jesus rope” in reference to the suffering of Christ. 

The elder said the lesson he learned from beatings was how to not feel.

At lunch that day, I talked to another Lakota elder, who did not share his testimony publicly at the listening session. Smartly dressed, the elder explained that he was a retired social security administration employee who also attended St. Francis. He said he had his own story. I asked him to share it with me.

He explained that when he was 12 years old, he volunteered to be an altar boy every weekend so that he could drink the leftover wine left in the chalice so he could get drunk. He told me he wanted to get drunk because it helped him forget about being raped by the priests. 

What happened to Native American children at St. Francis Indian School was nothing short of evil committed by “holy” men and women. 

Friday’s report included a section on Catholic-run Indian boarding schools. The report says, “Many Native alumni of those boarding schools who are still living today express gratitude for the care and educational opportunities they received from the men and women religious who administered mission schools. Many of these alumni used that formal education to launch successful careers and move into leadership positions across diverse fields.”

This section feels as if they are patting themselves on the back for those Native alumni who “made it.” 

The same paragraph continues: “Regardless of the individual experiences at boarding schools, however, the system itself left a legacy of community and individual trauma that broke down family and support systems among Indigenous communities.”

This part of the statement is closer to the truth but does not specifically address the myriad of abuses. 

I am not Catholic, but every time I hear the word, I think about the two Lakota elders who survived and made good careers in spite of the Catholic Church. 

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].