- By Jenna Kunze
Today, a group of archivists published a list identifying 87 Catholic-run Indian boarding schools that operated in 22 states through the late 1970s. The list is part of an effort to point tribal communities to the diocese, parishes, or religious orders where specific school records might be housed.
The online list, which is housed on the new Catholic Truth & Healing website, is the result of two years of work by seven volunteers, including six who work in Catholic archives across the country. The group felt moved to facilitate access to information for Native communities impacted by the church's role in the federal government’s 150-year policy of removing Native children from their homes, communities, and cultures.
The volunteer group consulted with Maka Black Elk, the executive director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D.; and Jaime Arsenault, the tribal historic preservation officer and archives manager for the White Earth Nation in Minnesota.
The federal government last year released an official list of the 408 federal Indian boarding schools it funded or operated from 1819 to 1969, including at least 80 that were run by religious institutions. But it didn’t identify each school’s religious affiliation, making it difficult to know where to find records today.
For example, the federal list includes dozens of what seem to be religiously affiliated schools with the word “Saint” in their names. However, without information about which religious denomination each school was affiliated with, or the distinct groups within those organizations who ran or staffed the schools, Native Nations and individual tribal citizens seeking their family’s records have faced the challenge of navigating the church’s complex structure.
“We know as archivists that there's a wealth of records available in Catholic archives, but one of the biggest problems with Catholic archives is, I think a lot of people think that the Catholic Church is a monolith,” said Michelle Levandoski, an archivist for the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Milwaukee, who worked on the list. “But it's not. It's actually a very confusing structure to those that are outside of it. It's made up of lots of different groups that are completely interdependent on each other but are completely independent of each other. And so our goal was to identify all those groups to make it easier for people to find the record.”
The group expects the list to grow and refine as more information becomes available.
‘MORE TRUTH, QUICKER’
The Catholic list provides a roadmap—but not a key—for survivors or descendants of Indian boarding schools to know who to ask for their records. That’s because Catholic archives are private, meaning that there is no legal requirement for dioceses, orders, or parishes to make their Indian boarding school records available to the public.
Dr. Veronica Pasfield is a citizen of Bay Mills Indian Community and a historian who has done decades of research on Indian boarding schools. The Catholic list has illuminated for Pasfield additional locations of boarding school records she's been seeking for 25 years.
“Growing up, the silence around the boarding school experiences of my family members was absolute,” Pasfield told Native News Online. “So finding information about the schools has been frustrating until very very recently.
“Through this guide, we now have a roadmap that will take years off our work. This roadmap is going to help us get to more truth, quicker,” she said.
When Jaime Arsenault—who helped Denise Lajimodiere develop the country’s first iteration of an Indian boarding school list—began helping with the Catholic list in 2021, the boarding school records for White Earth didn’t fill an entire shelf. Through collaboration with church archives, the White Earth Tribal Historic Preservation Office and Tribal Archives now has access to more than 10,000 historic documents from three boarding schools its children were sent to, St. John’s Indian Industrial School, in part because Arsenault knew who to talk to.
“I've seen the benefits of [the Catholic list],” Arsenault told Native News Online. “I've seen how it can help answer a lot of questions. Where were the schools? Who are the archivists that a community could reach out to, and what's their contact information?
“That's the purpose of this list.”
‘WORKING ON BOTH SIDES’
Additionally, the list identifies tribal nations that were affected by each institution. That presents a roadmap for archivists at religious institutions to get records to relevant tribal communities.
“We are working on both sides,” Levandoski said in a recorded webinar for tribal historic preservation officers last month. “It's not like we're just giving this list to Native people and being like ‘Here, good luck!’ We are working on the other side, too, to try to make [church organizations] more open to the idea.”
The group also created a resource guide for Catholic archivists, explaining the role of archives in truth and healing for Indian boarding school survivors and their descendants. The guide also summarizes Maka Black Elk’s advice on how archivists can best engage with tribal nations.
Ultimately, it will be up to individual dioceses and Catholic record holders on what records they release, and to whom. Currently, law does not require them to make records publicly available.
“We can't force anybody to do anything,” Levandoski said. “That's the hard thing now. They’re all individual archives, and they all have to make the decision for themselves.”
But tribal representatives and leaders in truth and reconciliation are hopeful that the Catholic list will begin a dialogue between tribal Nations and church archivists.
In March, the Catholic Church formally rejected the Doctrine of Discovery, a centuries-old theory of church decrees that endorsed the forceful seizure of Native lands and near-total destruction of Indigenous peoples.
In response, the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition—along with many other tribal leaders across the country—demanded the Church take more accountability, including by allowing access to Indian boarding school documents.
“While the list alone doesn’t provide us direct access to archives, it is a critical step in the process,” NABS’ CEO Deborah Parker (Tulalip) said in an emailed statement to Native News Online in response to the Catholic list. “We strongly encourage other institutions to follow suit in acknowledging the historical and ongoing injustices inflicted upon Indigenous peoples.”
Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior Bryan Newland, who is leading the investigation of Indian boarding schools, declined to comment on the list.
For every church archive that refuses access to records, Arsenault said, she expects there will be another who grants access.
“I think over time, there's going to be that pressure,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. This is an issue of human dignity, and I think more and more church communities are starting to realize that this is part of what will make closure or healing in different communities possible.”
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