Friday, June 25, 2021

We Are Pontius Pilate: Episcopal Church and Indian Boarding Schools

 Horrific news continues to emerge from Canada.  For nearly a century, the Canadian government developed policies of forced assimilation of Native American/First Peoples that included a network of boarding schools.  These boarding schools were run in collaboration with religious organizations, in particular the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Church of Canada.  For a time, attendance from First Peoples was compulsory.

These schools were rife with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse -- and the unreported deaths of thousands of children.  Recently, nearly 1,000 unmarked graves have been discovered in two different sites, with the possibility and potential perhaps for thousands of more.

In addition to this abuse and literal genocide, these schools were also collaborators in a cultural genocide.  At these schools, native languages were banned; children were forced to cut their hair and dress in white, western, European styles; and adopt Western, "Christian" names.  This was part and parcel with governmental emphases on assimilation and "civilization" of First Peoples.

This is clearly, explicitly, and openly stated.  One government report stated that through these policies, “the ‘savage’ child would surely be re-made into the ‘civilized’ adult.”

The horrors of the past week are part of an ongoing process of examination.  As part of a massive legal and financial settlement -- the largest class action settlement in Canadian history -- Canada established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on its Residential Schools.  The Anglican Church of Canada, which administered a number of these schools on behalf of the government, implemented its own processes.  A formal apology by the church was made in 1993, and the Church has participated in the legal settlements, made financial payments, and established various programs and foundations to address these issues.

The Episcopal Church has done none of these things that the Anglican Church in Canada has done.

There has been considerable criticism that Pope Francis has pointedly declined to apologize for the Catholic Church's complicity, despite nearly 1,000 remains in unmarked graves on former Catholic Church boarding schools in Canada.  My fear is that in the wake of the news emerging in Canada, the Episcopal Church will once again somehow find it in ourselves to criticize others for sins we have not

Students at
Shoshone Mission School, run
by Episcopal Church, Wyoming,


There were similar residential boarding schools in place in the United States, especially beginning on a large scale in the post-1871 period.  These were schools established under policies promoted by the United States government, with an emphasis on assimilation of Native Americans to "civilized" ways.  

The Episcopal Church operated at least 18 such boarding schools.

These schools actively endorsed the cultural genocide of Native Americans.  Native languages were forbidden; children were forced to cut their hair and dress in Western clothing; and were forced to adopt "Christian" names.  Literally the very first words of the Niobrara Catechism, the catechism used for 
Lakota children in Episcopal schools in South Dakota, are:

Q:  What is your Baptismal Name?

A:  My Baptismal Name is...

The first question of the Catechism ritualizes renaming of Native peoples, we can hardly find a better example of the church's enthusiastic partnership in cultural genocide.

Niobrara Prayer Book
and Catechism
Again, as with Canada, the cultural genocide of Native peoples was entirely, 100%, out in the open.  This is not revisionist history.  We have them all, all, in their own words, written at the time.  We have the written policies of these schools.  We have letters and journals from the missionaries and teachers and bishops and church organizations involved.  The founder of the Carlisle School, one of the better known residential schools (not run by the Episcopal Church), coined the motto: "Kill the Indian - Save the Man."

The Episcopal Church has not apologized for any of its involvement this process.

The Episcopal Church has done important and significant work in renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery.  The Doctrine of Discovery dates back to the late 1400s and 1500s, and refers to a series of papal bulls and legal declarations by European powers.  It was the theological and legal justification for Europeans to seize the lands of Native Americans: because they were "pagans", Christian Europeans could subjugate and seize lands from Native peoples.  The Doctrine of Discovery is the ur-text, the firm foundation, the essential component to white supremacy.  Europeans and their descendants can take what they want and do what they want because Africans and Native Americans are not human beings in the same way as Europeans.

The Episcopal Church, at the 2009 General Convention, renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, and called on the United States government to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples.  As part of this process, the Episcopal Church produced a video giving important historical, sociological, cultural, and theological background, which you can watch here, or go directly here:  Since this video came out, I have shown it as part of every single Episcopal Church history course I have taught. 

And, on a national level, we more or less stopped after renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery.

We have pulled a Pontius Pilate: we renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, then washed our hands and abdicated any further responsibility or accountability.

The 2012,  2015, and 2018 General Conventions -- wait for it -- took decisive action and "reaffirmed" the renunciation, and called on dioceses to explore and examine how the Doctrine of Discovery has shaped their ministries.  

Where are the reports from the dioceses?

The 2018 General Convention required that ordinands receive four hours of training on the Doctrine of

Image from 2009, 2012,
2015, and 2018
General Conventions.


Where are the programs for ordinands?

The Episcopal Church has failed to apologize or examine its own complicity in the genocide of Native peoples through the boarding schools the church operated.  

We may well ask:  What can is to be done?  What are some possible steps?  We must state from the outset that any ways forward must involve the full and equal involvement and participation of Native peoples in all steps of any process.  To do otherwise would be to replicate the systems of marginalization by having the oppressors dictate processes of accountability or examination.

I offer some thoughts hear solely as someone who has taught Episcopal Church history, as preliminary efforts to address the historical record, acknowledging this is only a small part of a larger and necessary process.

1)   The records of these 18 Episcopal residential schools are out there in state, federal, local, tribal, and church archives.  The Church could allocate resources to draw up a comprehensive list of these schools, years they operated, and compile as much information as possible on who attended, as well as who ran these schools.  This is a complicated process, since some of these schools were established by the federal government and sub-contracted to churches to operate; some were established by Episcopal dioceses; others were set up and run by missionary organizations or other church-affiliated organizations  But it's certainly doable:  we know this because the Anglican Church of Canada already did all of this decades ago.

2)   Work to collect any and preserve any first hand sources involved: written and/or oral histories of attendees.  Voices and sources are often lost to history because they are deliberately suppressed.  We know of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at Canadian residential schools.  We know likely thousands died of disease, abuse, and neglect and were buried in unmarked graves.  Are we so high on our own supply of American exceptionalism that we really think the same things did not happen at schools that operated in the United States?

3)   Be in dialogue with impacted groups and communities about processes for proper acknowledgment of these wrongs and for formal apologies for the church's complicity.

4)   In discussion, cooperation, and full partnership and collaboration with Native/First Peoples, establish reparations funds and programs as part of this process of accountability.

This is not rocket science.  The Episcopal Church could have been doing any of these things in the past decade.  

It's not rocket science, the Anglican Church of Canada has, in various ways, done all of the above.  

The failure of the Episcopal Church to do any of the above is solely due to unwillingness by those with power.

In fact, in our context, it is perhaps *more* incumbent on the Episcopal Church to do this.  In Canada, the federal government was actively involved in processes of apology, accountability, and reparations for residential schools.  In our current political context, it is doubtful the US government will take any steps towards this, or, even if that should happen, that it would ever be at the level of the Canadian government's efforts.  

In what should stand as a cowardly, shameful act, President Obama signed a written apology over the federal government's role in residential schools -- an apology signed in private, away from cameras, and tucked into the annual, massive Defense Department appropriation bill.  The apology also admitted no responsibility and that nothing in it "authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."

So it was a written apology, signed in private, not publicized, that renounced any accountability.  Here's the first time I've used this phrase unironically and with the derision originally intended: Thanks, Obama.

The United States government has apologized before.  The US government apologized for overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy and annexing Hawaii; for the medical experimentation on African Americans in the Tuskegee experiment; and for internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Despite our shameful past as a Church and a nation, perhaps we are entering a kairos moment.  There has been some movement in this past week, with the Department of the Interior announcing it will examine the boarding schools run by the federal government:  

Perhaps not coincidentally, this announcement comes after the first Native person nominated to serve as Secretary of the Interior. 

May this be a time for the Episcopal Church to take the lead and work with the state, local, tribal, and federal authorities to examine and compile all records and sources related to residential schools in the United States, and to begin processes of apology, acknowledgment, and reparations for the Church's complicity in literal and cultural genocide of Native peoples.

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