Indian Residential Schools were active from the late 19th century into the 20th century.
Representatives from Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Central Committee joined representatives of Indigenous and settler communities from across North America for the Sept. 18-21 hearings, held and organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
The GCMC was a U.S.-Canadian denomination prior to the formation of MC USA and MC Canada.
“Often, people just aren’t aware of the Mennonite involvement in this history,” said Steve Heinrichs, director of Indigenous Relations for MC Canada. “To be present for healing and to help provide awareness, all within a safe space, was a tremendous sign of the Spirit’s movement… .
“The church and its members must continue to listen to and learn about the specifics of our ancestors’ actions and of the history that is tied to the land we live on across North America.”
A shared responsibility
The Indian Residential Schools in Canada and their U.S. counterparts — known as Indian Boarding Schools — were the institutional means by which each government attempted to erase Indigenous culture from its national landscape, said Colleen McFarland of Goshen, Ind., director of archives and records management for MC USA and a participant in the delegation.
In these schools, she said, Indigenous people were stripped of their native language, cultural identity and familial relations. Many survivors report severe abuse and neglect.
According to McFarland, more than 150,000 children attended 130 such schools in Canada. The government began to close the schools in the 1970s, but the last school remained in operation until 1996. Nearly all of the schools were government-supported and church-run.
Heinrichs noted two schools were run by Mennonites, although they were not directly associated with the GCMC. Other Mennonites were involved in the system as teachers in United Church residential schools, in day schools and in boarding homes.
McFarland said varied sources estimate that in the U.S. more than 100,000 children were subjected to residential schools. Three schools were administered by the GCMC — in Darlington, Okla. (1881), Cantonment, Okla. (1883) and Halstead, Kan. (1884). It’s also recorded that in the 1890s Mennonite missionaries conducted Sunday school in the government day school on the Hopi reservation in Arizona.
“We [MC USA and MC Canada] have separate histories but a shared responsibility,” said Iris de León-Hartshorn of Portland, Ore., MC USA director of transformative peacemaking and a member of the delegation.
“In Canada, the residential schools were mandated by the government for three generations. In the U.S., they were implemented but not fully mandated. The implications for the church are different for each country.”
Witness and healing
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established with funds from the 2008 settlement of a class-action suit brought against the Canadian government by residential school survivors.
The commission hosts forums across Canada to provide education about the residential school system, to give voice to former students and their families and to acknowledge the ongoing trauma and impact of the institutions.
The Mennonite delegation included MC USA representatives de León-Hartshorn; McFarland; Carol Roth of Clinton, Miss., with Native Mennonite Ministries; and Dick Davis, conference minister of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. Heinrichs represented MC Canada. Harley Eagle of Winnipeg, Man., coordinator of Indigenous Work for MCC Canada; Erica Littlewolf of Albuquerque, N.M., Indigenous Vision Center coordinator for MCC Central States; and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz of Akron, Pa., restorative justice coordinator for MCC U.S., represented MCC.
Members of the British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches also were present and served at the inter-Mennonite table in the Learning Area.
Each day of the gathering opened with morning prayers and offered forums and listening spaces for survivors to engage with one another, provide statements of their experiences and share ideas about how to turn reconciliation into action for the generations to come.
“I heard numerous firsthand stories of the abuse and how it has had intergenerational effects,” Littlewolf said. “To be in the presence of such courage, healing and will to survive is to witness greatness. I have internalized a great responsibility to respect those stories, to continue learning from them, to apply my knowledge and to commit to my own healing.”
De León-Hartshorn reflected on listening to survivors on the first day of the hearings. “Even though they had experienced such hardship and abuse, they spoke in a way that exhibited love,” she said.
Participants also attended discussions on the importance of memories and the role the arts can play in healing.
“We were honored to be witnesses to the stories told, the tears that fell and the righteous anger expressed,” de León-Hartshorn said. “A chance for a better future lies in the courage to tell and face the truth as people of the Creator.”