Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2008, Canada has been wrestling with the legacy of its residential school system for indigenous children. The topic has fueled discussion in the media and in faith groups, especially in churches that ran schools.
Some say things aren’t moving fast enough, but there’s no escaping how this has become a topic of national conversation. All this attention in Canada is quite unlike what’s happening in the U.S., which had a similar system.
In fact, the Canadian residential school system was modeled on it. In 1879 the Canadian government sent an official to study U.S. boarding schools for indigenous children.
More than 500 U.S. schools were attended by more than 250,000 children. Some were sent forcibly. The goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man,” in the words of Capt. Richard Pratt, who helped create what was called the U.S. Indian boarding school system.
Many of these schools were run by churches — Presbyterians, Catholics, Quakers, Episcopalians and, in at least three cases, by Mennonites, in Cantonment and Darlington, Okla., and Halstead, Kan. (Mennonites in Canada operated one school.)
Like in Canada, the schools left a legacy of suffering, loss of language, family breakdown and alcohol and drug abuse. Unlike in Canada, little attention is being paid in the U.S. today.
One person trying to change that is Denise Lagimodiere, an associate professor in the school of education at North Dakota State University in Fargo and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Pembina Chippewa.
She is president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit organization building a database of survivor accounts.
She became interested in the issue after learning that family members, including her own father, were boarding school survivors.
“I never knew these stories existed because my family members had all maintained silence on their experiences until I began asking questions,” she said.
Her goal is to see something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission occur in the U.S. But first, she says, Americans have to come to terms with what they did to Native American children.
America has “not even begun the truth-telling part, much less get to reconciliation,” she said.
But with no media interest or attention in Congress, she believes it is up to the churches to put it on the national agenda.
“We need them to research their schools, where they were, when they were established, how many students there were,” she said. “It would be a recognition of what was done to us.”
She would also like to see more of them issue apologies, as the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches have done in Canada. “Many survivors need that as part of their healing,” she said.
Her interviews with former boarding school students reveal “wrenching, heartbreaking and traumatic” stories of physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition, forced labor, religious and cultural suppression, inadequate medical care, deaths and suicides in the schools.
“The majority had never spoken a word of their experiences to their children or grandchildren,” she added.
Healing for many indigenous Americans will only be fostered and encouraged if the U.S. comes to terms with the way it wronged them through boarding schools. Lagimodiere hopes American churches will lead the way.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.