Indigenous boarding school research and advocacy groups meet in Texas to establish 81st General Convention priorities

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jan 22, 2024
St. Mary's Rosebud

Students at St. Mary’s, an Episcopal school for Indigenous girls on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, are seen in an undated photo from the G.E.E. Lindquist Papers, held by the Burke Library Archives at Union Theological Seminary.

[Episcopal News Service — Port Aransas, Texas] The Episcopal Church is working to address the intergenerational trauma many Native Americans live with today and how to best engage in advocacy and reconciliation efforts.

Hundreds — or as many as tens of thousands — of Indigenous youth are estimated to have died during the 19th and 20th centuries while attending boarding schools, which were designed to assimilate Native Americans into the dominant white culture and erase Indigenous languages. Many of those boarding schools were operated by Christian churches, including The Episcopal Church.

The legacy of boarding schools made international headlines in 2021 with the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children at a former Indigenous boarding school in Canada. Following the discovery, the U.S. Department of Interior announced it was launching a comprehensive review of American boarding school policies dating to 1819. In response to the discovery and report, the 80th General Convention established a fact-finding commission to research and document The Episcopal Church’s historic role in these boarding schools. Around the same time, Executive Council created the Committee for Indigenous Boarding Schools and Advocacy. The commission and committee met Jan. 17 and 18 at the Mustang Island Conference Center in Port Aransas, Texas, to establish an agenda for the coming year.

The topic of Indigenous boarding schools is “complex” because of the varied experiences Indigenous children had, the Rev. Bradley Hauff, The Episcopal Church’s missioner for Indigenous Ministries who is Lakota and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told Episcopal News Service. Some children were forced to attend, while other families voluntarily sent their children to receive what was often the only formal education available. In many cases, students faced physical and mental abuse, even death. “There was no uniform Indigenous boarding school experience,” Hauff said.

“The boarding schools alienated families from each other. I myself never knew my grandparents because they lost touch with my parents and died young, and I grew up barely knowing my aunts and uncles,” said Hauff, whose parents attended Indigenous boarding schools during the Great Depression.

The Episcopal Church’s two Indigenous boarding school groups are working together yet have distinctive mandatesGeneral Convention Resolution A127 established a commission to focus on researching and documenting the church’s historic involvement and complicity in the boarding schools. Executive Council formed its committee to focus on advocacy work. The two groups first met in person in October in Seattle, Washington, to discuss how to interpret and apply existing General Convention resolutions.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has identified at least 523 schools that were part of the Indigenous boarding school system. At least nine of those boarding schools were thought to have Episcopal Church connections, though the lack of churchwide records has made it difficult to fully account for the church’s role in the schools. Most of the boarding schools had closed by the mid-20th century or were taken over by Native American tribes.

It was a 2022 federal report that revealed that more than 500 children died over the course of 150 years in Indigenous boarding schools, though Native American scholars estimate the number is closer to 40,000. Hauff, who’s a member of both the research commission and advocacy committee, called those deaths a “genocide.”

“How does a people recover from genocide? I don’t know if that’s even possible or what it would involve, but I think the first step is talking about the truth of what happened and not sugar-coating the truth with a false narrative,” he said.

Much of last week’s discussion centered around sharing stories of the intergenerational trauma experienced today by Indigenous people, as well as healing efforts and the need to specify advocacy priorities. The intergenerational trauma caused by Indigenous boarding schools lingers today in various forms, including poverty, violence and substance abuse. The groups also discussed how to best spend the $2 million Executive Council allocated to them. 

During the two-day meeting, Executive Council’s committee selected leadership. Leora Tadgerson will serve as chair. She serves as the Diocese of Northern Michigan’s director of director of reparations and justice and is a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Wiikwemkoong First Nation. Roth Puahala, junior warden of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, and a native Hawaiian, will serve as secretary.

Hauff told ENS he thinks the advocacy committee selecting its leadership during the discussions was a “major breakthrough.”

“It empowered these two commissions to move forward working together, and at the same time it’s responsible to the two different governmental entities of The Episcopal Church — Executive Council and General Convention,” he said.

The research commission’s immediate priority is to hire a facilitator and draft a strategic plan to address all points of General Convention’s Indigenous boarding school resolution before the 81st General Convention takes place June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky. Collaborating with tribes, dioceses with significant Native American populations and other Christian organizations involved in similar research into Indigenous boarding schools and reconciliation is a possibility for the future. Because many boarding school records were lost or destroyed upon closure, the commission also discussed searching for names of unknown victims through cemetery records in nearby areas. 

Members from both the commission and the committee unanimously agreed that gathering stories from boarding school survivors will be crucial for advancing research and advocacy efforts.

“We need things such as trauma-informed interviewing styles,” the Rev. Leon Sampson, curate priest at Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance, Arizona, and a member of the General Convention commission, said during the discussions, which he attended via Zoom. “We need to try to do this work very sensitively so that we don’t offend anybody.”

Outside of strictly addressing boarding schools, members of both groups also discussed how The Episcopal Church can bring awareness to the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States and Canada. In the United States, Indigenous women are more than twice as likely to experience violence than women from any other demographic, according to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“A lot of the work that’s being done now is at the grassroots level,” Sampson said. “So, what do we do as The Episcopal Church to support the grassroots groups?”

In 2022, General Convention passed legislation recognizing the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis and supporting advocacy efforts to support victims, including directing the church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations to support related federal government legislation.

Intergenerational healing was also a major discussion topic, and the endgame of the commission and committee’s research and advocacy efforts. The Rev. Cornelia Eaton, The Episcopal Church in Navajoland’s canon to the ordinary and a member of the research commission, mentioned Navajoland’s efforts through its Hozho Wellness Center as an example. The center, which is based in Farmington, New Mexico, serves as a support and counseling center for Navajo women and their families by offering a food delivery program and parenting, gardening, cooking, art and storytelling classes. The word “hózhó” means “balance and beauty” in the Navajo language.

Hauff told ENS that the commission and committee plan to have another in-person meeting before the 81st General Convention.

“It’s taken us a long time to get here, and it will take time to reach a point of resolution,” he said. “We’re not going to resolve anything quickly, but the onus is on us, in The Episcopal Church, to look to Jesus and rationally respond to the damage that’s been done.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.


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