Indigenous Ministries hosts boarding schools panel discussion at 81st General Convention

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jun 26, 2024

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Indigenous Ministries hosted a June 25, 2024 panel discussion on Indigenous boarding schools and the church’s historic role in operating at least 34 of them of throughout the United States. Boarding school survivors Pearl Chanar, an Athabaskan tribal member and co-chair of General Convention’s Indigenous boarding schools research commission, right, and Navajoland Area Mission Deputy Ruth Johnson, left, spoke at the event. Photo: Randall Gornowich

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] The Episcopal Church’s Office of Indigenous Ministries hosted a June 25 panel discussion at the Hyatt Regency Louisville on Indigenous boarding schools and the church’s historic role in operating at least 34 of them of throughout the United States.

“Every time I talk about this, there’s some crying. …It’s hard to talk about,” Navajoland Area Mission Deputy Ruth Johnson, a boarding school survivor, said during the panel discussion.

Hundreds of people attended the panel discussion, and over 2,000 more viewed the livestream on the Indigenous Ministries’ Facebook page, to listen to two boarding school survivors share their stories. Pearl Chanar – an Athabaskan tribal member, co-chair of the research commission and a boarding school survivor – led the panel discussion. The Rev. Bude VanDyke, rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Decatur, Alabama, and a part of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, provided opening music and served as a chaplain for anyone in need of immediate pastoral care.

Watch a recording of the Indigenous boarding schools panel discussion here.

The Episcopal Church’s two Indigenous boarding school groups are working together yet have distinctive mandates. General Convention established a fact-finding 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 2023 in Seattle, Washington, to discuss how to interpret and apply the resolutions that enacted the boarding school groups, Resolutions A127 and MW062.

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. In many cases, students faced physical, sexual and mental abuse, even death.

This year, the groups hired Veronica Pasfield – an Anishinaabekwe, a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community and a historian – as an archival consultant. During the panel discussion, Pasfield presented a PowerPoint lecture on the historical context of The Episcopal Church and Indigenous boarding schools and progress made so far with archival discovery. She also explained what work the church’s commission and committee need to do now, noting that “we are still in the research phase” before work on advocacy and healing can begin.

“Indigenous boarding schools, and everything attached to it, is systemic injustice,” Deborah Parker, a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington and the chief executive officer of the nonprofit National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, also known as NABS, told ENS. “It’s not a personal experience alone, which is what people try to construe it as. This is systemic, and it’s going on over generations of time.” Parker was also a panelist.

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. The Episcopal Church established its boarding school research and advocacy groups in response to the report.

When ENS reported the January gathering of the church’s Indigenous boarding school research and advocacy groups in Port Aransas, Texas, nine Episcopal-operated boarding schools were known to have existed as listed among the 523 schools identified by NABS. However, General Convention’s fact-finding commission recently discovered The Episcopal Church Archives had in 2022 quietly published a document listing 34 known Episcopal-operated boarding schools.

View the Episcopal Church Archives’ document listing 34 known Episcopal-operated boarding schools here: TEC Archives – Boarding School Info. 03-29-2022

“It doesn’t surprise me, really, because the records were not kept with a whole lot of intention, and some of these schools burned down,” the Rev. Bradley Hauff, Indigenous Ministries’ missioner, told ENS. Hauff, who is Lakota and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, is the son of boarding school survivors.

The Rev. Joe Hubbard, rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, was also a panelist. A member of the church’s fact-finding committee, Hubbard told ENS that The Episcopal Church Archives’ document listing the church’s boarding schools is incomplete because not every diocese has been investigated yet.

“The work continues, which is why we are reaching out to The Episcopal Church and inviting members of our community to join us in this work, because it’s not enough to appoint a commission,” he said.

“What I think is so exciting about what The Episcopal Church is doing, and why I want to be a part of this project, is because they’re not only counting the schools that they ran, but also that they were contracted to run by the federal government,” Pasfield told ENS. “They’re also fully leaning into their participation, even as clergy for schools that were run by the federal government.”

The panelists also answered questions and listened to comments panelists had.

“Our ancestors stood tall, and it’s because of them I’m around today,” the Rev. Jonathan Old Horse, vicar of Woyatan Lutheran Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, and a boarding school survivor, said during the panel discussion. “Every sacrifice that they gave for us – their lives, their minds – for us to be here. As survivors, we have to do everything in our power to always honor what they did for us, for us to be here.”

Indigenous Ministries, the Indigenous boarding school groups, Navajoland Area Mission and the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery have informational booths inside the exhibit hall at the Kentucky International Conference Center for the 81st General Convention, which is underway through June 28. The Diocese of Northern Michigan’s traveling exhibit, “Walking Together: Finding Common Ground,” which showcases stories of Indigenous boarding school survivors in Michigan, is also on display.

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


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