By Megan Mendenhall
Indigenous students suffered sexual, emotional, and physical abuse as well as the loss of culture and family while living in boarding schools run by the Catholic Church, according to a panel of experts who spoke at a virtual event on February 25, hosted by Fordham University through their initiative, Taking Responsibility: Jesuit Institutions Confront the Causes and Legacy of Clergy Sexual Abuse. This is the second event examining the effect of clerical abuse in specific minority and marginalized communities.
The panel featured Denise Lajimodiere, Ed.D., an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, North Dakota, retired professor of education at North Dakota State University, and founder of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Lajimodiere began researching boarding schools because her parents, grandfathers, and other relatives attended such schools in Oregon and South Dakota. Her interviews of family members and other Indigenous people who attended the schools shaped her book Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors.
“The federal government paid churches to run schools, which became instruments of cultural genocide,” Lajimodiere said. From 1869 until the 1960s, Native American children were required to attend boarding schools run by the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations for at least four years in an attempt to “civilize” them, and “steep them in white European culture,” she explained. Some children were away from their families and communities for up to twelve years, and children and parents often did not recognize each other when they returned. “Boarding school survivors experienced the loss of identity, language, culture, ceremonies, and traditions,” she said, as well as “corporal punishment and forced child labor, hunger, malnourishment, sexual and mental abuse.” Living conditions at the schools were “described to be somewhat between dungeons and death camps,” she added.
It’s unclear how many U.S. boarding schools for Indigenous children were run by the Catholic Church, but Lajimodiere said that her research of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions archive at Marquette University uncovered 63 different schools, and she has since learned of more.
Boarding Schools as Centers for Abuse
Lajimodiere shared disturbing details from her survivor interviews. “All those I interviewed, male and female, had been sexually abused or they had witnessed it,” she said. One female survivor recounted that she was six years old when she was brought to the priests’ room to serve wine, but she never remembered leaving at the end of the night, leading her to wonder if they got her drunk. Another woman described that when she first arrived at the school at age 4, she was washed by a nun who called her a “filthy savage,” and scrubbed her with a stiff brush between the legs till she bled. Many elderly male and female survivors would describe being sexually abused and tell Lajimodiere that they’d never shared these stories with anyone before. “We know that you’re only as healthy as your secrets,” she noted. Panelist Kathleen Holscher, Ph.D, associate professor of American studies and religious studies from the University of New Mexico, also commented that “abuse in Native communities goes unreported and under-reported relative to other communities.”
This trauma had intergenerational impact, affecting survivors’ parenting skills. Lajimodiere described her own parents using corporal punishment similar to what they received in boarding school to discipline their children. They also didn’t tell their children “I love you,” she said, because they did not hear those words themselves in their school years.
Healing for Native American Communities
Holscher asserted that Native American communities have been largely left out of the conversation about sexual abuse by clergy. “There’s a reason that sexual abuse has become a crisis in the United States, and that’s because a lot of white Catholic kids were abused,” she said, adding that few people know about abuse in Native American communities because “white Catholics don’t see it as their problem in the same way.”
The panelists also discussed how Indigenous communities can achieve healing. Lajimodiere mentioned that Canada is far ahead of the United States in grappling with this history; it formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, which led to a class action suit and apologies to Indigenous people by both the Canadian government and the Anglican Church in Canada.
Justice and healing would likely look different for survivors from different schools and tribal communities, she said. This could involve a return to cultural ceremonies and native language. “About 95 percent of Ojibwe people are Catholic,” Lajimodiere said, “so it could [also include] novenas, prayers, church ceremonies.” In her work with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, Lajimodiere said that there’s been discussion of pursuing apologies from U.S. government and Church officials. “[Some] survivors said, ‘It won’t mean anything because I’ll never get my childhood back,’ but other survivors said it will be a validation of what the hell happened to them,” she said. “If you guys have any influence with the pope, can you please have him apologize [for] what happened to boarding school survivors?”
The panel moderator, Jack Downey, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology at the University of Rochester, ended the event on a powerful note, saying that research like Lajimodiere’s work with survivors is important for people of faith to know.
“Abuse of indigenous children is Catholic history,” he said. Understanding the history of abuse of Native American communities “is not just important because it lifts up stories that have been covered up, but also because it’s critical to understanding how the Church has operated in the Americas.”
Megan Mendenhall is a student at Saint Louis University, where she is studying political science and communications. Born and raised in Milwaukee, she attended Pius XI Catholic High School.