Last week Pope Francis made a six-day apostolic visit to Canada, where he met with leaders of Indigenous communities and apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in federally funded residential schools.
Roughly 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend these schools, which operated from about the mid-1800s until the mid-1990s. Commonly described as tools of cultural genocide, the schools separated children from their families and traditions and prevented them from speaking Native languages. People who attended the schools report that physical and sexual abuse were common.
“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of … asking forgiveness, of telling you … that I am deeply sorry,” Pope Francis said in Maskwacis, Alberta last week during a meeting with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people. “With shame and unambiguously, I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
A few days later, at a vespers service at the Quebec Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Pope Francis spoke for the first time about sexual abuse in the residential school system.
“I think in particular of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people, scandals that require firm action and an irreversible commitment,” he said. “Together with you, I would like once more to ask forgiveness of all the victims.”
Such boarding schools also existed in the United States, where they were similarly government-funded and run by the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations.
Awake Milwaukee has paid close attention to news about the residential schools in North America because survivors and advocates describe sexual abuse as a regular part of the abuses suffered there. In a 2021 panel discussion hosted by Fordham University, Denise Lajimodiere, an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, North Dakota and author of Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors, shared what she learned in interviewing boarding school survivors. “All those I interviewed, male and female, had been sexually abused or they had witnessed it,” she recounted.
“Mixed Emotions” and Next Steps
This week Awake spoke with Deidre Whiteman, director of research and education for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, often referred to as NABS. NABS CEO Deborah Parker attended the meeting with the pope in Maskwacis, Alberta, in part “to be supportive of our Canada relatives,” Whiteman explains.
The pope’s apologies prompted a variety of reactions from Indigenous people. “We know that there’s just so much mixed emotions,” Whiteman says. “Some were so thankful that he came and apologized. They’d waited their entire lives to hear that. But some said, ‘We don’t want your apology. We want action.’” NABS agrees that an apology is not enough. “This is a first step in correcting the wrong that happened, but we as an organization want to see more action done,” Whiteman adds. For example, NABS has called on leaders from the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations to release all records related to the residential/boarding schools.
Whiteman, a descendent of the Meskwaki, Dakota, Ojibwe, and Hidatsa tribes, originally joined NABS as part of a team of researchers gathering information about Indigenous boarding schools in the United States. This work included collecting first-person stories from people who attended the schools.
Some survivors of the schools have been hesitant to share that sexual abuse is part of what they experienced there. As a survivor of sexual abuse herself, Whiteman says she can understand their hesitance. “These elders were so scared to tell it, they felt so much shame and guilt,” she explains. “It changes your whole life and the way you feel about yourself.”
“Maybe they think that no one’s going to care or listen, just like they did before,” she says. “So they just keep quiet.”
The wounds of the boarding school experiences are inter-generational, Whiteman adds. The pain that survivors experience influences how older relatives interact with their families even today.
As an organization, NABS believes that healing is possible for those who attended the schools, as well as their families. But healing depends on knowledgeable people being willing to provide support to survivors, Whiteman says. NABS hopes that Catholics and other Christians will urge their church leaders to release records related to schools to expose the truth of that history. The organization has also pressed Congress to adopt House Bill 5444, which would establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School policies in the United States.
For Whiteman and NABS, Pope Francis’s apology is just a starting point. “I want people to remember that this happened, to look at it, to understand it, and to not shy away from it,” she says. “We need to ask, how can we move forward? How can we support others who have experienced this trauma?”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog