Grappling with the Church’s History as a “Perpetrator Institution”

As Executive Director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Maka Black Elk (pictured above) holds a complex set of identities. He is a member of the Oglala-Sioux Tribe, the son and grandson of people who attended an Indian boarding school, and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. He is also Catholic and employed by a former Indian boarding school, a Catholic institution that has been run by the Jesuits for its entire history.

Native American boarding schools were established by the U.S. government beginning around the mid-1800s and reached their peak in the 1950s. All Native children were required to attend as part of a national effort that forced them to assimilate to white culture by separating them from their families and preventing them from speaking Native languages. Today historians view those schools as tools of cultural genocide. Although they were established by the federal government, they were often run by Catholic religious orders and other Christian denominations. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of students were not uncommon.

Black Elk’s ancestors were as young as 5 and 6 when they were forced to enter Holy Rosary Mission, as Red Cloud School was known before its name change in 1969. “A lot of elders today still call it Holy Rosary,” explains Black Elk. Like many former and current Native American boarding schools, Red Cloud School looks very different now; it’s currently a day school for children K-12 and offers the only comprehensive K-12 Lakota language curriculum in the United States.

Traumatic Damage to Family Ties

As Executive Director for Truth and Healing, Black Elk’s work involves gathering stories from Red Cloud’s past, from alumni who lived at the school back when it was Holy Rosary Mission. He also works to engage Catholic organizations in learning about the history of Holy Rosary and other Native boarding schools, to unearth records of students who attended the school, and to host talking circles that give alumni and others a chance to share their memories of the school and work toward healing.

Many Indigenous people carry trauma from the boarding school experience. “You have to think of generations of families having that experience of being away from home at such a young age for a majority of the year,” Black Elk explains. “A lot of our boarding school alumni and survivors have talked about this disconnect from family, that the family became less loving, less connected, and there was a coldness.” Corporal punishment was common. And “boarding facilities made the likelihood of sexual abuse, not just by clergy but also by older students, much more likely or possible,” Black Elk says.

Today, Native communities face a “sexual abuse epidemic,” especially on reservations, Black Elk explains.  “It’s a major problem. You can certainly count poverty and the remoteness and alcohol and drug abuse as other factors that exacerbate the abuse. But you can also imagine a scenario where boarding school played a role in the learning of that behavior.”

What is a “Perpetrator Institution?”

For boarding school survivors and their communities to heal, the Catholic Church must fully acknowledge its role as an active participant in this cultural genocide, as a perpetrator of harm by running schools such as Holy Rosary, Black Elk says. “The Church as a perpetrator institution engaged in a program of violation of dignity,” he explains. In Native communities today there are many “folks who look at the Church now and think of it as stained, that as an institution it does not have their trust anymore and never will again,” he says.

Even though Black Elk is Lakota, raised in that community, and a descendant of boarding school survivors, he is Catholic and also represents the perpetrator institution by working at Red Cloud School. When he attends an event in this capacity, he says he draws on his own history as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. “I think to myself, ‘What are the things I would want to hear from my abuser? What are the things that I would want to see my abuser do?’”

“First and foremost, any perpetrator institution needs to be completely open about its history, to not mince words or minimize what happened, but to be unflinchingly honest about the harm it has caused,” he explains. “Honesty is really important.” Each time he hears a story from a boarding school survivor, Black Elk tells the person that he believes them. “This story is important to hear, and we’re hearing it fully, and we believe you,” he explains to them. “We’re not looking for ways to poke holes in your story.”

While such moments can be helpful to survivors, Black Elk notes that in some settings such as story circles, he hears frustration from participants. “I’ve been in spaces where the feeling has been ‘You’re not the person that we want to hear from,’” Black Elk recounts. “‘We want to hear from the Jesuits, we want to hear from the provincial. We want to hear from the president. We don’t want them to put the person of color who’s from here in front of us.’”

Looking Through a Theological Lens

Last fall, when Pope Francis made his penitential pilgrimage to Canada to acknowledge the Catholic Church’s role in running Indigenous residential schools there, many Catholics responded in one of two ways, Black Elk says: they were either devastated by the Church’s role in this history, or defensive of the Church, maintaining that people involved in the school system believed they were doing good.

In making sense of this crisis, Black Elk finds hope in a 2021 article by theologian Brett Salkeld, which considers the boarding schools in light of Church teaching. “The Catholic Church as an institution believes in the sacredness of the family, in the family being the first educator of the faith, and yet was involved in a system that ripped children from their families on purpose,” Black Elk explains. “Salkeld makes it very clear that the Church engaged in heretical behavior and acted in ways that are antithetical to our faith.” Sakeld urges both the defenders of the Church and the Catholics filled with despair to turn to the Christian principle of reconciliation. “It’s the very core tenets of the Gospel to seek forgiveness and atone,” Black Elk says. “It’s what Christ taught us and so it’s built into our faith to do the work of healing from that kind of harm, to do the difficult work of reconciliation.”

“What I find hopeful is I can recognize that the Church as a human institution failed,” Black Elk says. “But it didn’t fail in an ordinary way. It failed in living up to its own beliefs. And that means the beliefs themselves are still good, and there are still people in this Church seeking to live out that Gospel.”

Some may view the description of the Church as a “perpetrator institution” as a permanent indictment, Black Elk says, but he views it differently. “I think of ‘perpetrator institution’ as not necessarily an indictment, but as a reminder and a call to responsibility,” he says. As a perpetrator, the Church is responsible for never engaging in that behavior again and in doing what it can to rectify the harm it caused, even if victim-survivors choose not to engage with the Church.

“If the perpetrator is willing to do the work to rectify their harm, maybe they can find relationship again,” Black Elk says. “Maybe they will restore something that was hurt and even find healing.”   

–Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Hear More From Maka Black Elk

Maka Black Elk spoke at Awake’s November 2022 Courageous Conversation, “Erased From the Narrative: The Role of Racism in the Abuse Crisis.” He was joined by Jeremy Cruz, professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University in New York, and Fr. Bryan Massingale, professor of ethics at Fordham University in New York, priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. You can find a summary of the event here and a recording of the entire conversation on Awake’s YouTube channel.  

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