To the future through the past

The consequences of two atrocities in the history of this country continue to impact us today. The institution of slavery, and the genocide of and land theft from Native Americans continue to tear our social fabric because we have not done what is necessary to acknowledge the truth and seek ways for healing.

This book chronicles the efforts of one small group of Friends to achieve some measure of justice for Native people of North America. The Quakers persisted across the centuries, while often realizing-and sometimes denying-that notwithstanding some successes, their goal was fundamentally unattainable. Any justice achieved could only be considered restorative, given that Native peoples’ relationship to their ancestral lands–central to their identity and humanity–was under relentless assault. These activist Friends were guided by the belief, or “testimony” of equality among all humankind.

As They Were Led. Quakerly Steps and Missteps Toward Native Justice 1795-1940 by Martha Claire Catlin, Quaker Heron Press, 2021.

Many questions arise as the remains of thousands of Native children are being located on the grounds of Indian boarding schools.

White Quaker communities are learning about the history of Friends’ involvement in the forced assimilation of Native children. And grappling with questions such as what are the relationships among Quakers and Indigenous peoples today? How do we work to discover and better understand the damage that was done? What can be done to begin to heal? This article by my friend Bobby Trice talks about these questions. Quakers Grapple with Legacy of Indian Boarding Schools by Bobby Trice, FCNL, October 25, 2021.

There are a number of areas of concern.

One is seeing the deep trauma in Native communities as the children’s remains are located. And sometimes returned to their home.

And seeking answers about how this happened. Searching for what Native communities, and White Quakers, can do to act on the truth we find. Discern what healing involves and how we do that. Healing not only for Native peoples, but also for Quakers. Trying to understand what this means for Quakers, past and present. Some of us have relatives who taught in those schools.

[Note: There are objections to calling those institutions of forced assimilation “schools”. And referring to what occurred there as “teaching”.]

I think it is easy, from the place where we are now, to be critical of the attitudes of these Friends. And yet I think we will find that we have much in common with them. I think this research will provide an opening for us to examine ourselves today, and to ask ourselves, “What are we missing in our analysis of the issues of our time? What are blind to? What are the contradictions in our own expression of our religious values? Are we living with integrity in our communities and on the land?”

Well, today, 150 years later, we see the policy of forced assimilation in a very different light. Native people from Australia to Canada and throughout the United States are bearing witness to the damage that was done to generations of Native children, especially in the boarding schools. Whether the children were treated cruelly or kindly, the intention of the schools really was to annihilate Indigenous cultures, to “kill the Indian; save the man.”

Quakers and the Forced Assimilation of Native Americans by Paula Palmer, Western Friend, July-August 2015

From our twenty-first-century vantage point, we know (or can learn) how Native people suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of actions that Friends committed 150 ago with the best of intentions. Can we hold those good intentions tenderly in one hand, and in the other hold the anguish, fear, loss, alienation, and despair borne by generations of Native Americans?

Native organizations are not asking us to judge our Quaker ancestors. They are asking, “Who are Friends today? Knowing what we know now, will Quakers join us in honest dialogue? Will they acknowledge the harm that was done? Will they seek ways to contribute toward healing processes that are desperately needed in Native communities?” These are my questions, too.

Quaker Indian Boarding Schools, Facing Our History and Ourselves by Paula Palmer, Friends Journal, October 1, 2016

The Department of the Interior has released the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Report. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland first announced the creation of the Initiative last June, with a primary goal of investigating the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools. The report was assembled with the input of tribal governments, Alaska Native villages, and Native Hawaiian communities.


FCNL welcomed the release of the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative’s long-awaited investigative report. Assembled by the Department of the Interior, this report serves as historic documentation of the trauma inflicted by Indian boarding schools. It also underscores the need for further reckoning on this vital issue, both in Congress and in the Quaker and faith communities.

According to the report, between 1819 and 1969, there were 408 schools across 37 states (or then-territories). Quakers managed at least 30 Indian boarding schools, and the conditions at these institutions were often horrific. These schools aimed to “assimilate” Native children through tactics such as renaming children with English names, cutting their hair, prohibiting the use of Native languages and religions, extensive military drills, and manual labor. Abuse ran rampant, including the withholding of food, solitary confinement, and physical punishment.

The investigation also found 53 burial sites at boarding school locations so far. As the Interior Department continues their investigation, they will produce a list of marked and unmarked burial sites and approximate the total amount of federal funding used to support the Indian boarding school system.

“This new report shines a much-needed light on the atrocities committed at Indian boarding schools, some of which were run by Quakers,” said FCNL General Secretary Bridget Moix. “We commend the Department of the Interior for doing this difficult work and we remain committed to doing our part to advance the reckoning and healing process for this dark chapter in American history.”

“Further, we call on the faith community at large to share records and accounts of their administration of these schools. Only through complete honesty and transparency can we begin moving towards a more just future,” she continued.

Quaker Lobby Welcomes Long-Awaited Report on Indian Boarding Schools by Alex Frandsen, Friends Committee on National Legislation, May 12, 2022


“For far too long, the truth of cultural genocide led by European-Americans at Indian boarding schools has remained hidden in secrecy and ignored,” said (past) FCNL General Secretary Diana Randall. “Christian churches, including Quakers, carry this burden of transgression against Indigenous people.”

I believe we must deal with the past, with these transgressions, before we can know how to move into the future.


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