A reckoning on Native boarding schools is long overdue is the title of a recent article by my friend Bridget Moix, General Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).
She writes of the sanitized version of the history of this country we white people were taught in school. This has been a deep concern of mine for years. It is jarring that every time I think of my Quaker boarding school, I think of the Indian boarding schools, as they were called. It hurts to realize how difficult it is for native children to hear the white version of history that continues to be taught in most schools today. And the absence of discussion of their history and culture. Forced assimilation continues. It is wonderful that native schools exist.
This is now in the news as the remains of thousands of children are being located on the grounds of those residential schools in this country and Canada. And as Bridget’s excellent article discusses, a reckoning is long overdue.
What are we, white Quakers, called to do in response now?
There are calls for Friends to respond in many ways. To educate ourselves about this history. To seek ways for healing and reparations. To research our own meeting’s history.
I am concerned that many people are not aware of attitudes we could be bringing to this work. In the same the way so many white Quakers have trouble understanding white supremacy and privilege related to racial justice, many are also unaware of how deeply we are immersed in this colonized society. Colonization and white supremacy are the foundation of forced assimilation of native children. And the ideas behind the land theft and genocide of native peoples.
We need to decolonize ourselves. If not, we risk doing more harm than good. We can begin by deeply considering what our motivations are for becoming involved in this work. And educating ourselves to give us more insight into what was done and why. And hopefully avoid the mistakes of the past.
Bridget discusses one thing we can do.
Congress must build upon the work done by the Boarding School Initiative. Lawmakers can do so by swiftly passing the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the U.S. Act (H.R. 5444/S. 2907), which will be marked up this month. If enacted, it would establish the first formal commission in our history to investigate and address the harms committed — and critically, ensure progress isn’t derailed by any change in administrations.
But the more we learn, the more we see gaping holes between our country’s traditional narrative and the realities of how our nation was built and who paid the costs. As painful as it can be, we simply cannot create a more just nation without filling in those gaps with the complicated truth of our past.
Between 1819 and 1969, across 37 states, there were 408 schools and more than 1,000 other institutions involved in educating Native children, including day schools, orphanages and asylums. These institutions were sponsored by the federal government and administered by a number of Christian denominations, including my current faith community, Quakers.
The “assimilation” tactics employed at the schools were brutal. They included renaming children with English names, cutting their hair, prohibiting the use of Native languages and religions, extensive military drills and manual labor. Abuse was commonplace, including the use of solitary confinement and the withholding of food.
A number of these schools were established and run by the Religious Society of Friends. In an 1869 letter, Edward Shaw, a Friend from Richmond, Indiana, wrote that Quakers aimed “to protect, to Civilize, and to Christianize our Red Brethren.” Charles Eastman, a Lakota physician, described the treatment he experienced at the Santee School, a Quaker-run institution in Nebraska: “We youthful warriors were held up and harassed … until not a semblance of our native dignity and self-respect was left.”
This reckoning must also extend beyond the government. Faith communities, including Quakers, were undeniably complicit in the historic trauma of the boarding school era. We have a moral obligation to share records and accounts of the administration of these schools as investigations continue. In the Quaker community, which does not have a centralized governing body, individual meetings have begun taking on this responsibility.
The truth is we cannot undo the harm caused by these institutions. It is a permanent stain on our history. But by fully acknowledging the sins of the past, we can begin taking steps to chart a more just relationship with Native communities nationwide. It’s time, at long last, to shine a light on this dark chapter of American history and take the next steps toward reckoning and repair.
A reckoning on Native boarding schools is long overdue by Bridget Moix, General Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) (excerpts)