This trauma, shared for decades by Native American youths across Canada and the United States who were sent to Catholic schools, is at least in part to blame for the high level of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide in Indian communities.
Today, the Catholic Church has apologized – Pope Benedict XVI did so in 2009; Pope Francis did in 2015. But the Church still operates schools for Native children. And that is where the real reconciliation is happening.
Take the St. Labre mission in southeastern Montana. Named after the French saint Benedict Joseph Labre, St. Labre was founded in 1884 by a small group of Catholic Ursuline Sisters from Toledo. Today, Saint Labre runs a variety of programs for the Crow and Northern Cheyenne peoples, including group homes for children whose parents can’t care for them, elder services, day care and job training.
But its biggest contribution is education. St. Labre has two elementary schools and one school serving kids in pre-K through 12th grade. The schools, which serve about 800 children, are run and mostly staffed by members of the tribes, as well as some temporary employees provided by organizations like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. The staff aims to ensure that Native children grow up knowing and appreciating their heritage. Students study a Native language — either Crow or Cheyenne — as well as drumming and beadwork.
Though most of its students are bused in each day, St. Labre also offers a free boarding program, despite the specter of boarding schools’ dark history. For some students, it is easier than commuting hours each way across the reservation. For others, St. Labre provides a respite from broken families and parents who have been lost to the ravages of drugs and alcohol.
One reason the Catholic Church is still running schools like St. Labre is that in many Indian communities, the Church is the only game in town. Government-funded schools meant to help the poor and destitute residents of reservations might be insufficient, inefficient or even corrupt. It is hard for non-governmental organizations to operate on reservations because of an extreme housing shortage. The churches, which have had a presence on or near reservations for more than a century, are in a position to help.
Still, many residents remain deeply distrustful of Catholic schools.
Ted Hamilton came to Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota as a researcher more than 30 years ago. Then he married a Lakota woman with six children.
A year later, the oldest child was ready for high school. Hamilton picked out Red Cloud, a Catholic school, with no idea of his wife’s feelings toward the place until the boy’s first parent-teacher conference.
“We got up to that entryway over there and she said, ‘Stop the car.’ I stopped the car. She burst into tears,” Hamilton said. “She’s crying like crazy. I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ She says, ‘I swore I would never set foot on this campus again.’”
Today, Hamilton is the superintendent of that very school. Red Cloud “has a kind of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing” going on, he says.
“Red Cloud has done really great things, particularly in the last 30 years.” But “it’s got [a century] of doing really bad things to Indian people — horrible things to Indian people.”
Its benefit to the community today? In a region where the school dropout rate is 70 percent, Red Cloud, which charges less than $100 in annual tuition, sends almost all its students on to college. A higher percentage of Red Cloud students have received the Gates Millennium Scholarship than at any other school in the country.
The school has an extensive program devoted to preserving and teaching the Lakota language and culture. The campus chapel melds Lakota and Catholic traditions. The shape of a medicine wheel was incorporated into the design, and if you look closely at the Stations of the Cross around the chapel, you’ll see that it’s the U.S. cavalry rather than the Romans who are pursuing Jesus.
Clay Leonard, who has taught math there for more than 25 years, says, “The culture of the Lakota is so extensively integrated into our program. It’s not that we want you to be Catholic. It’s like we want you to improve your spirituality, and everybody has that.”
In each of these communities, it is easy to find people who will never forgive the church for the abuse and forced assimilation that occurred in these schools. Cecilia Fire Thunder, former president of the Lakota Tribe, says, “I refuse to answer questions about Red Cloud. I am learning to let go of the pain and damage they inflicted on me.”
But other tribe members have come to see the ways in which the Church can lift up a people who have been beaten down. School fundraiser Robert Brave Heart says appeals to donors used to be more about the terrible conditions on the reservations, but now they try to focus more on Red Cloud’s educational successes. “We can’t pity the children. We can’t feel sorry for them. We need to offer them opportunity for hope to be able to build a better life for themselves.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and the author of the new book “The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.”