Christianity was an important part of the residential schools – a historian whose family survived them explains

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Brenda J. Child, University of Minnesota

(THE CONVERSATION) During a week-long trip to Canada, Pope Francis visited a former boarding school for Indigenous children in Maskwacis, Alberta on July 25, 2022. The Ermineskin boarding school operated between 1895 and 1975 in the country Cree, the largest group of First Nations in Canada.

As in many boarding schools established to assimilate indigenous children, students were punished for speaking their language and sometimes abused. According to the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, 15 children have died at that particular school over the years. Several of them succumbed to tuberculosis.

During his visit, the pope said he was “deeply sorry” for “the way in which, unfortunately, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples”.


Like many other indigenous people in the United States and Canada – especially those, like me, whose family members attended the schools – I listened with interest to Pope Francis asking his audience for forgiveness “for the wrong done by so many Christians”. He apologized ‘for the manner in which many members of the Church and religious communities cooperated’ with plans for forced assimilation while failing to acknowledge the role that the Catholic Church as an organization has played in boarding schools.

As a historian who has written about Native American boarding schools in the United States and as a granddaughter of school survivors, I have often been troubled by misinformation in regional and national media about this complex history.

Religion was a mainstay of vigorous campaigns to assimilate Indigenous peoples on both sides of the border, but it played out differently in the United States and Canada. The centrality of Christianity is responsible for the lingering resentment today, and many Indigenous peoples, myself included, wonder if the pope’s apology failed to hold the Church accountable.

Outsourced Assimilation

Residential schools in Canada differed from those in the United States in two important respects. First, the Canadian government entrusted First Nations education to the Catholic and Anglican churches and other Protestant denominations.

The U.S. federal government, meanwhile, operated its own Indian school system both on and off reservations. Twenty-five were off-reserve boarding schools, the first of which was established in 1879: the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, whose most famous pupil was Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe. Boarding schools dominated Indian education in the United States for half a century.

Significant political and educational reforms led to new Indian policies under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, moving away from the previous generation’s goal of assimilation. Many boarding schools closed in the 1930s when FDR bureaucrats began integrating Native Americans into public schools. Ironically, that same decade saw the highest enrollment in boarding schools – largely at the behest of Native American families who used them as a form of poverty alleviation during the Great Depression so their families could survive.

In Canada, however, residential schools continued to be the dominant form of Indigenous education for another 50 years.

“Civilize” the students

US government boarding schools and Canadian boarding schools shared common characteristics. Family separation, the imposition of the English language—or French, in some parts of Canada—training for manual labor, and the imposition of Christianity were fundamental features.

Although the churches did not run America’s schools, most Americans and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., were committed to the idea that Indians should be “uplifted” from an “uncivilized” life by the education and assimilation into American culture, and that included Christianity. . Native spirituality was attacked in the residential schools and students were given “Christian” names to replace their “pagan” and “unpronounceable” names.

Christianity was also imposed on indigenous peoples through the reservation system. I sometimes like to give the example of my own grandparents, Fred and Jeanette Auginash, who were “married” before an Episcopal pastor on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota in October 1928.

According to the Ojibwe community in which they resided, they were already married. As my mother had been told, her father asked my grandfather to marry his daughter, and he brought the family gifts in the form of money, food, blankets, horses and clothes. other objects. For an Ojibwe family, the ritual exchange of gifts is what makes a marriage.

However, when my grandparents went to apply for a housing loan on the reservation, they needed a marriage certificate signed by the local Christian minister. In this way, Christianity and the federal government merged their authority into another form of settler colonialism.

Cultural survival

Not surprisingly, indigenous children and youth often resisted the boarding school regime of family separation, forced assimilation, and Christianity. Young people frequently spoke out in rebellions large and small, most often running away from school. They hid in trains and returned home to visit their families.

Parents and other loved ones, meanwhile, showed their commitment to their children by writing letters, staying in touch despite distance and school terms that could last four years without home visits. Parents of boarding school children also wrote to school administrators, urging their children to see the doctor and maintain their good health at a time when there was no cure for diseases like tuberculosis and trachoma. , an eye infection that can cause blindness.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Francis’ visit to Alberta elicited mixed emotions from Indigenous Canadians. He also blessed an aboriginal church known for its blend of Christian and aboriginal traditions that is being rebuilt in Edmonton after a fire. In Maskwacis, site of Ermineskin School, a Cree man gave him a headdress.

The act of generosity was widely criticized and mocked on Indigenous social media. Many indigenous peoples felt that Pope Francis did not deserve this honor and that his apology did not recognize the role of the Catholic Church in the separation of families and the abuse of children in residential schools.

While many indigenous peoples work to rebuild their language and spiritual traditions, Christian traditions no longer have the same influence on their lives and destinies.

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