Over the past few years, attention has been drawn to the discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of boarding schools in both Canada and the U.S., where children of indigenous tribes were forcibly sent to be robbed of their own culture, beliefs, and language in favor of Western European, white Christian practices.
A lot has been written about this travesty since then. Reports have been compiled, and Pope Francis, during his trip to Canada in 2022, even apologized for this mistreatment of native peoples.
What needs to happen, though, is a tangible, practical action to help heal these enduring wounds, the trauma that is passed from generation to generation among the various tribes, even as some claim it’s not possible to pass trauma from parent to child.
At a recent meeting of the Listening, Learning, and Education subcommittee of the Catholic Native Boarding School Accountability and Healing Project (AHP), one participant noted how white people have passed their privileged attitude down through the generations, so why wouldn’t native peoples continue to feel the impact of trauma inflicted on their ancestors in each generation? Adding a take on the biblical passage of how the sins of the father will be visited on his children through successive generations, the sins done to the father will similarly harm his offspring.
Words—even the most sincere apologies—won’t properly heal such wounds. Talk is cheap, as the saying goes. While the focus of the Listening, Learning, and Education subcommittee—one of many attached to the AHP—is to listen to the stories of those who endured years of mistreatment and share those insights with others to ensure nothing similar happens again, there is more that needs to be done.
Calls have been made for monetary reparations to help with the healing. But just throwing cash at a problem isn’t a way to mend wounds that extend over centuries, either.
Some—too many, in fact—ask why this should be an issue in our modern era. I can answer that from experience, not being of native blood but interacting with those whose ancestors were here long before my forebears of British and Germanic stock crossed the ocean.
Growing up in South Bend, Indiana, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi tribe were a constant presence. The very history of the high school I attended was connected with the meeting of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, with the indigenous peoples living along the St. Joseph River beneath a tree later named “Council Oak” in the late 1600s.
The Potawatomi held an annual gathering at one of the county parks, dancing in their regalia and welcoming those of other tribes to join them. They asked that their rituals be respected by the visitors, and I saw how so many whites did exactly the opposite.
During such an event in the early 2000s, I met the drummers who provided the beat during the ceremonies. My natural curiosity as a journalist prompted me to request an interview with them. The religion editor of the local newspaper approved the idea, and I sat down with the men—ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s—and listened to tales of families beset by addiction to drugs and alcohol, poverty, lack of education, and mental health issues. Each one attributed his current stability to being part of the drumming group, nurturing his native faith and strengthening his resolve to make a better life for himself and his family.
I poured all these insights into the article and submitted it to my editor. Days later, she informed me the piece would be cut to 10 column inches, a mere fraction of the whole. When I asked why, she replied, “No one wanted to read about this.”
That I was crushed can’t be conveyed in mere words. I was crushed, however, not for myself, but for the men who trusted me enough to confide their respective journeys to me. I was also angry at my editor’s cavalier attitude, presuming that the readers would not find these stories inspiring and informative.
Fast forward a few years and, while serving as a full-time volunteer at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California, I learned about another tribe—the Luiseño, or Payómkawichum—who were among the many indigenous peoples subjected to the cruelties of the Spanish soldiers during the establishment of the 21 missions in the late 1700s. In my duties as museum director, I wanted to expand the stories told of these people, whose descendants met with me with relatively simple requests, such as recording the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in their native tongue and allowing museum visitors to listen to it as they toured the exhibits.
The Franciscan friars in charge of the mission refused to grant this request, citing that the museum was focused on the Catholic history of the area. These religious were content to allow the Payómkawichum to hold a yearly gathering on one portion of the property, but that was all.
My stories of spending two years on the Navajo reservation in northwest New Mexico could fill a book. The disrespect shown the tribes in that region by the diocesan bishop and certain members of his staff chilled my blood. These clerics made a great show of interacting at festivals and feast day celebrations, then inflicted a Mass sung entirely—and, often, badly—in Gregorian chant upon the native peoples, whose own form of chanting was far more beautiful.
It cannot be denied, though, that the harsh living conditions on the reservation are caused, in part, by the Navajo’s own governmental system. With the Navajo Nation holding exclusive rights to water, electricity, and gas utilities, they charge outrageous sums for service—much of which their own people cannot afford. Contracts with internet, cable, and cell phone providers prevent students from accessing information needed for school, or having a necessary connection in case of emergency.
The Navajo and other native peoples have grown tired of whites who show up for a week or a few months as part of a “service project,” then vanish. What is needed to facilitate true healing after all the harm that has been done is for white people to actively listen, provide assistance (while not trying to change the culture or beliefs, or expecting anything in return), and be present to the native peoples for the foreseeable future without imposing any specific agenda on the process.
We are all human beings, after all, worthy of respect and loved by God. We are all unique, and in that uniqueness can be found the beauty of God’s diversity, which should be honored and nurtured, not stifled or reduced to mere lip service.
May the healing begin! ♦
Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Atchison, Kansas. Her column, “God ‘n Life,” appears regularly in Today’s American Catholic.