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What were the federal Indian Boarding School Policies?

From 1819 until the 1960s, federal policies aimed to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white American culture. Laws and policies regarding boarding schools were one of the central means toward this goal of assimilation. The federal government compelled attendance and students were prohibited from speaking their Native language or practicing their Indigenous culture. This history fuels ongoing cycles of trauma in many Tribal communities.  

Many of the boarding schools were run by Catholic religious orders, including the Jesuits. The experiences of individual alumni are diverse; some have expressed gratitude for their education, but many have asserted that the schools were a place where they were robbed of their Native identity. In general, prior to the 1960s, it is clear that the boarding schools and their curricula were part of a larger goal to eradicate Indigenous cultures in favor of white American culture.

Resources on Indian Boarding School Policy

Jesuits stand with Lakota students outside Holy Rosary Mission (n.d., 1890-1900, Courtesy of Red Cloud Indian School).

Girls at Holy Rosary Mission elementary school line up with banners. (n.d., 1890-1920, Courtesy of Red Cloud Indian School).

How are the Jesuits addressing this history?

We have sorrowfully acknowledged the Society’s participation in these assimilation policies which separated families and suppressed Native cultures, contrary to core tenets of our Catholic faith. We are examining this part of our history and making available the records we hold so others may do so as well. Openness, transparency, and knowledge of our history are essential elements for reckoning with the sins of our past and moving forward together toward healing. 

To begin down this path in the United States, the Jesuit Conference has hired a researcher to prepare a comprehensive list of the boarding schools administered by the Society here and determine what relevant materials we hold in our archives. A preliminary list is linked below.  

In Canada, where the Jesuits operated one residential school, we have seen the fruits of a serious engagement with this history. Two books have been published about this school: Basil Johnston’s “Indian School Days” and Dr. David Shanahan’s “More Than Mere Talent.” The Jesuits participated fully in Canada’s 2008-2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. In 2013, the Jesuits of English Canada offered a formal statement of apology and reconciliation, saying, “We are truly, deep within our hearts, sorry for what we did to injure individuals, families and communities by participating in the Canadian Residential School system.” Since then, the Jesuits have remained committed to the ongoing work toward reconciliation, including support for education access and equity for Indigenous youth. They also support ongoing efforts to revive Indigenous languages and cultures nearly lost to residential schools. 

While it is challenging to face dark passages in our own past, we are grateful that this important issue is gaining more attention in the U.S. With the Canadian experience in mind, the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology has endorsed a bill to establish a similar commission in the U.S. Such a commission would enable a more thorough examination of this history. Only by facing this history can we, both as a country and as the Society of Jesus, begin the process that leads toward healing. 

Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ, (center left) speaks at a panel about boarding school history alongside Indigenous partners.

 Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced in 2021 the undertaking of a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative (CNS photo/Graeme Jennings, Pool via Reuters).

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