September 30, 2021—The Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology (OJE) has endorsed the newly announced Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. Introduced to Congress on Sept. 30 by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Sharice Davids, the bill would establish the first formal investigation of Indigenous boarding schools in the U.S. through the creation of a Federal Truth and Healing Commission.
“Having run several boarding schools for American Indian and Alaska Native students, the Jesuits would welcome the opportunity to work with a federal Commission to shine the light of truth on this part of our history,” said Fr. Penton, SJ, secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology. “We are greatly encouraged by the introduction of this bill and ask all members of Congress to support it.”
Starting in the 1860s, the federal Indian Boarding School Policy aimed to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white American culture. Some alumni of these schools are grateful for the education they received, but many see the schools as a place where they were robbed of their Native identity. The federal government compelled attendance at boarding schools where students were prohibited from speaking their language or practicing their culture. An estimated 100,000 children attended these schools — many of which were run by Catholic religious orders, including the Jesuits.
This history fuels ongoing cycles of trauma in many Tribal communities, and until now, the U.S. government has made little effort to redress these wounds.
The proposed Commission, comprising Indigenous experts and boarding school survivors, would investigate the history of the policy, as well as it its ongoing impacts in Tribal communities. It will also develop recommendations for the federal government to “acknowledge and heal the historical and intergenerational trauma related to the Indian Boarding School Policies.”
“The Indian Boarding School Policies are a stain in America’s history, and it’s long overdue that the federal government reckon with this history and its legacy,” said Sen. Warren.
In a signed statement, OJE and other religious congregations and denominations that ran Indigenous boarding schools pledged full support for the bill.
“In recognition that [the Indian Boarding School Policy] was morally wrong and contrary to the teachings of our own faith, we are now beginning the journey of finding and facing our history with respect to the boarding schools,” the statement explains. “Given the scale of the task and the federal government’s own central role, a federal Commission is needed.”
The Office of Justice and Ecology’s endorsement affirms previous commitments to investigate Jesuit-run Indigenous boarding schools. Last month, the Jesuit Provincials of Canada and the United States expressed their sorrow for their role in Indigenous boarding school policies in both the U.S. and Canada. In a press release, they committed to examining the history of Jesuit-run boarding schools through archival research and partnership with Indigenous communities.
A federal Truth and Healing Commission would complement the ongoing efforts of the Jesuits, said Fr. Penton. “A federal Commission would ensure that the federal government, which established the policies in question, would itself participate in this process,” he explained.
Similar work is already underway at a local level at the Jesuit-run Red Cloud Indian School on Pine Ridge Reservation. A former boarding school, Red Cloud is implementing a truth and healing process to uncover its past. Director of Truth and Healing at Red Cloud, Maka Black Elk said a national Commission would provide Red Cloud with “the resources that we need to truly do this work.”
The bill comes at a “tremendous time,” he added. “Indigenous peoples in the United States are presently facing an onslaught of active attempts to erase us from historical memory. This Truth and Healing Commission will do more than simply address this history—it will validate it. I look forward to what this process could bring to the movement for justice.”
Over the course of 2021, the remains of more than 1,300 Indigenous children have been discovered on the grounds of former residential schools in Canada. In response, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops apologized “unequivocally” for suffering caused by Catholic residential schools. From 2008 to 2015, the Canadian government coordinated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools. Many religious orders, including the Jesuits, participated, and the Jesuits issued a statement of reconciliation in 2013.
“Canada’s Commission was an important step on the road towards right relationship with Indigenous peoples,” said Fr. Penton. “As recent events demonstrate, however, the journey is far from over. A Commission is essential to start this process here in the U.S.”
Director of Tribal Relations at Gonzaga University, Wendy Thompson, echoed the importance of truth in relationship building. “In my Tribal relations work at Gonzaga, our desire is to be in right relationship with Tribal communities,” said Thompson, who is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “This legislation provides opportunities for deeper conversations about the intentions and ongoing harms of assimilation policies on generations of Native people in what we now call the United States.”