Monday, August 2, 2021

Shedding Light on Residential Schools (Part 1)

          Last May, we learned that “the remains of 215 children” were found near Kamloops in southern British Columbia, victims of the system of residential boarding schools. In June, 751 more unmarked graves were “found near the former Marieval Indian Residential School” and, one week later, “the remains of an additional 182 people” were found near “the former St Eugene's Mission School.” In July, 160 “undocumented and unmarked graves" were discovered “near the former site of the Kuper Island Industrial School.”  ( ) These kinds of schools were sponsored by the governments of both Canada and the United States and on July 14 in the US, a solemn procession of hundreds of cars accompanied the “disinterred remains of nine Native American children who died more than a century ago while attending a government-run school in Pennsylvania” back “to Rosebud Sioux tribal lands in South Dakota”.  ( ) 

Meanwhile, “nearly two dozen churches [were] burned or vandalized across [Canada] – eight of which occurred in First Nations territories.” ( connection may not be immediately obvious, but while federal governments funded the schools, churches and religious orders were typically responsible for running the schools. In the US, there were 367 such schools in 29 states. And although Catholic schools predominated (80 schools), 14 different denominations ran such schools, including a few that surprised me, such as Quakers. ( ) Churches were similarly responsible for the residential schools in Canada.

          During the 19th century, there was a growing frustration by the powers that be with the lack of success in assimilating Native peoples to the so-called civilized ways of settlers in the United States and Canada. Their solution was to establish government-sponsored residential schools whose sole purpose would be to remove Indigenous children from their homes, strip them of opportunities to learn their peoples’ cultures, and coerce them into embracing Western and Christian identities. Forced assimilation was considered the compassionate alternative to endless war, because the colonizers could not see past their commitment to their own superiority or conceive of a world that included diverse cultures and communities. Either Native children would conform, or they would become enemies. Tragically, keepers of residential schools were true to this vision.

So though these stories reveal specific tragedies, they have not revealed new information in general. Indigenous people and organizations have been speaking out against the abuses and injustices of the residential school system since their advent, though people in power (especially White people) have been slow to listen and act, and often actively ignore and forget. What may be different this time in the United States is that Deb Haaland is Secretary of Interior. In case you missed it, on June 22, she announced an investigation by the Department of the Interior that will collect and review “decades of records to identify past boarding schools, locate known and possible burial sites at or near those schools, and uncover the names and tribal affiliations of students” ( ). Haaland, whose own family suffered in these schools, explained that:

“At no time in history have the records or documentation of this policy been compiled or analyzed to determine the full scope of its reaches and effects. We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life, and the lasting consequences of the schools, … .” ( )

She further expressed the enormity and importance of the work ahead:

“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past … . No matter how hard it will be." ( )


A Tradition of Not Caring

          The fact that the US government, under the direction of an Indigenous woman, is taking this step is a positive one. There is the potential, not a guarantee, that we are turning the corner in the long journey to honestly acknowledge and address the historic and ongoing injustices and atrocities committed against Native peoples. But there is that other aspect that cannot be forgotten, and I want to focus this morning on the general negligence and refusal of Christian leaders and churches to 1) take responsibility for their participation in the violence against Native peoples, 2) become accountable for it, and 3) cooperate with addressing and healing these still open wounds.

          This is essential because much of the pain, grief, and rage related to the residential school system has been worsened by the complicity of Christian churches and leaders, followed by half-hearted measures or, more frequently, denial that they have done anything wrong. Amber Starks, an Afro-Indigenous activist and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, pointed out:

“It doesn’t seem like the church as an institution genuinely cares about the ongoing harm of its participation in colonialism, in imperialism, and in genocide. Since it doesn’t care about those things, it doesn’t care about the healing that has to go into that.” ( )

          One of the tried-and-true ways to avoid accountability is to blame the victim, a tactic that has been used to justify the violent assimilation policies of the residential schools. In this case, the impacts of colonial violence were used as proof that Native cultures and communities were inferior and in need of help. Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca nation, wrote:

“The disabilities, disadvantages and wrongs do not result, however, either primarily, consequently or ultimately from their tribal condition and native inheritances, but solely, wholly and absolutely from the unchristian treatment they have always received from Christian white people who speak the English language, who read the English Bible and who are Pharisaically divested of all the elements of vice and barbarism. The tenacity with which the remnants of this people have adhered to their tribal organizations and religious traditions is all that has saved them thus far from inevitable extinguishment. When they abandon their birthright for a mess of Christian pottage they will then cease to be a distinctive people. It is useless though to discuss this question, already prejudiced and predetermined by a granitic Christian hierarchy from whose judgments and decisions there seems to be no appeal.”  ( )

Amber Starks made her comments in 2021. Ely Parker made his remarks in 1885, and it is tragic that his words remain so very salient and true. It is a facet of colonization that has long smoldered, at times flaming into view, while leaving a trail of intergenerational trauma. Grief and rage are healthy responses to the genocide waged against the peoples indigenous to these lands. Pride and gratitude are healthy responses for Native peoples’ continued resistance to that genocide while they preserve and develop their own wisdom and ways. But what there has never been an excuse for is the cruelty inflicted by people who claimed to follow Jesus, followed by the refusal of Christians to listen, recognize the harm they were causing, and change their ways. Parker’s statement in 1885 is still, on the whole, shamefully and damnably true: “It is useless … to discuss this question, already prejudiced and predetermined by a granitic Christian hierarchy from whose judgments and decisions there seems to be no appeal.” 


“Because He Had No Pity”

          As a matter of conscious, and with some hope for change, we will keep making that appeal, of both the “granitic Christian hierarchy” in any form or denomination, and of the common, everyday person that goes along with the conventional narrative that the US policy against Native peoples was justified and even moral. And the best way I know to do this is to appeal to the Bible.

In the lectionary reading of the Hebrew scriptures assigned for today, the prophet Nathan famously confronts King David for murdering Uriah so he could claim the newly widowed Bathsheba as his wife. The whole thing is just a terrible story; I never understood why King David was so revered by my Sunday School teachers. I understand that David was a talented artist who could dance and play the lyre. I get that many of the Psalms are beautiful, heartfelt literature, and the stories from David’s early life are captivating, even moving and challenging. But this just makes David’s downslide into lust and murder more heartbreaking. His story went on too long and turned into tragedy, and I never recovered from it enough to like him again. But his story, like most tragedies, remains so very human. King David is steadfastly relevant for our times as the picture of a person who abuses privilege and power, all the while insisting he is still a moral, good person.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: King David stays home from the war and has an affair with a woman (Bathsheba) married to one of his soldiers (Uriah), she gets pregnant, and the king tries to cover it up. David’s plans don’t work, so he decides murder is the best option. The king sends a letter to the commander with instructions to ensure Uriah is killed in battle. The commander does as he is asked, but not just Uriah dies. This is an important point, because David’s plan caused the death of several people. Yet David is okay with this because he thinks he is spared the shame of being found out. He lets Bathsheba mourn for the appropriate time, and then brings her to the palace as his wife. We do not know Bathsheba’s experience of all of this; she might have gone along meekly, protested strongly, or even encouraged the plan. Uriah is portrayed as an honorable soldier, though we do not know what kind of husband he made. And Bathsheba is barely portrayed at all, except as an object of royal lust and the womb bearing a royal child.

Despite David’s efforts, none of this was really hidden. Eventually, someone has the courage to point out that this was all really bad. What results is the classic example of speaking truth to power, when the prophet Nathan gets King David to condemn himself by telling a simple story of a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had plenty, including a large flock. But the poor man only had “one little ewe lamb … and it grew up with him and with his children.” But when the rich man had a fancy guest, he didn’t want to share. So he stole the poor man’s little lamb, butchered it, and had a feast.  

“Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’” (2 Samuel 12:1-6, NRSV)

Nathan replies:

“You are the man! … You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him … . Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, … . Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” (2 Samuel 12:7-12, NRSV)

          There follows some repentance, some forgiveness, a cursed infant, desperate prayers, death, grief, lovemaking, a new child (named Solomon), and a string of victorious battles with David leading his army in killing, plundering, and enslaving the Ammonites. Order, it seems, has been restored, at least for a little while, and a common homiletic strategy at this point is to link this reading with David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 51, with some sentimental musings about how nobody is beyond forgiveness and everyone can know the joy of having a clean heart created within them. 

And all of that is very convenient for a story where a king abuses his power, seizes a woman for his own sexual appetites, murders her husband (and a few others alongside him), and then relaxes with a cover-up well done. I find the whole thing haunting and hauntingly relevant. King David becomes the symbol of a human that knows right and wrong, and can feel compassion, yet can find a way to act in utter rejection of those morals to fulfill his desires. When he heard Nathan’s story, David could recognize that stealing a lamb from a poor man was not okay; he even wanted to put the man to death. But he couldn’t face his own sins, choosing instead to cover it up with one subterfuge after another, and ultimately justify murder his own loyal soldiers.


Two Lessons, Two Responsibilities

I’ve given this story so much time because I hope it is language that conservative (and especially White) Christians will understand. If King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” was capable of so much self-deception, can we not consider it wise to pause and examine our own self-deception? The world, and Canada and the USA in particular, has another opportunity to deal honestly with our collective atrocities and injustices, both past and present. Like King David, the United States has relied on subterfuge after subterfuge, covering up oppression and exploitation as the price for grasping the objects of our national desires. Every protest and call for truth is like a prophet Nathan standing before us: “You are the man!”

But if we updated this story to fit the common reactions given by many Christians that I see around me, King David would not have repented. He would have yelled at Nathan for being unpatriotic and ungodly. After all, David had been divinely chosen to be king, and opposing him meant opposing the divine will. I can just hear the complaints against Nathan, accusing the prophet of canceling “a man after God’s own heart.” So please, and especially if you are a Christian who claims to take the Bible seriously, understand that the biblical response to someone pointing out that you’ve done wrong is to confess it and honestly deal with it. And please take note that confession doesn’t erase consequences, just as David still had to face the consequences of his violence. Stop hiding behind your faith and have the faith to repent and make things right. Because the story of David and Nathan remind us that: first, when we are confronted with our own complicity or participation in injustice, the appropriate response is to own up to it, take responsibility, and repair the harm; and second, when we learn that about an injustice, that is opportunity to speak up and to act.

In the case of the harm and violence against Native peoples, we White folx have a history of missed opportunities on both counts. It is well passed the time for the settler governments and all complicit organizations, especially Christian churches, to frankly acknowledge this history and begin to make amends, under the direction of and in accountability to Indigenous peoples. Non-native people, especially White people, must honestly take responsibility for the harm done to Native peoples, their cultures, and their traditions. That includes giving space, support, and resources to Native people as they access healing that has been denied to them for so long. Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), explains that:

"The fallout of what we are witnessing is not only of the skyrocketing numbers as the body count climbs … . But the realization that there's a direct connection between that and every element of suffering and oppression that we've felt (for generations). When you look at the current state of Indian country, and the conditions of our citizens and our people with the highest metrics of suicide, the highest metrics of alcohol and drug abuse: that is an entire ethnic population self-medicating for centuries of pain … . Not only are we living with the impacts of ethnic cleansing and genocide, but we are without resources to even begin to confront in do the healing … .” ( )

Deb Haaland and the Department of Interior’s investigation of the residential schools will continue from now until April 2022. I suggest that we all, especially White people, set aside our own time during these next months to wrestle with the truth of the brutality of colonization, take concrete actions to support the healing and transformative work going in Indigenous communities, and prepare ourselves to support the final recommendations of the report. (As a first step for those of us in the USA, I recommend visiting websites such as The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition ( ) and the Lakota People’s Law Project ( ).)

We cannot change the past, but we can change our relationship to it, and our relationship to one another. It is now our opportunity to listen to Native peoples, acknowledge injustice, and, under the direction of and in accountability to Native peoples, begin to make things right.