One Church Many Cultures The Good News of Cultural Diversity Newsletter Fall/Winter 2021 

Native American Affairs

Catholic Sisters and the Troubled Legacy of the Native Boarding Schools Era

By: Sr. Sue Torgersen, Member of the Congregation of St. Joseph 

Only recently have I begun to understand the scope and gravity of the harm inflicted upon Native Peoples, by the attempted cultural eradication envisioned by the U.S. government assimilation policy, which forced Native children into boarding schools. I was vaguely aware that some of these schools were run by the Catholic Church and some religious communities.

I also knew of the reality of incidents of abuse that took place in the past within some of these schools. Occasionally, such occurrences would even receive short-lived media attention. However, with so much to focus on with today’s issues of injustice, these past wrongs simply haven’t been on the radar of many Sisters. Recently, however, my eyes and heart were opened as I began to participate in several Native boarding school listening sessions.

Cultural genocide was the government’s intended outcome in establishing these schools; trauma carried across the generations is their legacy. From a Native perspective, we as Sisters we are the face of the pain Natives carry from the boarding school era. Though as religious communities we find ourselves actively concerned about many issues of social justice, we are sorrowful as new understandings of our own complicity with the injustices of racism, colonialism, and cultural genocide come to light.

Approximately one-third of the government promulgated Native boarding schools were Catholic; many of these were administered by Sisters. In total, there were over 350 Native boarding schools in the U.S. during a period of 100 plus years. Through multiple generations nearly all Native children, sometimes as young as three, were forcibly removed/stolen from the arms of parental tenderness and loving care. They were then placed in boarding schools, often at a great distance from their homes, where they were systematically stripped of their Native ways and punished for speaking the only language they knew.

They were subjected to a harsh militaristic regimen fraught with abuse. We can only appreciate the trials and challenges faced by Native communities today by understanding all that happened during the Native boarding school era. Though only a portion of women’s religious communities had historical involvement in these schools, I believe all of us as Sisters need to reckon with this history. Today many communities are taking initial steps to dismantle various manifestations of the institutional racism embedded in our congregational lives. We can each make an important contribution to the healing needed by Native boarding school survivors, simply by learning the full story and its impact on Native lives.

We can listen to and humbly receive the experiences that our Native sisters and brothers may wish to share with us. We can try to understand. And as Sisters, we can “sister” our Sisters who are engaged in the holy work of reckoning with their historical involvement in these schools. Together let us beg for God’s healing graces where they are most needed, as we also pray for forgiveness for all our manifestations of the sin of racism.