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Indigenous Survivors of Boarding School Debacle Speak Out to Lutheran Leaders

Por Emily Miller
Indigenous Native first nations
Estudiantes indígenas posan para una foto afuera de su internado presbiteriano en Sitka, Alaska, en el verano de 1883. (Sociedad Histórica Presbiteriana, Filadelfia vía AP)

George McCauley can still hear the school secretary’s voice calling his name over the loudspeaker on the wall of his 11th grade English classroom.

He can still remember walking back to his dorm at the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota, wondering what he had done wrong, and the school official who met him there, telling him instead that his mother had died.

More than 50 years later, he can still feel the numbness of that moment, far away from his family. Only recently, he said, has he realized how his experience at boarding school created abandonment issues that impacted his life long after he graduated in 1971.

McCauley, a citizen of the Omaha Nation in northeastern Nebraska, shared his experience as a boarding school survivor on Sept. 13 in the first of a monthlong series of online classes and presentations hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Truth and Healing Movement, focused on the federal Indian boarding school system that separated generations of Indigenous children from their families and cultures.

“I think we need to recognize the trauma that is still here and with the ones that have been to boarding school — the trauma that is felt by all relatives across Turtle Island,” or North America, McCauley said.

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George McCauley, right, is a member of the Omaha Nation in Nebraska and an Indigenous boarding school survivor. McCauley attended the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota as a boy and spoke as a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Truth and Healing Movement ahead of the National Day of Remembrance. Vance Blackfox, left, the ELCA’s director for Indigenous ministries and tribal relations, moderated the online conversation with McCauley. (Video screen grab)

September has become a month for acknowledging harms committed against Indigenous people in the U.S., culminating with the National Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools on Sept. 30. It echoes Canada’s Día Nacional de la Verdad y la Reconciliación y liderados por indígenas Día de la camisa naranja, observed on the same day.

The denomination’s commitment comes not only as a result of the informe de investigación released last year by the U.S. Department of the Interior that found half of U.S. boarding schools likely were supported by religious institutions, but also out of the Declaration of the ELCA to American Indian and Alaska Native People and its repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

In April, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton announced that the country’s largest Lutheran denomination was launching its own Truth and Healing Movement, centering from Easter through Advent on the efforts Indigenous peoples across the country have led to heal the wounds left by the boarding schools and understand the impacts of colonization.

“We must be in better, right, and healthy relationships with the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. As we know, the truth and our knowing and embracing it, is the first step toward healing for all of us,” Eaton dijo en ese momento.

Online events this month by the ELCA include a conversation with descendants of boarding school survivors that took place Monday night, followed by presentations about the denomination’s Truth and Healing Movement and Truth Seeking and Truth Telling Initiative, its effort to research Lutheran involvement in boarding schools, as well as an “Indian 101” class.

The ELCA also has published a guide for leading a prayer service to remember the Indigenous children who attended boarding schools, written and compiled by Oglala Lakota theologian Kelly Sherman-Conroy.

Additional events have been scheduled by the ELCA’s Truth and Healing Movement through the end of November.

“I think it’s important for members of the ELCA to know more about boarding schools generally in hopes that they might then be convicted to teach other people about Indian boarding schools — maybe their congregations,” said Vance Blackfox, the ELCA’s director for Indigenous ministries and tribal relations.

“Hearing a story from a survivor makes the story for us even more human and real and important.”

About 60 people attended the online conversation with McCauley, which Blackfox moderated.

McCauley told participants that his experience attending high school at Flandreau was “not bad” compared with many Indigenous people’s experiences of abuse at boarding schools. Every survivor he’s talked to has had a different experience.

mccauley indigenous
George McCauley is a member of the Omaha Nation. (Photo courtesy of ELCA)

But “not bad” still meant marching every day during gym class and making his bed every morning with military precision. The federal boarding school system, after all, was modeled after the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was founded in 1879 by Lt. Richard Henry Pratt with the motto “Kill the Indian, save the man,” McCauley said.

It still meant cutting his hair, which traditionally is worn long. He hasn’t cut his hair since he graduated, he said.

It meant separation from his family and culture, and what McCauley called “educational neglect.”

“I don’t know why they had us go to school because they weren’t there to try to get us into college. They weren’t trying to get us to be educated,” he said.

Churches can do more to find records of boarding schools and the remains of Indigenous children who may be buried on their grounds, McCauley said. He urged those who attended last week’s webinar to educate their congregations about the boarding school system.

“I think it’s a very important thing that we talk about it so the healing can begin of what happened, and the way to begin with that is hearing the truth. The truth can’t be changed, the truth can’t be denied, and it can’t be ignored,” he said.

“So I’m thankful and grateful that you’re all here to listen, and I know that good things can come from this.”

Emily McFarlan Miller es reportera nacional de Religion News Service. 



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7 Respuestas

  1. This should never have happened. I join with the ELCA in extending my regret and sorrow that this was done in the name of Christ to any child at any time.

    Christ showed us the high value he placed on children, and warned those who would cause children to stumble.

    Nothing can ease the pain or change what was done but this is a good step in the right direction.

    It’s essential to keep in mind that our “American heritage” was built on the back of travesties such as these. This should keep us humble and open to the story of just who immigrants were and are.

    My paternal ancestors trace back to the 2nd Virginia colony but I do not claim to be a “true American” because of this. I simply realize that my family is one of the first wave of immigrants to a country already populated by scores of Native American nations.

    As such, I feel such sorrow that brutalities of this type were common as Native cultures were annihilated across our whole country.

    “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Lev 19:34

    “ For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

  2. I have often wondered what was going through the minds of the religious groups that were abusing Native American children. For what purpose? To achieve what? Why? Christians are supposed to be servants of the church, not spawns of evil. Certainly it was prejudice and bigotry on the part of those who were inflicting this horrible evil, and on children no less. Instead of accepting them as human beings and showing them the kindness, forbearance and the unconditional love of Christ, these “Christians” gave them innumerable types of brutality which affected body, mind, and spirit. There is nothing more chilling than to have to stand before the Lord when he asks, “why did you do this to these, my little ones?” The millstone around their necks awaits them. No one, in their right mind, would ever want to be on the business end of that.

    1. Salvatore,

      Christians and Christian church teaching justified this kind of cruelty towards Native Americans and blacks because we were “civilizing” them in the name of Christ.

      To understand white Christian nationalism, look to Doctrine of Discovery, Jones says
      JEFF BRUMLEY | AUGUST 22, 2023

      The historic fusing of Christianity and white supremacy is a moral and spiritual cancer eating at the body and soul of the American church, Robert P. Jones says in his latest book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path of a Shared American Future…

      A possible treatment for the condition lies in recognizing and confronting the central role of the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery, a Vatican framework that cleared the way for white Europeans to explore and claim territories in the name of Christ, said Jones…

      “Christianity allowed itself to get wrapped up in idea that one of its key purposes was to be a justification of European domination of other people around the world,” he explained. “The church decided to lend its moral and religious authority to the project of colonial domination by Western European powers, setting the church on a disastrous course.”

      One of those courses included the birth of a theology and worldview that inspired and rationalized the institution of slavery in the New World and the genocide and resettlement of Native Americans.


    1. Opinion seems divided on the question.
      On the one hand, CBS News quotes an indigenous rights group: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/canada-indigenous-children-school-bodies-unmarked-graves-2021-06-30/
      On the other hand, a more recent report by Canadian academmicians says otherwise. https://nypost.com/2023/08/31/still-no-evidence-of-mass-graves-of-indigenous-children-in-canada/
      Which one is correct? As of this moment, remains to be seen.

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