The Native people of North America have experienced atrocities at the hands of self-proclaimed Christians since contact. Even within founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, we see anti-Native rhetoric with the inclusion of passages such as: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Genesis 1 establishes the fact that each of us is made in the image of God—Imago Dei —and God calls us good; yet Native people have been treated as subhuman to their white counterparts. The American Christian church has been responsible for atrocities committed against the Indigenous people of this land—both by individuals and by denominations still thriving today.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe our country was founded on Christian principles. Knowing this, as Christians, how can we ignore the actions taken against Native peoples during times of removal from their land and the justification of the killing of Native populations with our expansion into the West?
Through the European missional focus with the Native peoples, from contact into modern day, sharing the gospel began to warp into cultural assimilation in order to reflect Christianity. Native culture was not considered godly, and missionary work resulted in Protestants and Catholics causing generational harm and trauma with their actions toward the Native people. Through the European missional focus with the Native peoples, from contact into modern day, sharing the gospel began to warp into cultural assimilation in order to reflect Christianity. Click To Tweet
The North American Indian Boarding School Era
“Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt
Generational trauma extended further than land removal, genocide, and broken treaties. One of the most horrific actions committed at the hands of Christians and the government was the “boarding school era.”
Between 1819 and 1969, “the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states or then territories, including 21 schools in Alaska and 7 schools in Hawaii,” according to the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Report. Volume one of the report was released in May of 2022 by the Department of Interior under the direction of US Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland.
Generations of Native children were removed from their family, community, and land and forced into an environment of separation, abuse, and anemic health care. These environments were disguised as mission work and Christianity. The goal was to remove all aspects of nativeness in younger generations and force full assimilation to a Eurocentric form of Christianity . This was achieved by segregating children from the same Tribal Nation, allowing only English to be spoken, removing cultural clothing, and requiring uniforms to be worn.
The investigation report goes on to announce “identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 different schools across the school system.” Marked graves bear the names of school staff members’ children. The alarming truth is that unmarked graves reveal Indigenous children were buried without recognition. Buried on school property means bodies of children were never returned to their families.
Although the release of this report has been anticipated by Native America, it has not made headlines on mainstream media, and therefore, most Americans continue to remain ignorant, or even indifferent, to the Federal Indian Boarding School history.
Why wouldn’t we want to keep this recent dark history hidden? Boarding schools show our darkest corners. This era was cultural genocide. It was not an event, it was not a season, it was a systemic attack on culture, language, and religion. Boarding schools show our darkest corners. This era was cultural genocide. It was not an event, it was not a season, it was a systemic attack on culture, language, and religion. Click To Tweet
The Importance of Learning About and Repenting of the Boarding School Era
The atrocities of the Federal Indian Boarding Schools should concern the church today, and the historic church’s role in the schools should be acknowledged. In order for the church to build trust with Native Nations, we must shine a light on our dark corners and pursue healing. To do this, we must learn about our past. In 1886, a report to the Secretary of the Interior addressed the importance of religious institutions in the funding and administration of the schools:
“The Government aid furnished enables them to sustain their missions, and renders it possible . . . to lead these people, whose paganism has been the chief obstacle to their civilization, into the light of Christianity—a work in which the Government cannot actively engage.”
Native children were separated from others in their own Tribal Nation in order to cut off community. They were not allowed to speak in their language, only in English. Names were often changed to be more European. Their clothing was changed to remove any resemblance of their people. Boys’ hair was cut short, and yet long hair on Native males is deeply meaningful. As denominations stepped into leadership within this system, Christians failed at being missional and used the name of Jesus to justify abuse—physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Native children faced disease, malnourishment, and overcrowding; all with little health care.
The Federal Indian Boarding School system of forced removal, abuse, and cultural genocide is not reflective of Jesus, and yet within much of the Native community today, this is what Christianity represents. The church has failed the Native people in North America. It has forgotten that every one of us is created equally, not for sameness but oneness. Native culture reflects God’s diverse beauty; our languages are known by God. The Federal Indian Boarding School system of forced removal, abuse, and cultural genocide is not reflective of Jesus, and yet within much of the Native community today, this is what Christianity represents. Click To Tweet
I get it. We have a desire to focus on the best and hide the worst. We all do this, but where is the desire to heal what has been broken? Pulpits all over the country promote forgiveness and mending relationships that have been damaged. This takes the realization and acknowledgment of error. Can we admit error and desire to repair what has been broken with the Indigenous people in this land? I believe this is what Jesus calls us to do.
Intent and impact matter. Our intent cannot be prioritized over impact. We can speak and take action with the very best intention, and it can still result in harm toward another person. The intention of boarding schools could have been a sincere pursuit in missiology but, instead, the process was based in supremacy. As a result, widespread sexual, physical, and psychological abuse festered in a downward spiral, causing generational harm, forced cultural assimilation, and even genocide. This impact was a far cry from loving our neighbors as ourselves and honoring Imago Dei. We can speak and take action with the very best intention, and it can still result in harm toward another person. Click To Tweet
Although we cannot completely control our impact, there are steps we can consider as we pursue healing. To start, we must acknowledge our history, even if we were not individually guilty. When you acknowledge error and harm, it is easier to move forward with humility toward conciliation. The church has forgotten that every one of us is created equally, not for sameness but oneness. Native culture reflects God’s diverse beauty; our languages are known by God. Click To Tweet
Learn more about the Federal Indian Boarding School era, and the church’s involvement in it, with these resources:
- Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and Investigative Report: www.bia.gov/service/federal-indian-boarding-school-initiative
- The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition provides information and offers a list of books and curriculum resources: https://boardingschoolhealing.org
- Religion and Boarding Schools article by historian Samantha M. Williams: https://www.samanthamwilliams.com/blog/religion-and-boarding-schools
 https://www.bia.gov/sites/default/files/dup/inline-files/bsi_investigative_report_may_2022_508.pdf, page 12
 https://www.bia.gov/sites/default/files/dup/inline-files/bsi_investigative_report_may_2022_508.pdf, page 53