Racial healing conference a launch pad for discussions
“The early Jesuits filled their time learning how to speak Lakota, translate the Bible, translate prayers, and even parts of the Mass,” said Maka Black Elk, keynote speaker for diocesan Social Justice Commission workshop. “I think that created a relationship with the people that was initially quite positive. Of course, this would certainly change as the relationship with the United States government changed.”
The role of the Catholic Church in government mandated boarding schools for Native Americans and Canada’s First Nations was the focal point of the Truth and Racial Healing Conference on January 28. It was held at the Terra Sancta Retreat Center and sponsored by the Red Cloud School Truth and Healing Project at Pine Ridge which is directed by Black Elk; the Diocesan Office of Native Ministry; and the Social Justice Commission under auspices of the Office of Family Life Ministries, both in Rapid City. Sixty people participated in-person. Due to snow packed roads and frigid temperatures, more than 20 people attended through a last-minute Zoom connection, and an additional 40 registered participants were unable to be there. The conference can be viewed online at www.rapidcitydiocese.org/sjc.
Speaker testimonies came from boarding school students, in-person descendants on a panel, and Canadians who spoke about Pope Francis’ visit and apology in Canada last fall via Zoom.
Students, both those who had good experiences and those who had bad experiences, shared in the trauma of being away from their homes and families. Black Elk also pointed out during the 1920s and 30s the reservations were very poor. Parents sent their children to the government and parochial boarding schools to help feed and clothe them.
At the conference, boarding school students testified by video. On the positive side, they recalled making friends, eating three meals a day, having clothes to wear, and sleeping in warm beds. Older students comforted younger students and at 3 o’clock they were given buns as a snack. “If you had peanut butter and jelly you were wealthy,” recalled one woman on video. A man on the video said, in sports, wagers were made with butter pats as payments.
Negative memories they recalled were having their hair cut; being made to wear a cardboard box labeled “runaway” if a student tried to get away; and vulnerability to sexual abuse from clergy, other adults and even from older students.
Another man shared his memory of having to fight fellow students on the school grounds every day until the 5th grade because his skin was lighter than other students – he didn’t look Indian enough.
Black Elk moderated a panel discussion of boarding school descendants who spoke on challenges to their Catholic faith. Panelists described reservation peer pressure wherein they are told they can only choose to be a traditional Lakota or a Catholic, but not both. Black Elk described that as a “false binary” approach.
In the afternoon Rosella Kinoshameg, an Odawa/Ojibway from Manitoulin Island, Ontario, joined the conference by way of Zoom. She worked as a nurse for 52 years and incorporated traditional practices into her work. Among her many endeavors, she was involved with the planning for the papal visit in 2021, and recently she became chair of the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund. It is a Catholic fund established for restoring the language and culture of First Nations peoples. Kinoshameg said, “We are responsible for looking after our spirit. To heal, we must talk about hurt. We can’t keep it inside or we’ll get sick. We can bring peaceful harmony and respectful relationships through commitment and repair of trust by actions, that’s the most important part of the personal reconciliation journey.”
The second Canadian speaker to address the conference was Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ. From 2009 to 2015, he represented the Jesuits at meetings of the parties to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In recounting his experiences in the past several years, he spoke of many uncomfortable situations, but what melted his heart were the indigenous people who tried to make sure he was okay.
“The church is living with humiliation, but the indigenous people lived with humiliation before that,” said Father Bisson.
When accusations began to surface in the 1980s and 1990s, “We reacted in anger and indignation. We responded using the law as a weapon … we were treating families that we had known for generations like enemies,” he said. “We started to research our own records and realized that these allegations were probably true. So, we changed our attitude and started to listen more seriously.”
The Canadian Jesuit Province began offering help to those who wanted compensation therapy. “The most terrifying thing for us was not really the lawsuits, although they did a lot of financial damage. To us the most terrifying thing was changing our attitude towards ourselves and changing how we understood our own history. We switched, putting the victims first and our interests second. It was scary to apologize,” he said.
In the morning and the afternoon, Billy Critchley-Menor, SJ, from Pine Ridge gave participants a chance to process the topics together in talking circles.
Joyce Tibbits from the Pine Ridge Reservation was one of the Zoom attendees. “The talking circles gave me the perspective of the Canadian presenters because they were in my group. It helped me understand what happened in Canada, which was much different than what is happening here in the United States or what we are directly experiencing on the reservation and at Red Cloud,” said Tibbitts. She is the Pastoral Associate for the Holy Rosary Mission/St. Agnes Parish Coordinator and Holy Rosary Churches.
Fr. Brian Christensen, rector of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, said his talking circle had good discussions. “The conversations helped me to understand the challenges that we face. Talk of ‘decolonization’ focused not on the removal of all white settlers from the land, but a change of attitude and perspective. Catholic Native Americans expressed a desire to be included as partners going forward. We share this land together and we need to work together as we look to the future,” said Father Christensen. “When speaking about colonization, in our discussions, it seemed that it was about an attitude of superiority. In a sense, I heard people telling me. ‘We feel that white people, even in the church, think that they have the answers, something to bring to us; without considering that we have something to bring to them’” This is the notion of ‘decolonization’ that needs to be embraced: a change of perspective; a change in attitude; a new equality and respect on both sides”
He continued, “I heard some wonderful stories about their experiences at the Holy Rosary Mission.The ladies at my table had very positive memories of their time at the boarding school and reflected fondly upon the teachers and priests that were influential in their education,” he said.
Carole Brown, Howes, works with natives and non-natives at Sioux Spiritual Center. “The talking circles enabled us to share different reactions to the content of the day. The groups included both indigenous and non-indigenous people. We don’t often have the opportunity to share what we are thinking concerning these topics, and I think it was good to open up that dialogue in a ‘safe’ situation where everyone feels loved and respected,” she said.
At the conclusion of the conference Bishop Peter Muhich was the principal celebrant at Mass. He said, “As your bishop, I encourage you to listen to each other, be open to the truth. Embracing the truth is the only way to come to know the life of the Gospel together.”