Local faith leaders seek to reckon with dark legacy of Native American boarding schools

Religious leaders in the Fargo-Moorhead area and across the country face hard questions about how denominations, including Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker and Unitarian, worked with federal officials to strip Native American children of their cultural traditions at boarding schools.

Fort Yates school.PNG
Benedictine nuns arrived in 1878 to start a boarding school for children at Fort Yates, North Dakota.
Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota
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Editor's note: This is the third story in an occasional series on Native American boarding schools and their impact on the region's tribes. The first installment of the series can be found here and the second installment can be found here.

FARGO — Christian denominations are bracing for a reckoning in their own century-long involvement with Native American boarding schools across the United States, including in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Starting with the founding of Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1879, such institutions were designed to assimilate Native American youth into a white man's world. More than 400 such boarding schools sprang up around the nation, according to research by Denise Lajimodiere , an author and enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

North Dakota had at least 13 boarding schools for Native American children, with some of them managed by Christian denominations, according to Lajimodiere's research.

Last year's discovery of mass graves at former residential school sites in Canada, which designed their programs after similar schools in the U.S., sparked local interest in the issue of boarding schools, said David Myers, founder of the Fargo Moorhead Interfaith Center, a nonprofit group that aims to connect people of different religions and those with no religion.


Myers converted to Judaism, but he grew up a Methodist. He describes the boarding school issue as an attempt at "cultural genocide."

“The basic facts about all this are deeply disturbing,” Myers said.

“The quick historical look at it is from 1879 to the 1960s where thousands of Native American children were forcibly taken from their homes and they suffered abuse, both physical and sexual, and even died at these schools. I want people to think about that. That means the families in many cases never saw them again, never buried them, and sometimes didn’t even know they had died," Myers said.

Earlier in April, Pope Francis issued a historic apology for abuses at Catholic-run boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada, saying he felt shame and sorrow for the role that Catholics had in those schools.

"For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God's forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry," Francis said in an address on April 1 from the Vatican.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a group whose mission is to better understand boarding schools and the ongoing effects they have on survivors today, acknowledged the Pope's apology but said it was only "a first step."

"We also know that an apology alone will never rectify the harms perpetrated on our people through the residential and boarding school systems in Canada and the United States, respectively," the coalition said in a statement.

The coalition has asked the Vatican to make its boarding school records accessible to researchers and to revoke the declaration that created the Doctrine of Discovery, which justified Christian European explorers to take Indigenous land because of supposed divine superiority.


Boys and girls with sisters outside St. Mary Catholic Mission Boarding School in Belcourt, North Dakota, circa 1884.
Boys and girls with sisters outside St. Mary Catholic Mission Boarding School in Belcourt, North Dakota, circa 1884.
Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota

So far, more than 1,100 graves have been found at residential school sites in Canada, according to the BBC. This discovery has “woken us all up and left our hearts on the ground, so we have to do something,” said Tanya Redroad of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa, descendant of Turtle Mountain.

“Governments also need to be held accountable, and the government allowed it, but it is really the churches that carried it out. We need to stop and think about that. Some people don’t even think it happened, now it’s time for you to say that it happened,” Redroad said.

Redroad will take part in an online panel discussion on boarding schools that's scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 28 .

“We’ve been doing recognition and healing, and I think for this event it is really, really asking the question of where is the faith community on this issue?” Redroad said.

During Thursday's discussion, faith leaders will face hard questions about how denominations, including Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker and Unitarian, worked with federal officials to strip Native American children of their cultural traditions at boarding schools, said Myers, one of the event's organizers.

“Part of the problem is that this has been left out of American history," Myers said. "We need to keep the memory alive, and if we don’t have programs to educate people it will simply fade away."

Karen Van Fossan, a Unitarian Universalist minister who will speak on the panel, said she's known about Native American boarding schools for many years, and understands “there is probably no way to make it right."

“But at the same time there are ways to ask for forgiveness with integrity, and I think it’s probably because it can’t ever be made right that there is plenty to do to reckon with what made it happen and what makes other similar phenomena like that happen now,” Van Fossan said.


Martin Avery, a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church, said the panel will offer different perspectives on boarding school culpability and an acknowledgment that many denominations were involved.

“It’s awfully late and awfully slow, but it’s something that is happening, breaking through the inertia,” Avery said. “There will be a discussion about what the past involvement has been, and I think from my perspective, I will be talking about baby steps coming to terms with the past and what the larger United Methodist Church has done."

Other panelists in Thursday's discussion will include Benedictine Sister Pat Kennedy, the College of Saint Benedict’s monastery heritage coordinator; Lutheran Rev. Larry Thiele; and moderator Ricky White, CEO of First Nations Consultants and a cultural specialist for Fargo Public Schools.

The Diocese of Fargo was not approached to participate in the panel, but it is aware of the history of the Catholic Church's involvement in North Dakotan boarding schools for Native American children, said diocese spokesman Paul Braun.

"The Catholic dioceses in Bismarck and Fargo are in preliminary discussions with tribal leaders in North Dakota on this issue. We fully understand our connection to the past and to our future, and we welcome efforts that will help shed light on what may have happened and how we move forward," Braun said in a statement.

How to take part

What: An online panel discussion entitled, "The Native Boarding Schools: Remembrance and Healing"

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 28, followed by a Q&A session

How to watch: Use this Zoom meeting ID: 998 4403 4374

Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, contributed to this report.

Logo for the "Buried Wounds" series

About the “Buried wounds” series

In May 2021, the remains of 215 children were discovered in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. This disturbing finding drew attention to the United States’ role in forcibly assimilating thousands of Indigenous children through its own boarding school policies.

From 1819 and through the 1960s, the U.S. government oversaw policies for more than 400 American Indian boarding schools in the nation, including at least 13 in North Dakota. Many of the children who attended schools in North Dakota and elsewhere were taken from their homes against their will, stripped of their culture and abused physically, sexually and psychologically.

Little research has been done on exactly how many schools existed in the U.S. and the extent to which the federal government knew about the conditions of each school. The U.S. Department of the Interior under Secretary Deb Haaland is investigating the history and legacy of federally run boarding schools.

The Forum has launched its own investigation into boarding schools in North Dakota and other parts of the country by interviewing survivors, reviewing public records and exploring the impact these schools still have on North Dakota's Indigenous population today.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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