Sister Kateri was known as the "lily of the Mohawks." She represents all tribes as the patron saint of Native Americans as well as environmentalism. courtesy @NY_Arch on Twitter

Catholic Church reviews involvement Residential Schools

Oklahoma’s Catholic leaders desire to learn from tribal groups.

There is no question that horrible things were done in the name of “civilization” in the continent of North America, especially to the Native American peoples. One of the most horrendous were the Native American boarding schools, or as they are often known today, the Native American residential schools. These schools operated from 1869 to the 1960s, hoping to produce economically self-sufficient students with hard work ethics and possessive individualism, meaning that the individual is the only owner of their skills and therefore doesn’t owe anything to anyone for said skills. In the vast majority of cases these schools forced the assimilation of Native students into a culture, language and way of life these children had not chosen for themselves.

While many had good intentions with this educational system, the fruit of their labors were sour, a cultural and literal genocide. To this day, few records remain extant as to how many schools were in operation, causing trauma and pain for generations to come. The Catholic Church shares their own portion of blame in this tragic part of North American history, and any Catholic that says otherwise is either misinformed or lying to themselves in order to avoid the possibility that people in the Church could do bad things.

There are many Catholic leaders, however, who have answered the call, recognizing the need for healing and reconciliation for the next generations of Native Americans that have to live with this dark piece of their heritage. As of Nov. 2021, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City in collaboration with the Diocese of Tulsa launched a new project with the desire to better understand this tragic history and the experiences of the Native American peoples affected.

In this amazing effort of collaboration with Professor Bryan Rindfleisch at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.—an expert in American Indian history—the two dioceses have gathered oral histories from the former students at these schools and their descendants, studying the documentation from the schools’ operation in the hopes of working in unity with the tribes to find a path to healing.

Amy Warne of Oklahoma City recently spoke at Sacred Heart Church in Konawa in reference to the residential schools, and the points she raised need to be taken to heart. Catholics would be up in arms if they were forbidden to pray rosaries or make the sign of the cross, from expressing their faith even in the most basic of forms. It would be religious and cultural discrimination—there is no doubt of that. Native American culture and rituals, and the basics of their way of life deserve to be treated with the same level of respect. This seems to be something that the Catholic authorities of Oklahoma City and Tulsa have taken to heart.

According to Archbishop of Oklahoma City Paul Coakley, “It is important we learn and understand the experiences of American Indian children and their families at Catholic boarding schools in Oklahoma so we can make better and more informed decisions moving forward. We will continue to build a culture of inclusion, healing and understanding related to Native American Catholics in our state.” Bishop of Tulsa David Konderla has also said, “It is by understanding the past that we are able to improve and build on good ideas in the present and, where necessary, make amends for failures in the past.”

We must learn from the past so that we will not make the same mistakes in the future. This project is a beautiful act of good faith on the part of the local Catholic dioceses of Oklahoma, extending their hand in hopes of unity and love, as well as healing and reconciliation. It is wonderful to see that they truly desire to learn from the Native American experience, and to make their voices heard in their faith communities.

Post Author: Logan Guthrie