How and How Not to Apologize for Native Residential Schools

Discoveries this past spring of hundreds of unmarked graves at three former residential schools in Canada were greeted with horror even by those already aware of the dark legacy of educational institutions for indigenous children on both sides of the US-Canada border. The graves were found at schools operated by Catholic missionary orders from the 1880s until the late 1960s, when they were either closed or taken over by the Canadian government. These schools were part of a federally endorsed program that forcibly separated more than 150,000 indigenous Canadian children from their families. While their explicit goal was indigenous cultural extinction, the schools were notorious for rampant emotional, physical, and sexual abuse as well as countless premature deaths from epidemic disease or suicide.

Much of this lamentable history was exposed in public testimonies during Canada’s judicially mandated Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings from 2008-2015. Nevertheless, the 2021 discoveries reignited expressions of legitimate anger many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people harbor against Christian churches in general and the Catholic Church in particular. More than 80 of Canada’s 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionaries, with others operated by Presbyterians, Anglicans, and the United Church of Canada.

As Lower Kootenay Band Chief Jason Louie, whose relatives attended the St. Eugene mission school in British Columbia, said in a radio interview,

Let’s call this for what it is. It’s a mass murder of indigenous people. The Nazis were held accountable for their war crimes. I see no difference in locating the priests and nuns and the brothers who are responsible for this mass murder to be held accountable for their part in this attempt of genocide of an indigenous people.[1]  

Not Only in Canada

The systematic practice of what author David Wallace Adams calls “education for extinction” is hardly unique to Canada. For several years I served on the planning committee for the biennial International Meeting on Indigenous Child Health, which gathers a broad range of health care professionals from around the world to share their work for and with indigenous communities. The meeting regularly convened a plenary panel where a speaker from the US, Canada, and Australia described the current state of indigenous child health and some of the historical factors behind the persistent, shameful health inequities in their country.

The results were sadly predictable. If, say, the U.S. presenter went first, the Canadian and Australian presenters would, in turn, preface their remarks by saying, “Well, you’ve already heard my talk.” Their meaning was clear: these English-speaking countries had engaged in eerily similar historical patterns of racial cleansing and cultural annihilation. In each case, the churches were all too eager confederates with the nation-state in using education as a weapon of war. Again in each case, the long-term effects on the colonized people proved devastating.

In the United States, more than 350 government-funded Indian boarding schools operated well into the 1960s, most of them west of the Mississippi River. The total number of children separated from their families remains unknown, but at the boarding school system’s height circa 1926, more than 80% of all Native American and Alaska Native children were enrolled. Christian churches played a major role in the school system after US President Ulysses S. Grant’s “Peace Policy” reassigned many so-called “civilizing” initiatives from notoriously corrupt federal Indian agents to Protestant and Catholic missionaries, who were assumed to be more morally fit for the task.

What little is known of the subsequent history is as shameful and disturbing as the Canadian experience. Government agents and mission workers forcibly removed children from their homes. Families that resisted were threatened with the withholding life-sustaining food rations guaranteed by treaty. Once in school, children suffered severe and systematic punishment for speaking native languages or following native religious practices, early deaths, and pervasive emotional, physical, and sexual abuse by teachers, staff, and clergy. Upperclassmen who transformed pervasive messages of their cultural inferiority into self-loathing and despair abused younger students or turned to self-harm. I have spoken with too many adult survivors of government and religious boarding schools to imagine such things were rare. That some graduates went on to have what by North American standards were considered productive careers does not excuse the irreparable damage inflicted on others.

A more comprehensive history should be forthcoming now that U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, the first indigenous person to head a Cabinet Department, has launched a federal investigation to “uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences” of these schools. As a “thirty-fifth generation New Mexican” and enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, where the 300 year old, adobe-walled San Jose mission church is visible from the highway, Haaland is an indigenous Catholic who credits both traditions for shaping her moral vision.

As with many indigenous Catholics, her dual identity raises difficult questions. How do twenty-first century “double-belongers” reconcile their faith with Catholicism’s historical disrespect and destruction of their culture and their ancestors? What responsibility must the Catholic Church assume for the harmful behavior of clergy, religious, and laypeople acting in its name? Can a scandal-mired Church that has too often valued its institutional reputation over the safety of its most vulnerable members do better than offer formulaic words of regret? How should an institutional Church that has canonized both the Algonquin-Mohawk convert Kateri Tekakwitha and the allegedly abusive Spanish missionary Junipero Serra understand and acknowledge its long, troubled relationship with indigenous peoples?

Calls to Apologize

Such questions resonate far beyond the Church hierarchy, and voices well outside the Vatican and episcopal conferences have provided some challenging answers. For example, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s summary report in 2015 contained 94 specific action items for government, educational, social service, and Church entities. Item 58 reads:

We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.[2]

In the six years since the report, three Protestant denominations and a Catholic religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, have issued formal apologies, but Pope Francis’s recent statements of “closeness to traumatized Canadians” have, like Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 public expression of sorrow and personal anguish, fallen short. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has argued that the pope is in no position to offer a personal apology since abuses in residential schools were perpetrated by individuals and members of religious orders.

This collective reasoning has not prevented individual Canadian bishops from making their own targeted apologies, such as Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen, whose diocese operated one of the schools in which the unmarked graves were found. To be fair, the CCCB has lately cooperated with several indigenous communities to include residential school survivors and tribal representatives in a planned meeting with the pope at the Vatican this coming December. It should also be noted that Francis offered a general apology on a 2015 visit to Bolivia for “many grave sins . . . committed against the native people of America in the name of God,”[3] though Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic with his own complicated history regarding the institutional Church, has spoken to Francis “to impress upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil.”[4] There is hope that the pope’s planned Vatican audience with residential school survivors will prove an opportunity for progress in that direction.

In the meantime, as further details come to light, it behooves Catholics to consider precisely what the Church can or should apologize for and what concrete acts of restitution it might undertake. As a non-indigenous Euro-American, I am unqualified to provide definitive answers. As a Catholic physician experienced in direct medical care to indigenous families and public advocacy for Native American child health, however, I may be able to provide other non-indigenous Catholics some context for reflection.

 A Forgotten History

First and foremost, it is essential to understand that the legacy of Canadian residential and US boarding schools is but a symptom of what Yale theologian Willie James Jennings calls Christendom’s “diseased social imagination,” in which non-European peoples have been racialized by conceiving them as other, inferior, and separable from the lands they inhabit. A particularly malignant locus of this diseased imagination is a set of assumptions first codified in papal documents of the fifteenth century. In 1452, the last Byzantine Emperor appealed to Pope Nicholas V for help against Ottoman forces then encircling Constantinople. In that same year and again in 1455, Nicholas responded by issuing papal bulls granting Western Christian monarchs:

Full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be . . . and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude . . . and to convert them to his and their use and profit. (Dum Diversas, §1)

Though the Ottoman Sultan captured Constantinople in 1453, the papal decrees lived on. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a third declaration, extending similar rights to the lands “discovered” by Columbus on his failed expedition to Asia. Taken together, these documents form the basis for what became the Doctrine of Discovery, by which European powers asserted the right of colonial domination throughout the world. Despite its roots in the Catholic papacy, the Doctrine of Discovery was eagerly adopted by Protestant monarchs and Enlightenment statesmen to justify their own imperial claims.

Stripped of religious language, it proved a supple tool in the service of power and “progress.” In the 1823 landmark US Supreme Court case, Johnson v. M’Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Doctrine of Discovery granted European powers and their successor states radical title to all “discovered” lands, giving them power to revoke right of occupancy to indigenous peoples therein. So it is that Marshall, a nonreligious Deist, claimed sweeping authority over Native peoples for the secular government of an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, citing documents written by late medieval popes in response to the pleas of an Orthodox Byzantine Emperor. This is more than a bit of legal arcana. Both the M’Intosh decision and Marshall’s reasoning behind it are still considered good US law.

As recently as 2005, Supreme Court Justice and progressive icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in denying the Oneida Nation of New York sovereignty over ancestral land the tribe had repurchased. While several Protestant denominations have formally repudiated the doctrine, the Catholic Church has yet to join them. Defenders of the Vatican claim the doctrine and its establishing documents have already been superseded or implicitly nullified by subsequent papal decrees. This may be so, but as with Pope Francis’s recent clarification on the moral inadmissibility of the death penalty, an explicit statement would remove needless ambiguity.

Nor should the era of residential and boarding schools be considered a concluded chapter of Canadian and American history. More than four generations of indigenous peoples were taken from their families and systematically robbed of their cultural heritage, language, and religion. For many, what remain are isolated fragments of a shattered unity, a sense of rootlessness and alienation, internalized self-hatred, and the oppressive weight of intergenerational trauma from which substance abuse and self-harm all too often offer an illusory escape. According to the 2014 White House Report on Native Youth, more than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native children live in poverty, the American Indian/Alaskan Native high school graduation rate is 67%, the lowest of any racial/ethnic demographic group (recent Department of Education data show that the Bureau of Indian Education [BIE] schools fare even worse, with a graduation rate of 53%), and suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 24-year-old Native youth, two and a half times the national rate. The emerging science of epigenetics has demonstrated how toxic childhood stress alters the expression of individual genes, leading to dysfunctional stress-response states that are passed on to subsequent generations. Thus are the crimes of the parents’ teachers visited on the children.

Lest readers doubt that anything less than cultural annihilation was the goal, one need only consider the words of the US boarding school system’s founders. Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt, who founded Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879 Pennsylvania and served many years as the school’s first superintendent, famously said:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.[5]

US Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan was more succinct when addressing an audience at the opening of the Phoenix Indian School in 1891, saying, “It is cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them.”[6] That churches eagerly joined the US government in this effort should come as no surprise given the then widely held opinion that Christianity was an integral component of American identity. Though many American Protestants still doubted that Catholics were truly American, they welcomed the assistance of Catholic missionaries to indigenous peoples as a step towards full assimilation. Even Thomas Jefferson, who saw the future of those he called “the merciless Indian savages” as a choice between total assimilation or enforced relocation, overcame his mistrust of Catholic priests to endorse a treaty with the Kaskaskia nation entailing federal funds for ongoing Catholic missionary efforts. In joining the national effort to “kill the Indian and save the man,” Catholics sought to demonstrate their American loyalties while rescuing souls from eternal damnation.

According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, of the 73 Indian agencies allotted by the US Board of Indian Commissioners to Christian denominations at the start of the boarding school program in 1871, seven went to Catholic missionaries, with a recorded enrollment of 17,856 students. Catholic mission schools soon grew in size and number, and though many have since closed, some remain in operation today, their priorities more or less adapted to twenty-first century standards of cultural sensitivity. The St. Labre mission in Montana, for example, enrolls eight hundred students from the Crow and Cheyenne nations and offers classes in their respective native languages. The Red Cloud School on the Pine Ridge (Lakota) reservation maintains a Cultural Heritage Center featuring historical and contemporary Native American art. And though Our Lady of Fatima parish in Chinle, Arizona does not have a school, the new church building is a wooden structure constructed in the form of a traditional Diné (Navajo) hogan, in which liturgies are sometimes preceded by prayers in the four directions and excerpts from the Beauty Way chant recited by Diné parishioners.

Varieties of Official Apology

Recent cultural concessions aside, there remains the grave matter of acknowledging, apologizing, and making restitution for the Catholic Church’s role in the state’s project of planned indigenous cultural extinction. Indeed, it is difficult to take the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ concerns over threats to religious liberty seriously when it has yet to publicly reckon with this awful history of religious suppression. What models for apology might the institutional Catholic Church draw on?

There are, of course, a growing number papal apologies for crimes done in God’s name. Dating back to the reign of John Paul II, some of these draw a rather fine line between the deeds of “sons and daughters of the Church” and the Church itself. However they have been worded, these statements bear the majesty of official status though rarely come with agendas for concrete acts of restitution. Much the same can be said of apologies various Protestant denominations have offered to indigenous North Americans, though some church organizations, such as the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, have pledged to incorporate the history of Indian boarding schools in church-sponsored anti-racism education.

The governments of Canada and the US provide contrasting examples of imperfect apologies. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 2008 as a judicially mandated component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), which in turn resolved a class action suit against Canada’s federal government undertaken in the name of 86,000 survivors of residential schools. The IRSSA obliged the federal government to make individual monetary reparations to survivors. It also required the Church to raise $25,000,000 from Canadian Catholics “for healing and reconciliation for former Indian Residential School students and their families and communities.” Sadly, the subsequent seven-year-long fundraising campaign amassed only $3.7 million before a judge conceded (in a closed hearing with Church lawyers) that this was the best the Church could do. That may well have been so, yet several Canadian dioceses shortly thereafter conducted successful multi-million dollar fundraising drives for church renovations and new construction.

At the heart of the IRSSA, however, was the TRC’s mandate to create “as complete a historical record as possible of the residential school system and legacy.” Modeled on similar commissions in South Africa and Chile, the TRC gathered public and private testimonies from more than 6500 survivors from 2008 through 2014. The testimonies were often graphic and gruesome. Some considered the public airing of survivors’ stories shocking and offensive. Others found them cathartic. In any case, the experiences of historically marginalized people were heard by the TRC commissioners and, via recordings and social media, by millions of Canadian citizens.

The Commission’s 2015 summary report named the residential school system a form of “cultural genocide” and insisted that “words of apology alone are insufficient. Concrete actions on both symbolic and material fronts are required.” As already noted, the report included specific and targeted calls to action concerning child welfare, education, language, culture, health care, and justice, with concrete proposals for reconciliation between indigenous nations and governmental, religious, and private organizations.

In June of this year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation marked only thirteen of the 94 calls to action as completed. Murray Sinclair, who served as Chief Commissioner of the TRC and is of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) descent, compares the response of the Canadian government and non-indigenous people to an abusive husband who, upon having his behavior publicly exposed, mutters “sorry,” with the expectation that the matter is now closed. “Getting to the truth was hard,” Sinclair says, “Getting to reconciliation will be harder . . . It took us seven generations of oppression to get to this point. It will take seven generations of concerted effort to correct things.”[7]

Official response in the United States has so far been briefer and more covert. Congress buried a formal apology on pages 45-46 of the 67-page Defense Appropriation Act of 2010, passing it with minimal public notice by Congress in late 2009. It was then signed into law—again without fanfare—by Barack Obama in 2010. Originally sponsored as a separate bill by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) that cleared the Senate but died in the House, the measure was discreetly added to a military spending bill guaranteed to pass. Whether by accident or design, Congress ensured that no one but a legislative policy wonk would appreciate the event’s significance. When Diné author and speaker, Mark Charles, organized a public reading of the apology on Capitol Hill on the first anniversary of its passage, he sent invitations to members of Congress and the Obama administration. All were declined.

The relevant text in the act “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States,” expresses regret “for the ramifications of former wrongs,” and commits “to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together.”[8] It then goes on to clarify that nothing in the text “authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” In short, the statement apologizes for unspecified past maltreatment, makes vague promises to do better, and denies any material compensation.

Creating Common Memory

Perhaps Secretary Haaland’s investigation of US boarding schools may lead to the formation of another Truth and Reconciliation Commission, though Mark Charles recommends any such panel be called a “Truth and Conciliation Commission” since the US was never an amicable party in the first place. Whatever its name, any such panel should bring the hidden stories of boarding school survivors into the light, keeping in mind the words of the indigenous Canadian leader, George Erasmus, who warns, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”[9]

Given the current level of discourse on race in this country, the likelihood that the US will muster the moral resources to embark on that journey toward common memory seems vanishingly small. Although the federal government currently recognizes 574 tribes, indigenous people in the US form a far smaller percentage of the total population than their Canadian counterparts. Congress cannot even fund its current treaty obligations to Native Americans and Alaska Natives, much less mandate additional expenditures. Furthermore, given the outcry in certain sectors against the 1619 Project and removing statues of Confederate generals, imagine the response to formally replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day or, more problematic by far, revisiting Lakota claims to South Dakota’s Black Hills. I pray that when the Catholic Church at last renders its long overdue apology, we do better.

What might that better apology look like? As a non-indigenous lay Catholic, I must leave precise details to others, though a sufficient number of interested parties have weighed in to propose a general outline. First, an apology would be made by the pope himself on behalf of the entire Catholic Church. That apology would clearly name the abuses committed in residential schools and other Church-sponsored institutions and would ideally be made on Canadian soil while acknowledging and apologizing for similar abuses perpetrated in the United States.

Second, the pope would pledge the cooperation and support of Catholic institutions in locating and identifying the remains of students buried on residential and boarding school grounds with the aim to repatriate those remains to tribal lands if so desired by the indigenous nation concerned.

Third, the pope would exhort representatives of the Church to conduct a thorough public inquiry into the history of Church-sponsored Canadian residential and US boarding schools, soliciting testimony from survivors and consulting with organizations such as the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Like the Canadian TRC, this inquiry would produce a summary report of findings along with relevant action items in pursuit of restorative justice.

Fourth, the pope would explicitly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and the papal documents codifying it. 

I am well aware that this is a daunting and perhaps impossible agenda for an institution historically resistant to change, allergic to admitting culpability, and beset by a host of other pressing matters, both internal and external. The failure of Canadian Catholics to meet the fundraising obligations of the IRSSA serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who imagines widespread material support for concrete acts of restitution will prove readily forthcoming. Nevertheless, an institution that speaks long and often about religious liberty and moral responsibility ought to embody its moral rhetoric.

Likewise, a pope who calls on Catholics to reach out to the margins of society might well prioritize the needs of those the Church itself has marginalized and materially injured. Concerned Catholics can, in turn, voice their support for a substantive papal apology by contacting their bishop, the Papal Nuncio, and Pope Francis himself in anticipation of this December’s planned audience with indigenous elders and residential school survivors. What happens then and there will not close all the wounds inflicted on Native peoples by members acting in the name of the Catholic Church, but it could take the first shared steps on a long and difficult journey toward healing.

EDITORIAL NOTE: A reader pointed out that this essay incorrectly states that the Archdiocese of Regina, "operated one of the schools in which the unmarked graves were found." While the Muscowequan Residential school is located within the archdiocese, it was operated until 1969 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Montreal and the Missionary Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart and of Mary Immaculate. The school later came under the administrative control of local First Nations groups and was never directly operated by the archdiocese.

[1]More Graves Found At New Site, Canadian Indigenous Group Says,” National Public Radio, Jul 1, 2021.

[3] Cited by Jim Yardley and William Neuman, “In Bolivia, Pope Francis Apologizes for Church’s ‘Grave Sins’New York Times, July 9, 2015.

[4] Cited by Rob Gillies in “Trudeau says Pope Francis should apologize on Canadian soil,” Associated Press, June 25, 2021.

[5] Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” in Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900 (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard, 1973), 260.

[6] Cited by Owen Lindauer in Not for School, but for Life: Lessons from the Historical Archaeology of the Phoenix Indian School, (Phoenix, AZ: Office of Cultural Resource, 1977).

[8] US Congress, House, Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2010, HR 3326,111th Congress, 1st Session.

[9] Cited by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah in Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2019), 204.

Featured Image: Alfred Jacob Miller, Storm: Waiting for the Caravan, 1858; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Brian Volck

Brian Volck is a pediatrician who lives in Baltimore and practiced medical care in Maryland and on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. He received his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has published one volume of poetry, Flesh Becomes Word and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words.

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