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Episcopalians Approve Fact-finding Commission on Indigenous Boarding Schools

Episcopalians Approve Fact-finding Commission on Indigenous Boarding Schools
Participants attend the Episcopal Church General Convention on July 9, 2022, in Baltimore
photo by Randall Gornowich).

The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Emily McFarlan Miller was published on July 12, 2022. It has been edited for length and a paragraph with context for the Christian Reformed Church has been added.

The Episcopal Church will create a fact-finding commission to research the denomination’s role in the United States’ federal American Indian boarding school system that separated generations of Indigenous children from their families and cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bishops and deputies at the mainline denomination’s scaled-back General Convention approved the Resolution for Telling the Truth about The Episcopal Church’s History with Indigenous Boarding Schools during the July 8-11 meeting in Baltimore.

The resolution encourages the Episcopal Church to hire one or more research fellows to work with dioceses where Episcopal-run boarding schools for Indigenous children were located and share records with the Indigenous Ministries of the Episcopal Church and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

It also directs the denomination’s archivists to create educational resources about the schools and encourages dioceses where boarding schools were located to gather information from survivors and their descendants about their experiences.

In addition, the House of Deputies—which, with the House of Bishops, oversees the church—elected an Indigenous clergywoman, the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, as its vice president. A member of the Shackan First Nation and a priest in the Diocese of Olympia, Taber-Hamilton is the first ordained woman—and only the third woman—to serve in that role, according to Episcopal News Service.

Those actions come as U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland kicks off “The Road to Healing,” a national listening tour in which the secretary will hear from survivors of boarding schools in the United States. Haaland’s department recently released the first volume of an investigative report into the country’s American Indian boarding school system.

“The results of this report are not surprising, but they are shocking,” Christian Reformed Church director of World Renew-U.S., Carol Bremer-Bennett, told CRC News in a June 1 article.“The initial results of this report start a journey where the experiences of Indigenous people are being heard and documented. We are not surprised by these stories, as they have been known in our communities for generations … and it is time to listen, lament, and take action.”

Bishop Carol J. Gallagher told the House of Bishops before its vote on the resolution: “This is a moment for us to really examine how we as a church might look at the ramifications of our unintentional sometimes and sometimes intentional acts of culturalism, racism, and every other sin we could talk about.” 

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention, normally held every three years, was already delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the meeting that ended July 11 was shortened  from eight days to four to minimize risks of spreading the virus. 

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry urged committees working ahead of the in-person gathering to focus on resolutions on “matters essential for the governance and good order of the church,” according to Episcopal News Service. The resolution on Indigenous schools rose to that level.

The federal Indian boarding school system was part of an effort by the U.S. government to assimilate Indigenous peoples and seize their land, according to the Interior report. Many children endured physical and emotional abuse in the schools, and some died.

Members of both the House of Bishops and House of Deputies spoke unanimously in favor of the resolution. Some shared their experiences officiating at funerals for children whose remains had been repatriated from the former Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Others spoke of pushing the city of Albuquerque to acknowledge that children had been buried beneath a public park constructed on the former site of a Presbyterian-run boarding school.

Still others shared their experiences as boarding school survivors themselves, or descendants of survivors.

Deputy Ruth Johnson of the Navajoland Area Mission attended two boarding schools—an experience, she told the House of Deputies, that is still hard for her to talk about.

At the first school, Johnson said, she was traumatized when she became ill and her long hair was cut. At the second, she was beaten. “I could have easily been one of those that didn’t make it home,” she said.

Gallagher, a member of the Cherokee Nation who serves the dioceses of Massachusetts and Albany, said her grandfather was a boarding school survivor. Her family still talks about a visit her parents made to a boarding school when she was a baby where children who hadn’t seen their mothers in years climbed into her mother’s lap, she said. 

Some of those children never saw their families again, she said.

“For Indigenous people, listening is always the first step and really hearing the stories and living into the stories and working towards a consensus of what will come next,” Gallagher told Religion News Service.

“Oftentimes, churches want to do some quick fix, and that is not going to get us anywhere.”

That’s why the resolution approved at the General Convention is important, she said.

The Resolution for Telling the Truth about The Episcopal Church’s History with Indigenous Boarding Schools again expresses the denomination’s support for federal legislation creating a Truth and Healing Commission to reckon with the country’s history of boarding schools similar to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (The Episcopal Church had been among Christian groups formally supporting that commission last fall.)

It also incorporates language from a second resolution acknowledging the intergenerational trauma caused by the schools and directing the denomination to support community-based spiritual healing centers in Indigenous communities.

The Episcopal Church has budgeted $225,000 for that work.

“This is important work, and it’s for all of us,” Bishop Mark Lattime of the Diocese of Alaska said.

“You might think your diocese doesn’t have a history of boarding schools with Indigenous people, and—while that might be true—there isn’t a diocese in this church that doesn’t have a history with Indigenous people.”

Related from CRC News: Senior Leader for Indigenous Justice Hired (April 27, 2022)


© 2022 Religion News Service

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