BY ISN STAFF | August 13, 2021
In May of 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that a ground penetrating radar specialist had found the remains of 215 Indigenous children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada.
In the aftermath of this revelation, statements from the Jesuit network have acknowledged the participation of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and the Catholic Church as a whole in the devastating legacy of such boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada.
One such significant place in which the Jesuits actively contributed to the loss of lives and Indigenous culture is Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota which serves Oglala Lakota children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. After the Kamloops Indian Residential School revelations, Red Cloud Indian School issued the following response:
“Here at Red Cloud, we are devastated by the news of the 215 unaccounted bodies of children discovered at Kamloops, the largest Indian residential school in Canada, previously run by the Catholic Church. The discovery at Kamloops is another reminder of the horrific history of Indian boarding schools here in the United States. At Red Cloud, we’ve committed to becoming more honest and transparent about our history. Early reviews of our records indicate that students who passed away were most likely returned to families because of the school’s proximity to their families homes. But we know records only tell a partial story. The ground-penetrating radar used to discover the graves at Kamloops is a tool we are seriously considering. We grieve for the loss of these children and the families that may have never known their true fate. We stand in solidarity with the anger felt by such devastation. The tragedy at Kamloops only furthers our resolve to continue the work of truth and healing.”The school has been committed to dialogue around its history as a boarding school from 1888-1980 through the Truth & Healing initiative, grappling with the legacy of the aim of such schools to “eliminate Indigenous cultures, languages, and spiritual traditions through the assimilation of Native children.” The initiative is working to bring to the school grounds similar ground penetrating radar technology to what was used at Kamloops, and facilitates archives, curriculum used at the school to educate children on the legacy of boarding schools, promoting dialogue around transparency and accountability, and supporting the work of the U.S. government, led by Secretary Deb Haaland and the U.S. Department of the Interior to examine the history of U.S. Indian boarding schools.
In the last week, the Midwest Jesuits also released a statement, particularly focused on the legacy of Red Cloud Indian School, which is located in that Jesuit province:
“The revelations in Canada regarding the history of Catholic boarding schools among our Native sisters and brothers are heartbreaking.
The Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus recognizes that we must take responsibility for our legacy of boarding schools with Indigenous peoples. We must all confront, atone, and strive for healing and transformation for the shameful actions against Indigenous people wherever and whenever they have occurred.
The province stands with the people of Red Cloud Indian School as we continue to work through the process of understanding and reconciling the school’s complicated 133-year history, both positive and negative, as well as the Jesuits’ role in that history.
At the center of this work is Red Cloud’s Truth and Healing program, which was launched in 2019. Guided by the principles of honesty, transparency, and accountability, the Truth and Healing program includes working with Indigenous experts, sharing research, making records broadly accessible, leveraging ground penetrating radar, and other methods of truth-seeking. The province is committed to Red Cloud’s Truth and Healing program.
Notwithstanding its history, Red Cloud today is a beacon of God’s light. Lakota culture—particularly language, ceremony, and visual arts—are championed to create transformational intellectual and spiritual growth opportunities for our Oglala Lakota community. Red Cloud’s community members find strength in their Indigenous identities, and they define their own paths and purpose.
We recognize, however, that all that is good about Red Cloud today does not negate or dismiss the painful past. It is our responsibility to take the proper actions to achieve understanding and the proper space necessary to achieve healing.”
The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S. also issued a broad statement, acknowledging the participation of the Society of Jesus in that history, the ongoing effects of that trauma on Indigenous communities, and a commitment to transparency.
“…[We] commit to examining our own history and our archival records related to the history of Indigenous boarding schools in the United States and to assisting others who also wish to examine this history,” reads the statement. “We welcome the recent establishment of the Indian Boarding School Initiative by the Department of the Interior in the United States, with which we will cooperate. We share in the desire to shine the light of truth on this part of our common history.”
Fr. Sean Carroll, S.J., provincial of the Jesuits West Province, also released a letter following the statement from the Jesuit Conference. “There is much to study and much to learn about this issue, and because of our Province’s long history in Native ministry, Jesuits West will play a significant role advancing this work,” he wrote. “In the coming months, we will listen closely to the voices of Native people and to Jesuits in Native ministry as we discern our way forward.”