Some bishops emphasized the need to consider the majority of Native Americans who live in urban centers, not reservations.
“There’s great poverty in urban centers. I certainly experienced that here in the Twin Cities,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Wall said the subcommittee was taking the urban presence of Native Americans into account. The subcommittee is also looking at the needs of immigrant indigenous people with roots in Central and South America.
Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne said there was a need for “greater understanding” of the history between Native and non-native peoples to help improve relations. Bishop Douglas Lucia of Syracuse asked whether the subcommittee might address the Doctrine of Discovery, the 500-year-old principle by which Christian explorers, European monarchs, and their colonies asserted the right to claim the lands of non-Christian natives.
Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark of Los Angeles cited his two decades of involvement with the local Native American community, whose presence in Los Angeles is among the largest in the country. Clark said he has heard “deep suffering and pain over and over” from some Native Americans and noted the “suspicion” that many have towards the Church. California’s bishops have made “an outreach and a promise” to Native communities both on and off the reservation.
Wall said that the subcommittee’s listening sessions showed the need for the bishops to address the boarding school period of American history, which involved tens of thousands of indigenous children and their families
Boarding schools were run by the U.S. government, the Catholic Church, or Protestant ecclesial communities and bound up in the ideologies and assumptions of late 19th-century America. Children were sometimes forcibly removed from their homes to go to the schools. The schools generally assumed white racial superiority, the inferiority of indigenous cultures, and the need to assimilate and Americanize children in isolation from their families. They were physically punished for speaking their native languages. Native dress and cultural practices were also targeted for elimination.
Some schools had significant problems of neglect or physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. A lack of trained staff and adequate resources to care for the children compounded the dangers of common threats at the time like outbreaks of deadly diseases.
Wall’s comments came only weeks after the rediscovery of unmarked and likely undocumented mass graves of 215 children on the grounds of the closed Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The school, which closed in 1978, had hundreds of students each year. It opened in 1890 under lay Catholics, then operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1893 to 1969, followed by a short period of government operation.
The Canadian residential schools, whose mission was similar to American boarding schools, came under major scrutiny in recent decades and have prompted apologies from many Canadian government and Catholic leaders. Prior to the discovery at Kamloops, a commission had estimated 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of neglect or abuse in the Canadian schools. Though established by the Canadian government, two-thirds of them were run by the Catholic Church or individual Catholic religious orders.
Bishop Wall told CNA the Kamloops revelations were “really sad and tragic news.” Wall said the bishops “need to be able to address that in a pastoral way so that we can bring things into the light and we can talk about it. We can bring healing, we can bring reconciliation, we can move forward in a healthy way.”
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In response to Wall’s presentation, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix said the current work of Catholic schools deserves to be acknowledged.
“We not only need to look at the residential schools in the past, but also the Catholic schools we have now that are serving the Native American people. We are blessed in the Diocese of Phoenix to have the St. Peter’s Indian Mission School, which does a really great job.”
“We should not forget that COVID had a really terrible impact on Native American peoples certainly here in Arizona. The health and the well-being of our native brothers and sisters is really important,” he said, adding that the bishops should seek to foster religious vocations among young Native Americans who are “a great source of leadership.”
Wall told the bishops’ assembly there is a need to address “a true sense of inculturation” for the Church in Native American communities, including through the Christian liturgy.
“Within the Native American communities, how is it that we are allowing the light of the Gospel to truly shine, like light through a prism?” he said to CNA. “How much are we letting that light shine through the beautiful culture of Native American peoples?”
Centuries ago, at the same time the Protestant Reformation drew millions of Europeans away from the Catholic Church, Wall noted, “Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to an indigenous person, St. Juan Diego.”