Thanks to a piece of investigative reporting by Mary Annette Palmer, the economic abuse that shunted payments away from Native Americans to line the pockets of the already-wealthy Catholic Church has come to light.
The article exists as the product of a collaboration between left-leaning newsmagazine In These Times and Type Investigations, which offered Palmer an Ida B. Wells Fellowship to investigate the ongoing impact of Native American boarding schools in the United States.
What she found was that, alongside the cultural and psychological effects of America’s residential school system, Native Americans faced a profound economic impact that set them up for generations of poverty:
Abuse was reported at both government-run and religious institutions… The economic violations committed at these schools, however, have not been widely reported. [This investigation] has found that, for the greater part of the 20th century, the federal government routed funds — designated as direct payments for Native people — to Catholic mission schools, draining families of millions of dollars by today’s measures.
The American government promised education for Native Americans under its network of treaties, but that promise quickly turned coercive. Native children were required to attend school; learning at home was not an option, and in some cases basic goods and services could be withheld from a family if their children were truant. But federal schools were not generally accessible to children living on reservations.
Barred from free schooling, but still obligated to get formal education for their children, Native parents found that mission schools were the only option at their disposal.
Palmer reports that some parents also hoped that their children would have better, more accepting experiences at schools purporting to follow the teachings of Christ:
Federal schools were also known to be particularly cruel to Native students, often forbidding contact between students and families. This led some parents to opt for religious boarding schools in the hope that their children would be treated marginally better.
But mission schools required tuition, so the problem became money. Kathryn Beaulieu, one of the primary sources for Palmer’s article, describes a time when Native Americans still maintained their ancestors’ way of life, hunting and fishing for subsistence rather than acquiring capital. They simply hadn’t accumulated reserves of spare cash to finance boarding school attendance.
So government and church officials arranged to take tuition costs out of treaty funds. It was the Church’s idea, says Palmer, and it proved controversial:
In 1900, Catholic leadership introduced the idea of allowing Native Americans to authorize the federal government to divert individual Native treaty and trust funds to pay for tuition at Catholic schools. Shortly after, a group of three Sioux Indians from South Dakota sued the federal government, arguing the agreements amounted to theft. Schooling should have already been provided for free, the plaintiffs argued, through previous treaties…
Ultimately, the court ruled that mission school leaders could ask Native Americans to use individual treaty and trust funds to pay tuition at their religious schools. Chief Justice Melville Fuller wrote that forbidding Natives to use their money as they wanted would deny them free exercise of their rights.
The right to free schooling as outlined in the terms of the treaty was neatly sidestepped, and the schools began cashing in. In the nine years Palmer studied, mission schools stripped an amount equivalent to $30.4 million in today’s funds straight out of Native treaty funds and trusts.
That number doesn’t include the value of land the federal government gave mission schools, free of charge, to build their institutions — often land that had originally belonged to the Native bands who were now being coerced into sending their children there.
Some of the schools Palmer investigated — and the stories of abuse that came out of them — were less than a century old. In fact, the racket continued until the 1970s. It stopped, not because the Church realized that the practice was wrong, but because the funds had been drained dry.
Palmer’s story dives deep into even more of the harrowing details, including some of the schools’ abusive practices, the political connections that maintained the links between church and state, and the sorts of reparations needed to even begin mending the damage done:
[Beaulieu] recalls how her uncle, Roger Jourdain, former Red Lake tribal chairman, often spoke of the United States creating a Marshall Plan to help rebuild Indian Country, similar to how the European recovery program helped rebuild the continent after World War II. The Catholic Church and other entities that operated Native boarding schools, Beaulieu suggests, could participate in rebuilding the Red Lake community by rehabbing the three-story St. Mary’s building that housed the girls dorm, where her mother slept so many years ago, into a youth shelter.
The entire article is well worth a read. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the Vatican to jump on that youth shelter idea.
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