How Are We Going to Wash the Stain from Our Hands?

Reflect with us on the mass graves of Native American children found in Canada.
(Photo credit: Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press via AP)

Chris La Tray is a member of the Little Shell tribe of Chippewa Indians, he’s a poet, and he’s sick and angry at the continued news of the ways the Church has abused children at Native American boarding schools on this continent. 

“I’d surmise there isn’t an Indigenous person in North America whose family isn’t impacted by the boarding school system in both Canada and the United States,” he wrote in a recent newsletter. “How are we going to wash the stain from our hands?”

The stain he’s referring to is news from this summer that documents the discovery of nearly 1,000 unmarked graves on the grounds of two boarding schools in Canada administered by the Catholic Church. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission names the boarding school system “cultural genocide” as First Nation students were removed from their homes and forced to attend the institutions, which banned indigenous language and customs. 

The commission also names the boarding school system “institutionalized child neglect.” More than 150,000 students passed through these Canadian schools in the more than 100 years this system was in place. The commission estimates 4,100 of them died from neglect, disease, mistreatment, or accident. Many of them died without recognition or documentation; families never learned what happened to their children. They just went missing. 

According to the commission, daily life for a child at a Catholic-run First Nation boarding school was an assault in every way:

For children, life in these schools was lonely and alien. Buildings were poorly located, poorly built, and poorly maintained. The staff was limited in numbers, often poorly trained, and not adequately supervised. Many schools were poorly heated and poorly ventilated, and the diet was meagre and of poor quality. Discipline was harsh, and daily life was highly regimented. Aboriginal languages and cultures were demeaned and suppressed. The educational goals of the schools were limited and confused, and usually reflected a low regard for the intellectual capabilities of Aboriginal people. For the students, education and technical training too often gave way to the drudgery of doing the chores necessary to make the schools self-sustaining. Child neglect was institutionalized, and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers.

So Chris is right to be angry. We all should have been angry long ago. The fact that this happened at all is terrible — that it happened not just under the watch of the Church, but by the hands of her leaders is an outrage. And the trauma that this abuse spawned continues to reverberate through generations. 

We need to find and tell the truth about what happened. So far, the reports have come from Canada, but as Chris said, “To think one government is any different from the other is wrong. There are mass graves in America, too, they just haven’t been found. Yet. But it’s time to start digging.” He continues:

This is not ancient history. The graves are fresh. Some of these bodies are people who might otherwise still be alive. These are members of our families. Members who were taken and then just … disappeared. This isn’t hyperbole. This is how colonialism gets its bloody work done. The work is genocide and it is still happening overtly and covertly. You are culpable in it, too. It’s just a matter of degree.

Where does this leave us? Is there a way forward? How can we reckon with so much suffering? The people whom leaders in the Church abused need healing; their families and ancestors need healing; and the Church herself needs healing. How can we wash the stain from our hands?

The reality is that we can’t. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way through this suffering by facing the truth

The only thing worse than the hypocrisy of this abuse would be to ignore it or try to move past it because it threatens us in some way. It has already threatened a whole people, so we need the courage to examine the pain and probe the places where we are all broken and wounded. 

A good place to start is the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which captures the history of First Nation peoples in Canada and calls for 94 action steps to move toward healing. The Catholic news outlet, the Pillar, spoke with First Nation representatives to hear what reconciliation looks like from their perspective, which is a good direction to move in — to seek out voices from this community and see the world from their perspective. Subscribe to Indian Country Today or Native Sun News Today for news from the Native American community. And follow Chris La Tray’s newsletter, An Irritable Métis, for honest and insightful writing from his home in Montana.

We repeatedly fail, as individuals and as a community. We are sinful. That doesn’t excuse anything — it’s just to say that we dig ourselves into holes we can’t get out of. We need help. We need God. And we need each other — now is time for repentance, for listening and learning.

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