The New York Times reports that hundreds of unmarked graves were found at a former Catholic residential school in Saskatchewan, Canada in what is now the largest burial site to date. This comes just weeks after the mass grave of 215 Indigenous children was discovered at Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia.
According to CVT News, the Cowessess First Nation of Saskatchewan held a vigil on June 26, lighting 751 candles to honor each unknown person buried at the Marieval Indian Residential School. CVT News reports that Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme clarified that the site was not a mass grave, but that it held hundreds of individual unmarked graves due to the removal of their gravestones by “representatives of the Catholic Church,” who ran the school.
The Roman Catholic Church oversaw about three-fifths of the government-funded residential schools in Canada, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia. The Anglican Church oversaw 25 percent and the United and Presbyterian Churches operated the remaining schools. Over 150,000 Indigenous children passed through Canada’s residential school system.
Survivors of these schools have reported suffering from unspeakable trauma. Emotional, mental, physical, and sexual abuse ran rampant, on top of what the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission refers to as “cultural genocide.” Indigenous children were forced to assimilate into Euro-Canadian cultural and religious practices in order to “kill the Indian in the child.”
The New York Times reports that Chief Delorme has called on Pope Francis to formally apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in perpetuating residential schools. Pope Francis “stopped short of a direct apology” in a statement he made earlier this month after the mass grave was discovered at Kamloops, according to Reuters.
“I have spoken personally directly with His Holiness Pope Francis to press upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to Indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters this week. “I know that the Catholic Church leadership is looking and very actively engaged in what next steps can be taken.”
The United States shares this devastating history as well—while a total of about 130 residential schools operated in Canada, 367 functioned in the U.S. Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Catholic, and Baptist churches, among others, were heavily involved in Indigenous boarding schools, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
The last Canadian residential school was shut down in 1996, while a few remaining schools in the U.S. have been turned over to the Bureau of Indian Education, according to Wyoming Public Media. The assimilation practices at these schools ended in the 1970s.
In an op-ed for Religion News Service, Potawatomi author and speaker Kaitlin Curtice writes that when abuse against Indigenous peoples is brought up, she notices the conversation focuses on the government’s role in colonization and ignores the role the church has played.
“The American church needs to reckon with its history of complicity in the treatment of Indigenous peoples—and the ongoing colonization Indigenous peoples continue to face today through missionary quests, ideas of personal salvation and forced assimilation,” Curtice writes.
In the wake of the mass grave discovery, United States Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate the country’s own history of boarding schools. The probe will be overseen by the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs and place “an emphasis on cemeteries or potential burial sites.” The investigation will confront the traumatic legacy these schools have left on Indigenous peoples in the U.S.
“We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools,” Haaland told reporters.
“I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace,” she stated in her memo.