Part of me sarcastically wants to say “a day late and a dollar short” but acknowledging that these schools were places of torture, abuse, and genocide, and taking public responsibility for that, tendering the apology is a good thing, potentially a healing thing. I probably shouldn’t be so sarcastic. Here’s the link.
Now, let’s see him apologize for the destruction, erasure, and genocide his Church caused to Pagans and Polytheists and their families, cultures, and communities across Europe from oh, I don’t know, the fifth through the fourteenth centuries? I’m not holding my breath. You see, we aren’t visible enough, there aren’t enough of us yet. The Church can still think it won.
I bring this up not to equate pain with pain or genocide with genocide but to point out that historically, Christian imperium did not start in the 15th century with Columbus. They practiced for a long time. (And I know there are many good and devout Christians out there who were horrified by this, and are horrified by it (1). Still, the union of Christianity and political power was not a good thing. Knowing where the abuses came from, when they started, can help ensure they don’t happen again because the Church still hasn’t cleared the beam from its own eye there, especially not where children are concerned. The foundations for what became Native “schools,” started in the Carolingian period, and the attitudes that led to the desecration of non-Christian holy places and forced conversion began far earlier than that.
There are court documents extant in the 9th century, in the Carolingian empire (specifically the German town of Mainz) that clearly show the abuses that happened after Frankish Christians finally, after numerous wars and resistance, slaughtered and/or forcibly converted the Saxons, Lombards, and others (2). After the Frankish victory, children were taken from their parents and placed in monastic schools, forced to remain, to abandon their religion, their culture, their language, abused, starved, and occasionally even forced into taking monastic vows. This stunned me when I learned about it (totally by accident in a class a couple years ago. I had known about forced conversion and slaughter, but had no idea that kids were forced into monastic schooling). In the 9th century, a particular monk, Gottschalk of Orbais, jumped the wall and fought secular and religious authorities for his freedom. During the course of the Synod in which his case was debated, the abbot of his monastery, a man named Hrabanus, acknowledged the accusations of abuse that Orbais publicly made, and said they were justified because the escapee’s family had been Saxon Heathens. Hrabanus justified every type of abuse being used on Saxon non-Christians until they become proper Frankish Christians. Think about that. Where have we heard this before?
Destruction of temples, shrines, groves, sacred images, etc. began happening as early as the third and fourth centuries. Enthusiastic Christians would even come onto private land to destroy shrines. With the rise of monasticism and severe ascetic communities (first in Egypt, and Syria and then they later spread West), this evolved into equally enthusiastic destruction of public temples. Groups like the parabalani terrorized their communities, Christian and Pagan alike, using physical violence and public abuse to force compliance to the edicts of the local Christian Patriarch (3). The impetus to force conversion by any means necessary goes back a very long time.
A friend of mine is taking a class right now in Indigenous History taught by a Cree scholar. My friend was kind enough to share the syllabus with me and we’ve been discussing it (thank you, KF!!). She told me one of the things her teacher said, when talking about the native “schools” is that there are four groups of victims (4): first there are the children themselves, stolen from their families, terrorized, and subjected to horrific abuse. Then there are their families, their parents and grandparents, who had their children seized and stolen away, only to have them return -if they were still alive to return—having been forcibly converted, having lost their language, having forgotten their culture – the schools made it a priority to sever ties to families and communities. Next, there are the children and grandchildren of the residential school survivors (who didn’t always know how to parent, and who carried deep wounding and trauma from their time in the schools, who could be abusive, alcoholic, addicted to drugs, none of which is uncommon with severe PTSD). Finally – and this is a hard thing for me to sit with, though I think it is true—there are the officers and social workers who took the children away from their parents and put them in the schools.
We still don’t know exactly how many of these schools there were – and they and the policies that promoted them existed into the 1980s. Just like the Vatican’s policy of moving sexually abusive priests from parish to parish, instead of dealing with them effectively, records for these schools and a clear accounting from authorities on what happened there are often absent. It’s only recently, as in the last decade, (and often as mass graves of children are discovered), that American and Canadian governments have even begun to make any attempts at reconciliation (5). My husband’s father survived one of the schools in Montana. He escaped, lied about his age, and joined the Marines going into the Korean war because WAR was a better alternative than the residential school in which he’d been confined or the poverty, alcoholism, and physical and spiritual abuse that is endemic on the reservation. What these men and women experienced in these schools doesn’t just go away. It shapes and colors the rest of their lives. So yes, it’s a good thing that the Pope finally apologized but, it’s not enough.
I don’t actually support the push toward reparations here in the states (unless it’s done thoughtfully like we can see here) but in this case, I think the Vatican ought to make financial restitution to Indigenous nations, each and every one of them. It’s impossible to put a dollar sign on suffering, genocide, and pain, but let the Church pay wergild in a way that will elevate Native communities (and let it fucking hurt. I’d strip the Vatican bare if I could). Words alone are not enough.
- Iirc, one of the chaplains who traveled with Columbus was so appalled by the brutality of the Spanish toward the Natives that he sent a protest to his superiors in Rome and later became an advocate for Native people in as much as a man of his time could be.
- See Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire: the Case of Gottschalk of Orbais” by Matthew Gillis and my own article, “Ravens in the Meadhall: Pre-Christian Elements in the Heliand, Walking the Worlds, Vol.6, No. 1 (2019).
- See Glenn Bowersock, “Parabalani: A Terrorist Charity in Late Antiquity” in Anabases 12 (2010), pp. 45-54. It was very likely the Parabalani who murdered Hypatia.
- Attendance of native children was compulsory. Children would be forcibly ripped from their families. I recommend the documentary (available on amazon prime) “We Were Children.” My friend recommended the book and movie “Indian Horse” for those who want to learn more.
- While I’m focusing on America and Canada here, Australia did the same thing to its aboriginal communities.
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