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Episcopal Church commits to study of Indigenous boarding schools, including SD sites

Girls at St. Mary's Episcopal Mission School, Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota.
The Burke Library Archives at Union Theological Seminary
Columbia University Libraries
Girls at St. Mary's Episcopal Mission School, Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota.

The national Episcopal Church wants to research the history of its Native American boarding schools — including some in South Dakota.

Episcopalians convened recently for their 80th General Convention, where they adopted a resolution calling for a fact-finding commission. The resolution says the commission will work toward truth-telling and reconciliation around the church's former role operating boarding schools for Native American children.

The issue leapt into the headlines last year with the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at a former boarding school in Canada.

The Rev. Dr. Bradley Hauff is the national Episcopal Church missioner for Indigenous ministries, and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He said the news from Canada led to popular calls for investigations of boarding schools in the United States, and some Native Americans quickly joined the movement.

“There were some who were really welcoming it, saying, 'It's about time, we have unfinished business here that we need to take care of. We have issues that have not been addressed,'" Hauff said.

But for others, boarding-school memories remain too painful to revisit.

“It was a difficult thing to hear for some of us," Hauff said, "because what it means is, for some of us, opening up those old wounds that we thought had healed.”

It's an especially complicated issue for Native Americans who are Episcopalians, said the Rev. Isaiah “Shaneequa” Brokenleg, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the national Episcopal Church's staff officer for racial reconciliation.

"It's a difficult walk because we're Episcopalians, we're part of the institution that had boarding schools and operated schools," Brokenleg said. "And at the same time, we're also Indigenous and so we're part of the victims, and how do you walk in that realm?"

Churches and the federal government operated hundreds of boarding schools during the 19th and 20th centuries. Hauff said the Episcopal Church operated at least six boarding schools for Native American children in South Dakota, and other schools elsewhere.

Some Native Americans recall positive experiences from their boarding school years, Hauff said, but others suffered abuse and were forcefully cut off from their family, language and culture.

Warren Hawk is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church. He hopes the new fact-finding commission will help heal historical trauma.

“Sometimes I wonder, when are we going to overcome that, and when are we going to move forward?" Hawk said. "So I think this is going to be something that will help with that, just knowing and understanding the truth and acknowledging that and working through that.”

The budget plan adopted at the convention includes $225,000 to fund the fact-finding commission.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Interior Department is investigating its own past boarding-school policies. An initial report identified 408 federally supported schools that were spread across the country, including 30 in South Dakota, which is the fourth-most in the country.

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.
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