Mennonites participate in Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings on Indigenous boarding schools
By Jenn Carreto
Mennonite Church USA/Mennonite Church Canada—Last fall, a delegation of eight Mennonites attended hearings in Vancouver, B.C., to listen to stories of the trauma inflicted upon Indigenous people through Indian Residential Schools—which were active from the late 19th century into the 20th century, to honor the survivors and to acknowledge the participation of the former General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) in this traumatic history.
Representatives from Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) joined representatives of Indigenous and settler communities from across North America for the hearings, which were held Sept. 18-21 and organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada (www.trc.ca). (The former GCMC was a U.S./Canadian denomination prior to the formation of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada as separate denominations in the early 2000s.)
“Often, people just aren’t aware of the Mennonite involvement in this history,” said Steve Heinrichs, Treaty One (Winnipeg, Man.), director of Indigenous Relations for Mennonite Church Canada. “To be present for healing and to help provide awareness, all within a safe space, was a tremendous sign of the Spirit’s movement throughout the week.”
“The church and its members must continue to listen to and learn about the specifics of our ancestors’ actions and of the history that is tied to the land we live on across North America,” he added.
A shared responsibility
The Indian Residential Schools in Canada and their U.S. counterparts—known as Indian Boarding Schools—were the institutional means through which each government attempted to erase Indigenous culture from its national landscape, said Colleen McFarland, Goshen, Ind., director of archives and records management for Mennonite Church USA and a participant in the delegation. In these schools, she said, Indigenous people were stripped of their native language, cultural identity and familial relations. Many survivors report having experienced repeated instances of severe abuse and neglect within the schools.
According to McFarland, more than 130 Indian Residential Schools were in operation in Canada, with more than 150,000 children in attendance. The government began to close the schools in the 1970s, but the last school remained in operation until 1996. Nearly all of the schools were government supported and church run. Heinrichs noted that two were run by Mennonites, although they were not directly associated with the former GCMC. Other Mennonites were involved in the system as teachers in United Church residential schools, in day schools and in boarding homes, he said.
McFarland said that varied sources estimate that in the United States, more than 100,000 children were subjected to residential schools. Three schools were administered by the former General Conference Mennonite Church—in Darlington, Okla. (1881); Cantonment, Okla. (1883); and Halstead, Kan. (1884). It’s also recorded that in the 1890s, Mennonite missionaries conducted Sunday school in the government day school on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona.
“We [Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada] have separate histories but a shared responsibility,” said Iris de León-Hartshorn, Portland, Ore., director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA and a member of the delegation. “In Canada, the residential schools were mandated by the government for three generations. In the U.S., they were implemented but not fully mandated. The implications for the church are different for each country.”
Creating space for witness and healing
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established with funds from the 2008 settlement of a class-action suit brought against the Canadian government by residential school survivors, regularly hosts forums across Canada to provide education about the residential school system, give voice to the experience of former students and their families, and acknowledge the ongoing trauma and impact of the institutions within communities.
The Mennonite delegation included Mennonite Church USA representatives de León-Hartshorn; McFarland; Carol Roth of Clinton, Miss., with Native Mennonite Ministries; and Dick Davis, conference minister of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. Heinrichs represented Mennonite Church Canada. Harley Eagle, Winnipeg, Man., coordinator of Indigenous Work for MCC Canada; Erica Littlewolf, Albuquerque, N.M., Indigenous Vision Center coordinator for MCC Central States; and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, Akron, Pa., restorative justice coordinator for MCC U.S., represented MCC. (Heinrichs noted that members of the British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches also were present and served at the Inter-Mennonite table in the Learning Area.)
Each day of the gathering opened with morning prayers and offered forums and listening spaces for survivors to engage with one another, provide statements of their experiences and share ideas about how to turn reconciliation into action for the generations to come.
“I heard numerous first-hand stories of the abuse and how it has had intergenerational effects,” said Littlewolf. “To be in the presence of such courage, healing and will to survive is to witness greatness. I have internalized a great responsibility to respect those stories, to continue learning from them, to apply my knowledge and to commit to my own healing.”
De León-Hartshorn reflected on listening to survivors on the first day of the hearings. “To hear the ‘Grannies’ speak was inspirational,” she said. “Even though they had experienced such hardship and abuse, they spoke in a way that exhibited love.”
Participants also attended discussions on the importance of memories and the role the arts can play in healing.
“We were honored to be witnesses to the stories told, the tears that fell and the righteous anger expressed,” de León-Hartshorn said. “A chance for a better future lies in the courage to tell and face the truth as people of the Creator.”
The TRC gathering also included a Church Listening Area. In this space, which was available daily, representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church and the United Churches of Canada were present to acknowledge their denomination’s role in this history and to listen to stories of survivors who were directly impacted by the church’s forebears. At the Vancouver gathering, representatives from Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Church Canada were present in this space for the first time.
“We were deeply moved by the stories and responses as deep hurt, shame and lament were shared around the talking circle between the Christian Church and survivors of residential schools,” de León-Hartshorn said.
“Healing for all of us”
“Residential schools are just one part of the legacy of colonization,” noted Heinrichs. “To address land justice, we must also look at the Doctrine of Discovery, which paved the way for exploitative systems like the residential schools.”
The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of papal bulls issued in the late 15th century that deemed lands inhabited by non-Christians to be “empty” and thus available to be claimed by Christian monarchs. The World Council of Churches—an international, ecumenical faith organization which was critical in overturning apartheid in South Africa—denounced the doctrine in February 2012, calling the nature of the doctrine “fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus.”
Ultimately, the journey of healing is both international and personal, explained Littlewolf: “If we are to heal collectively, we need to recognize that we need healing in ourselves and that the institutions and systems we are in also need healing. Healing isn’t for other people; it is for all of us. It is a choice that we have to embrace and work toward together.”
For further reading
- Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928, by David Wallace Adams (University Press of Kansas: 1995)
- Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940, by Brenda L. Child (University of Nebraska Press: 2000)
- Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice and Life Together by Steve Heinrichs (Herald Press: 2013). Mennonite Church Canada also has published a study guide and reflection curriculum to accompany this collection of reflections on creation and faith in the face of cultural exploitation and historical trauma, from writers of diverse backgrounds
A crowd gathers for the Survivors Walk into the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition) Coliseum in Vancouver, B.C., on Day One of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s British Columbia National Event. (Photo: Melissa Knapp; provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission)
Reunions and embraces on Day One of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s British Columbia National Event. (Photo: Melissa Knapp; provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission)
Former residential school students lead the way to the opening ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s British Columbia National Event. (Photo: Melissa Knapp; provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission)
Margaret Commodore of the Sto:lo nation and a former member of the Yukon legislature tells the commission of the abuses she suffered at residential school. (Photo: Melissa Knapp; provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission)
Sainty Morris, a member of the Saanich Nation, tells TRC commissioners and the public about the years of personal turmoil that followed years of residential school. (Photo: Melissa Knapp; provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission)