A revised and updated version of this letter has now been published with The Nation.
Each day is a gift from the Creator and every day we start by giving thanks to the Creator, to our Earth, and to all of creation. The thanksgiving address reminds us to live in gratitude with the Creator, the earth, the plants, the animals, and all people. Today I would like to give a gratitude to the children of Turtle Island/Aba Yala who were sent to “Indian residential schools.” I remember those who died in those schools. Thank you for having courage in the face of terror. I remember those who died running away from these institutes of death and destruction. Thank you for running. I remember those who survived these “schools” and came home. Thank you for coming home.
NYA•WEÑHA SKÄ•NOÑH: Thank you for being well
I am a survivor. We are all survivors. The Indigenous peoples of the Original free nations of Turtle Island/Aba Yala are all survivors. Every single Indigenous person on Turtle Island has been harmed by residential schools and mission schools. These are the schools that kidnapped us as children (the last one in N. America closed in 1996), they kidnapped our siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Generations of children stolen from their homes, communities, clans, and nations.
Richard Henry Pratt, a veteran and officer of the “Indian Wars” who was inspired by Gen. George Armstrong Custer developed the U.S. Indian residential school system. In his speech at the establishment of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School begins:
A great general [Custer] has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
Unsatisfied with having stolen our lands, unable to admit defeat during the “Indian wars,” and unwilling to honor our treaties, the United States and Canada looked to the Roman Catholic mission schools for inspiration and created the Indian residential schools/boarding schools. These schools were a fusion of the Roman Catholic mission school system, Custer’s hatred, and Pratt’s shift of the war against Indigenous nations and peoples from being declared war fought by armies to another war fought by the church and state. The Indian residential schools serve as one more bitter reminder of the myth of the separation of church and state. In these schools our names were changed, heads shaved, and our clothes and any other items were taken from us. Here in these residential schools our families endured enormous physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and sexual abuse at the hands of the church and state. Boarding schools are sometimes referred to as culturecide/deculturation as if there is any appreciable difference between culturecide/deculturation and genocide. Make no mistake about it the boarding schools and the mission school system were Genocide. Genocide.
The Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation process identified approximately 4,100 Indigenous children dead at the residential schools. That number continues to grow. Thus far 2,100 more children have been found at Indian residential schools throughout Canada. Were parents and Indigenous nations even notified of the children’s passing? Our children were cast aside, discarded and disregarded in mass graves. The few who were not discarded and were given burials, might have a headstone, a cross, and maybe their colonized name listed on the cross or tombstone. Obelisks of colonial celebration. Make no-mistake , the cruelty, violence, and brutality were the point of these “educational institutions.” The trauma and harm experienced within these residential schools continues to reverberate within our communities as people grow up without their Indigenous language, cultures, or ways of knowing. The echoes are heard every time a woman or girl goes missing or is murdered. We feel the impact of the boarding schools in the lateral violence of sexual assault and domestic abuses experienced by far too many Indigenous children. We feel the impact of boarding schools in the hurt and grief, the loss of what could have been. The missing and murdered generations. Sometimes it is all just so overwhelming that some Indigenous peoples have turned to substance abuse because not feeling is better than this feeling. In spite of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, residential schools, intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, stolen and poisoned lands, we are still here. We are still here practicing our pre-colonial governments, celebrating our cultures, embracing our languages, and raising our children teaching them the traditions of their ancestors.
We cannot and will not stop respecting our Mother Earth and honoring our ancestors. One of the most importants teachings of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is the seventh-generation principle. Everything we do is to make the world a better place for the seven generations to come.
The “civilization” and colonialism brought over from Europe is a brutal genocide marked by entitlement and the excessive certainty that church and crown were on the side of the colonizers. Unsatisfied with killing Christians, Muslims, and Indigenous peoples of Europe, Palestine, and the Middle East (middle of what, east of where?) the church and crown, of the fifteenth century, turned their attention across the Mediterranean to Africa and westward to Turtle Island/Aba Yala. Through a series of Papal Bulls––Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex, and Inter Caetera––the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination is established (Steven T. Newcomb, Pagans in the Promised Land). We survive the Doctrine of Christian Discovery every single day. The Doctrine of Christian Discovery created a theological and legal artifice which allowed Christian colonizers to rationalize the violent enslavement, exploitation, and extractions they enacted in the name of church and crown. This Doctrine of Christian Discovery is continuing to be enacted against our peoples through court cases, land theft, ecocide, man camps, and in many other ways.
Canada uplifts the “Truth and Reconciliation” process but there can be no reconciliation when there is no conciliation. To what are we being reconciled? You can’t reconcile over 500 years of genocide especially while it is still continuing. Canada continues to build man camps, trans-continental pipelines, refuses to return to land, and lacks a comprehensive response to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW). The United States had double the boarding schools of Canada and has yet to begin to do anything about residential schools. Like Canada, the United States proves to be a reluctant to address centuries of treaty violations, genocide, land theft, ecocide and more. Where is Hanadagá•yas President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.? Mexico too has its own legacy of mission schools/residential schools and kidnapping and disappearing Indigenous peoples. Australia, New Zealand, and every single settler colonial state enacts violence and genocide against Indigenous nations and peoples. In Aotearoa (New Zealand), Māori activists and Members of Parliament face death threats and harassment from white supremacists. Throughout Mother Earth stories reverberate of Indigenous nations and peoples resistance and refusal in the face of the settler colonial state.
Where is the apology and recompense for the residential schools from Christian churches? Retired Pope Benedict XVI expressed “personal anguish” and Pope Francis said:
I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatised by shocking discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. (via twitter)
These difficult times are a strong call for everyone to turn away from the colonial model and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada. (via twitter)
I agree that now is the time for turning away from the colonial model but that can only be accomplished by the church acknowledging its complicity in the colonial model. Oñgwehoñwe’ peoples are neither Canadian people nor are we the sons and daughters of Canada. We are the real people of this land and we were here before the Europeans and the Christians came and we will be here long after they leave. Protestant churches are not absolved of their guilt in the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and in the residential schools’ issues either. Protestant churches established missions, residential schools, and churches on our lands just like the Roman Catholics. Protestants supported and benefited from the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Just because Christians are not of one mind about how to worship their God that does not absolve them of a responsibility for their own actions and the actions of their own brothers and sisters. After all, Genesis 4 reminds them to be their brothers’ keeper. In the 1800’s Red Jacket (Seneca Nation, Wolf Clan) told the nascent United States:
Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit; if there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree, as you can all read the book?
The Doctrine of Christian Discovery undergirds and fortifies the settler colonial states and churches. Church and state prove reluctant when it comes to apologizing and making recompense, still we will continue to hold them to account. We the Original free nations of Mother Earth have our own stories to tell of fighting and surviving the settler colonial states and the churches.
To close personally speaking I see the effects of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery all around me. Onondaga Lake, our most sacred site, is a poisoned and polluted lake. Those responsible for stealing and poisoning the lake refuse to return even just a small part of the land to us for our ceremonies and so that we can care for our lake. Those responsible for polluting the lake instead of removing the pollutants they cap them underwater. Clean up and healing thwarted. “Indian boarding schools” are like the toxins in our lake. I feel like our relatives the fish living in Onondaga lake. The water around me is poisoned. Those responsible abdicate their responsibility. Each day brings new revelations about just how toxic and lasting the damage that has been done goes. The toxicity of the boarding schools and of the lake have always been known to Oñgwehoñwe’. The initial relief I feel to hear the trauma acknowledge quickly fades when the settler colonial state and church and multinational corporations once more refuse to make things right. Like the creek beds running through Onondaga nation I feel dried up and damned tired. Once more the healing and the transformation is up to us. It is always up to us.
In Haudenosaunee culture we understand the value of ceremony and doing things according to the protocols given to us by our ancestors and honoring our mother. One of our ceremonies is the edge of the woods ceremony. Guests are met at the edge of the woods. We would meet visitors at the edge of the woods, use deer skin to wipe away the dust of travel, so that they may see the generations to come clearly. We would take an eagle feather and wipe the dust from their ears so they may hear the elders clearly. We would give them fresh clean water from Onondaga lake so you may speak clearly. We would start at the head and work to the toe brushing away all of the trials and travails of travel. After this we would welcome the visitors. Those who wish to do the work of healing and holding settler colonial nations to account, meet me at the edge of the woods.
Gaeñ hia uh
Gaeñ hia uh (Betty Lyons)
(Onondaga Nation, Snipe Clan)
American Indian Law Alliance
photo by Mike Greenlar