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Initial Report on U.S. Residential Schools Released

June 1, 2022
Photo: Rehoboth Christian School

In 2021, several Catholic and Protestant groups, including the Christian Reformed Church in North America, asked the United States government to look into the country’s history of Indigenous residential schools. An initial report from that investigation was released on May 11 (see Banner news story and the full report).

“The results of this report are not surprising, but they are shocking,” said Carol Bremer-Bennett, director of World Renew-U.S. and a former administrator at Rehoboth Christian School in Rehoboth, N.Mex. “The initial results of this report start a journey where the experiences of Indigenous people are being heard and documented. We are not surprised by these stories, as they have been known in our communities for generations. The voices of these children and families have long been denied by those in power, and it is time to listen, lament, and take action.”

From 1819 through the 1960s, the U.S. implemented policies in 37 states and territories that called for the removal of native children from their families in order to assimilate them to nonnative cultures. The Christian Reformed Church in North America is one of the groups mentioned in the report. It opened Rehoboth Mission School in 1903 for Zuni and Navajo children.

In 2016, the CRCNA explored its history with residential schools when it discussed the report from the Doctrine of Discovery Task Force. That synod repudiated the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and lamented things that had happened within their own school. It also acknowledged good things that came out of Rehoboth and continue to come out of it today as it is run by a local school board made up largely of Native American parents.

“The impact of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny permeated every aspect of society, unfortunately including the best intentions of those who wanted to share the gift of Jesus Christ throughout the world, including in the four corners region,” said Bob Ippel, executive director of Rehoboth Christian School today. “This is part of Rehoboth's legacy, and for this we continue to lament. When people visit Rehoboth, we do not hide this reality.”

The first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative report identifies the locations of more than 400 U.S. residential schools, including Rehoboth. It also records the details of more than 500 children who died at these schools. The department expects that those numbers will increase as the investigation continues.

“I am elated that the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) released its historic Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, which serves as a formal investigation into federal Indian boarding school policy,” said Richard Silversmith, a Navajo member of the CRC. “My wife, Susie, is a boarding school survivor. She and I started our journey to talk about historical trauma since 2000 within our community.”

Susie spent nine years in a boarding school and tells her story about overcoming this trauma in a 17-minute video called “The Cutting of the Tsiiyéél, Triumph over Trauma.” Richard says that he thinks this new Federal investigation will be helpful in getting stories like Susie’s told.

“My hope is that nonnative CRC members will pay attention to the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative,” he said. “Hope may be found in justice and reconciliation, when each person uses their strengths to support healing and reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous people in the United States. The goal is to establish relationships, producing a circle full of nurturing and encouragement, a safe space that provides a hospitable atmosphere of grace, healing, and forgiveness.”

With these things in mind, Rehoboth’s school board, made up of mainly Native American parents, is revisiting the confession it posted on its website in 2003.

“We are considering updating it with several documents, including one that expresses lament and sorrow for what was done in a spirit that was contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” explained Ippel. “Another document also will be created to describe our current and future posture as we move forward—one of listening, one of humility.”

Ippel added that while Rehoboth was not visited as part of this recent federal investigation, the Rehoboth board and administrations did prepare for it by doing some self-examination. They reviewed minutes, school records, hospital records, and cemetery records to find out about any students who may have passed away while at Rehoboth. You can read a bit about their discovery in their recent newsletter (see “Not the First Pandemic” on p. 9).

Viviana Cornejo, an advocate with the CRCNA’s office of Race Relations, said that she hopes the federal report and future ones on this topic will help keep the history of U.S. Indigenous peoples in the forefront of the minds of Christian Reformed people.

“After the Christian Doctrine of Discovery report was presented at Synod 2016, we began offering congregations a resource called the Blanket Exercise,” said Cornejo. “Those who went through it were significantly affected by the experience. With the exception of a few, the vast majority were completely unaware of the history of the United States, and even more so of the laws and acts formulated against Native Americans for the purpose of eliminating and/or assimilating them into the American culture. My hope is that this new report will also open people’s eyes to this part of our history.”

She and the Office of Race Relations are in the process of developing a workshop on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery.

Richard Silversmith added that he hopes CRC members will “consult prayerfully with Indigenous peoples and church leaders and take into consideration the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative recommendations for suggestions on next steps.”

He recommends that people also familiarize themselves with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada and the work of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS).

He also suggests that people read Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada, by Paulette Regan.