Papal apologies from Indigenous hopefuls in Canada will advance justice and healing in the United States

TORONTO — A papal apology on Indigenous lands in Canada is not without significance south of the border.

During Pope Francis’ visit to Canada July 24-29, Oneida First Nation activist Daisee Francour and her colleagues from the U.S.-based international indigenous non-governmental organization Cultural Survival will be watching closely.


“An apology for one nation, in a way, it’s a victory for all our nations,” Francour said. “When I say nation, I mean that as an indigenous community – not necessarily the nation state or the colonial state.

“There is a huge opportunity, because the Catholic Church is such an influential institution globally. There is a huge opportunity to leverage, influence, and push nation states like the US government to join in this collective process for justice, truth, and healing.

Francour and his colleagues, U.S. Indigenous media, and U.S. religious orders and dioceses have been closely monitoring what has happened in Canada since more than 200 possible burial sites were identified at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. in May 2021. From the 19th century until the very recent past, the US government funded and promoted over 350 Indian boarding schools in 29 states.

Today, the Minneapolis-based Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is pushing state and federal governments, as well as churches and religious orders that often run schools on behalf of the government, to confront a history of genocide. cultural.

“As a country, we haven’t experienced that apology yet,” Francour said. “I guess my hope is that with this apology to First Nations people in Canada…hopefully it will radiate both in the United States and around the world.”

Local apologies were held in the United States. In 1994, Jesuit Father Jim Strzok, on behalf of St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, attempted to redirect Jesuit missionary work there by apologizing for a story that was then barely spoken. on.

“Often without trying to understand the unique goodness of Native American culture, residential school staff suppressed language and customs. Without properly appreciating the innate goodness of Native American spirituality, certain practices were superseded. The priests, brothers and sisters of the St. Francis mission were part of it. We did wrong,” Strzok wrote in an apology to local media.

In 1993, in Idaho, Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, then Jesuit superior general, issued a broader apology, and in 2018 the Jesuits in South Dakota backed up their apology by returning more than 500 acres of land to the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

Last year in St. Joseph, Minnesota, the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict issued an apology to White Earth First Nation for the trauma and cultural erasure suffered by the children who attended the residential school that the sisters operated from 1892 to 1945, followed by day school which continued until 1969. The sisters opened their archives and fully participate in an oral history of the school.

Local and specific apologies are important, but they matter more when placed in the context of Pope Francis speaking on behalf of the universal Church, said Margaret Jacobs, a history professor and author at the University of Nebraska.

“An apology from the Pope, something of this magnitude, will actually start a process in the United States where people who have never thought about it at all will say, ‘Oh my God, what is the Pope talking about?'” Jacobs told the Catholic Register, a Toronto-based newspaper. “I hope this could have the effect of triggering a lot of public discussion.”

Jacobs’ 2021 book documenting more than a century of massacres, forced marches, displacements, stolen land, boarding schools and adoption policies that attempted to relegate Native Americans to history is titled ” After 100 Winters: In Search of Reconciliation on America’s Stolen Lands”. Despite the harsh realities she meticulously documents in nearly 300 pages, Jacobs concludes that reconciliation is possible and that non-Native Americans should welcome it.

“Indigenous conceptions of reconciliation are not punitive,” she writes. “They seek neither revenge nor retribution. They do not threaten the existence of the settlers. Indigenous peoples want recognition of their history, recognition of their sovereignty, support for their self-determination and restitution of their lands. This will allow them to flourish. »

The United States has never had a truth and reconciliation commission like the one that looked into the history of residential schools in Canada between 2008 and 2015. There has never been a government apology like the ones presented by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. Given the growing polarization of American politics, Jacobs does not expect to see a domestic reckoning with Washington’s blessing or leadership. But grassroots reconciliation is possible if everyone, including churches, engages in the process, she said.

“There’s a danger that the pope making this sweeping apology will make the churches think, ‘Well, you know, that’s settled; I have nothing to do about it,” she said. “But hopefully it could also have the opposite effect.”

Jacobs thinks most American church leaders will want to make sure the pope’s apology isn’t an empty gesture.

For American Catholics, the pope’s mission of reconciliation will be a litmus test for a truly authentic Catholic faith, said Joseph Mudd, a Gonzaga University theologian and director of the Catholic Studies program at the University of Spokane, Washington.

“The church, if it is to truly be the Body of Christ in history, must engage in the work of reconciliation,” Mudd said.

It is typical of Pope Francis that when he faces a problem, he puts everything on the line, Mudd said.

“The credibility of the Church, as the body of Christ – which is irreducible to individual bishops, including the Bishop of Rome – comes from humility and holiness, from authenticity and integrity” , Mudd said. “Therefore, there is nothing to fear from confronting stories of sin and suffering. But that does not make it any easier.”

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Swan is associate editor of the Catholic Register, Toronto.

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