Boarding schools study offers a learning opportunity for congregations

Need a topic for an adult formation series? General Synod might have one for you.

Delegates in Indianapolis earlier this month adopted a resolution calling on the UCC to study any “legal and moral violations” that occurred in the treatment of Native Americans and Native Hawaiians who attended boarding schools run by the UCC’s predecessor denominations.

The crux of the investigation will be an effort to uncover whether the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a missionary organization that included participants from the Congregational and German Reformed traditions, received any funding under the Indian Civilization Fund Act of 1819. The investigation is the first step toward possible reparations for harm done to Native people.

The Indian Civilization Fund subsidized organizations to educate and “civilize” Native children, with the goal of teaching them English, introducing them to Christianity and giving them marketable skills. Some of the schools, however, “were abusive, certainly psychologically but also physically,” said the Rev. Dr. Stephanie Perdew, director of the Damascus Project and an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Students were disciplined by the withholding of food and subjected to corporal punishment for offenses such as using their tribal language rather than English. Some were sexually abused.

Although there were some secular boarding schools, the majority were church related. “Churches were the delivery model, so to speak,” Stephanie said.

She said congregations could use the denominational study as a learning opportunity. Some suggestions:

Did everyone who attended a boarding school have an abhorrent experience? No.

“The trade-off is there are Native folks who will report that ‘I got a good education’ or that ‘It helped me survive in the world I had to live in,” Stephanie said.

And some schools treated students with relative kindness. In Neillsville, for instance, the Rev. Benjamin Stucki, who oversaw the Winnebago Indian Boarding School, drew praise for his devotion to his Ho Chunk students, according to a 2007 senior thesis written by a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student. Even though students generally were sometimes subjected to corporal punishment and were forced to use English, Stucki conducted Sunday worship in the Ho Chunk language. Eventually, in 1942, Stucki became a member of the tribe and was given the name “Najkehunka,” meaning “Chief in heart.”

Does your congregation plan to study the history of tribal schools or its own history with Native people? We’d like to share your story. Email us here.

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