A Time For Reckoning: North American Christianity and Indigenous Cultural Genocide

The doors of St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral in downtown Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, June 2021. Photo credit: Donna Heimbecker.

Content Notification (CN): Abuse, Oppression, Genocide.

“From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. Thousands of children died there of disease and other causes, with many never returned to their families.

Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada, which today is the largest Protestant denomination in [Canada].” (Source: Indian Country Today)

Other children were abused and even killed.

The U.S. government ran a parallel ‘residential school’ system to ‘re-educate’ Native American children, that recruited Christian denominations in the 19th and 20th centuries, seizing on feelings of cultural and religious superiority to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Thanks to incoming Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, the U.S. is launching the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, to search U.S. schools for possible burial sites of Native children.

So far, nine schools have been searched and the bodies of over 2,000 children have been found on the school grounds, mostly in unmarked graves. Between Canada and the U.S., there are still 497 schools to go.

As a consequence, churches in Canada and the U.S. are burning. And being what the mainstream calls ‘vandalized,’ though it would be more accurately named as inscribed with the pain and outrage of this silent genocide that’s been carried out within North America’s borders as a consequence of the deadly, hubris-filled Doctrine of Discovery.

Statues are toppling, too. Of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth and other imperial figures.

Friends, we are in for a reckoning. These first days of July brought us ‘Canada Day’ and ‘Independence Day,’ and many of us were too heartsick to celebrate. This isn’t to say that there aren’t elements of our heritage worth celebrating, but — for those of us of European descent in particular — we need to reckon with our identity as settler colonizers, living on stolen land. Indeed, the idea of fixed private property in general is foreign to the lifeways of this continent, and these acquisitive habits have contributed to the objectification and dying of the planet, not only her human inhabitants.

If you consider yourself an aspiring follower of Jesus, please hold these children in your conscience and consider his words:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)


What Can We Do? (Inside and Out)

Jesus warned humanityand his aspiring followers in particularthat there really are no secrets. Formerly-celebrated practices that we’ve buried in selective amnesia will come back into cultural memory, and will be judged accurately:

“The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light; what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!” (Jesus in Luke 12:2–3, New Living Translation)

Before we consider what we might be able to ‘do’ in the face of such atrocity, it’s important to begin digesting this pain, outrage, and shame on the level of being. As yet another of history’s tragedies comes into our awareness, we do well not to flinch away. If you’re a North American of European descent, you can hold your ancestors with respect while recognizing that their destructive attitudes and actions toward the original inhabitants of this land were rooted in delusional white supremacy. I invite you to breathe into this reality, holding it with grace and truth.

I encourage you to integrate this reality through prayer (either silent, contemplative prayer, or conversational, emotionally-honest prayer), and journaling. Perhaps do some mirror work, or silent connection with another, as described in the appendix of my book with Fr. Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance (and in the bonus chapter you can access for free, here.) Let the reality that many Christian denominations eagerly took place in the cultural erasure and bodily harm of Native American and First Nations children settle into your nervous system. You don’t have to hold this painful truth in your heart alone; you can let your heart resonate with the sacred heart of Jesus, who bears all sorrows and transforms them, through kenotic release.

And when you’re ready to walk out this repentancea changing of directionhere are some practical things you can do. Some of what follows is lightly adapted from Healing for Churches at boardingschoolhealing.org, and an article from Healing Minnesota Stories profiling the same organization. (Thanks to Jonathan Stegall for bringing these to my attention!)…

History and Background

During the 19th and into the 20th century, Native American children were forced or pressured to attend Christian and government-run boarding schools or day schools. The purpose was to ‘kill the Indian and save the man.’

The churches may have taken on this mission with the best of intentions, given their shared beliefs at the time. But in fact, the schools carried out a deliberate policy of ethnocide and cultural genocide. Children were punished for speaking their native languages, banned from conducting traditional or cultural practices, shorn of traditional clothing and identity of their native culture. Many were sent far from their homelands and cut off from their family. Most were taught that their culture and traditions were evil and sinful, and taught that they should be ashamed of being Native American. Countless children were frequently neglected and even abused physically, sexually, and psychologically.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so poignantly put it:

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations.”


Which Churches Were Involved?

In 1872, as the boarding school program got underway, the Board of Indian Commissioners allotted 73 Indian agencies to several denominations, as follows (with the number of schools each denomination ran in parentheses):

  • Catholic (80)
  • Presbyterian (21)
  • Quaker (15)
  • Methodist (12)
  • Episcopal (9)
  • Baptist (4)
  • Jesuit (4)
  • Dutch Reform (2)
  • Evangelical (2)
  • Mennonite (2)
  • Protestant (2)
  • Anglican (1)
  • 7th Day Adventist (1)
  • Unitarian (1)

What Congregations and Individual aspiring Jesus-followers can do:

  • Join the Coalition as an ally at boardingschoolhealing.org.
  • Conduct and disseminate research on your denomination’s involvement as operators, promoters, managers, teachers, and funders of Indian boarding schools.
  • Through processes of reflection and repentance, develop and adopt official statements of acknowledgement and apology.
  • In consultation with the Coalition and the affected Native communities, take appropriate actions to make amends.
  • Call on Congress and the President to establish a National Commission to learn the truth about the historic and ongoing impacts of the boarding schools on Native families, and recommend actions that support truth, reconciliation, and healing.

Denomination-Wide Action:

Many churches and religious organizations around the world have already started to take action. Will you join them? Go here to see if your denomination is already taking action to address these atrocities.

Recommended Reading:

Recent decades have unearthed a rich vein of reflection from authors, activists, and leaders who are both Native American and Christian. Here are my top recommendations:

The Four Vision Quests of Jesus and Ladder to the Light: An Indigenous Elder’s Meditations on Hope and Courage by Steven Charleston

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B. Curtice

Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way by my late friend Richard Twiss

Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision by Randy Woodley

North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) Journal

Finally: Celebrate Indigenous Art + Joy

This is something I’ve learned from my wife, Jasmin Pittman Morrell, as she names in film reviews in publications like The Porch Magazine: While awareness of the suffering of marginalized communities is important, art produced by white people (or for the ‘white gaze’) often fetishizes BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People-of-Color) suffering, while ignoring BIPOC joy.

Pain and joy often go hand-in-hand, of course. And some of the most beautiful art emerges from the cauldron of grace under fire. But if all we think about when reflecting on Native American and First Nations people is poverty, oppression, and death, we continue dehumanizing the original inhabitants of our continent while diminishing our own cultural appreciation.

Do yourself a favor: Consider one of your favorite art forms, and then Google Native American and First Nations creators! You’ll be glad you did. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Read comic books and graphic novels by indigenous creators

Watch the acclaimed new FX / Hulu series Reservation Dogs

Listen to the energizing beats of The Halluci Nation (formerly known as A Tribe Called Red) and Tanya Tagaq


As we continue to digest this aspect of white supremacy’s harmful legacy in the land we now occupy, let’s be understanding as acts of grief and protest continue.

Let’s open our hands and hearts with appropriate humility.

Let’s admit that we don’t know how to face what our ancestors have done and what we still benefit from: Materially, emotionally, relationally.

Let’s be slow to speak and quick to listen, especially to BIPOC.

Let’s lament. And be teachable. It’s our only way forward with any degree of healing and integrity.

Together, we can pray and act into a new way of being.

3 Responses to A Time For Reckoning: North American Christianity and Indigenous Cultural Genocide

  1. Joseph Carson August 11, 2021 at 12:11 pm #


    As you might expect from a Christian whistleblower as I – paying a great cost to non-violently confront civilization-threatening federal agency law-breaking (in my opinion as a nuclear safety engineer) – your suggestions are “good but not enough.”

    How so? No where do you ask anyone to do anything that might put their professional standing or economic security at any risk. The failure of Christians of years past to do other than bystand to the institutional evil that manifested in the existence and practices in the Indian Schools is an essential causal factor to what you now decry; while continuing to fail to call for Christians who witness institutional evil related to their occupations to do other than bystand to it.

    So it seems to me. If only the stakes for our posterity – do you really think planet earth of year 2121 will be anything but a burnt-out, depopulated, cinder – were not so high, when people as you take no exception to the bystanding of your audience to institutional evil they may witness, when to do other than bystand could involve risk to their professional standing and economic security.

  2. DZ August 12, 2021 at 1:40 am #

    I learned about all of this in doing my MDiv. Church History II paper in 2008. I have been speaking prophetically about it since then, speaking to Pope Francis’ personal representative about it at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto during 2018.

    I like to think that is why Francis had already scheduled a meeting with Canadian tribal leaders this last January, until Covid postponed it for a year. And why one Canadian RC bishop has already spent $56k to gently have the little ones claimed by relatives disinterred, and moved home for sacred burial on tribal holy grounds.

    Even today the Diocese of Vancouver is working with local tribes on land underneath a parking lot: https://www.ncronline.org/authors/catholic-news-service

    It is good that the Protestant sibs learn that this was a colonial mindset that they share nearly equally, although few peeps have been heard from them outside of Canada. I hope they too pay to do what is right and good.

    We all have much listening to do, reparation and reconciliation. Humanity’s cruelty to each other seems boundless, but either the Cosmos is Christ soaked, or it isn’t.

    Welcome to the table of sinful guilt, where all of us are now called to “be better, since we now know better” ( cf. Maya Angelou).

    As Chief Delorme of the Cowessess Nation said, “we all inherited this, nobody today created…we just have to acknowledge that people are healing (and) hurting, and let’s do something about it”.

    Blessings to you and yours,
    Chaplain Donna Zuroweste, BCC, MDiv.

  3. DZ August 12, 2021 at 3:37 am #

    This is also big; the Jesuits were amongst the first Catholics on NE American soil, and have already compensated descendants of slaves for the work they did on Georgetown University:


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