It’s no secret that the church played a major role in imposing colonial rule in North America. But if you grew up under the American education system like me, you might’ve never learned about the Christian-run boarding schools that forcibly enrolled Native American children and then attempted to wipe out their culture. In the past few years, thankfully, the ugly truth about these schools has been coming to light — mostly in Canada, but now in the U.S., too.
Recently, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, or NABS, said it will digitize 20,000 archival pages related to Quaker-run boarding schools, according to The Associated Press. Much like Canada’s now-infamous residential schools, the Quakers — or members of the Religious Society of Friends — separated Native American children from their families to teach them Christianity and force them to participate in Western education.
The documents, set to be published next spring, will include boarding school records from Kansas, New York, Pennsylvania and four other states, per the AP.
Such schools weren’t just a Quaker thing. (The Quaker movement, it should be noted, has also included positive activism, especially during slavery.) Other schools that attempted to “assimilate” Native children were run by Episcopalians, Methodists and Catholics.
The Native-led NABS is working with libraries at Swarthmore College and Haverford College in Pennsylvania to make the files available to everyone, the AP reports. Although it’s been neglected for entirely too long, making this type of historical knowledge accessible sets a positive example for what can happen when institutions are willing to admit their wrongs and provide a more accurate depiction of the past.
Having more information about the Quaker-run boarding schools will help us understand what happened in them and how they were organized — history that has largely been out of public view. It will also allow us to comprehend the full extent of the impact that these schools had on Native American children and to honor their experiences.
“Those records can be really important for truth-telling processes and acknowledging and supporting the repair of past harms,” Celia Caust-Ellenbogen, an associate curator for Swarthmore’s Friends Historical Library, told the AP. “By making these archival records available, by digitizing these records, we can help restore access to communities that were impacted.”
Still, we have to remain critical of what we find, since many of the documents were produced through the lens of boarding school leaders, rather than the children who essentially endured brainwashing, abuse or worse.
These records will require a deep understanding of colonialism as a system that has been constantly reinforced throughout history, including with the invasion of land and extermination of entire populations. But it also operates by teaching children that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, and that the customs they grew up with are uncivilized or wrong — thereby erasing the humanity of the Indigenous people who lived here far before a European person ever arrived.
While the Quaker community can never reverse the trauma and pain that it caused for so many Native American communities, it can start the healing process by being honest about its history and build from there with more clarity.