Conversations around race and racial justice

A reckoning: St. Benedict nuns apologize for Native boarding school

an historic photo of a large brick building
This large brick boarding school was opened in 1892 on the White Earth Indian Reservation and housed more than 100 children.
Courtesy of St. Benedict Monastery

American Indian children from White Earth Nation and other reservations were sent to boarding schools across the country, starting in the late 1800s. The federal government used the schools to separate Native children from their families, culture and language, part of an effort to assimilate American Indians into white society.

There were at least 16 Indian boarding schools in Minnesota, most operated by religious orders. Many children were deeply traumatized by physical and sexual abuse, punished for speaking their language and stripped of their culture.

"There was a lot lost at that time — loss of culture, loss of identity," said Joe LaGarde, a White Earth tribal elder. “And that's all a part of how you take a person's land. You take away their identity. Once they lose that, it's a lot easier to deal with them.”

But this story isn’t just about a long ignored piece of American history.

Many in Indian Country believe the boarding school trauma that happened decades ago is still evident today in broken families, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness.

a church dome and cross against a hazy sky
The Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict officially apologized for their role operating in the federal government effort to separate Native children from families, language and culture.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Earlier this year, Susan Rudolph, prioress of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn., acknowledged that connection when she sent a two-page letter to the White Earth Nation, apologizing for the religious order’s role in the boarding school located there for decades.

Children, she wrote, were forcibly taken from their families and placed in mission boarding schools with an “intentional plan to root out” Native ways. "The ripple effect of that wound lingers in the memory, the culture, and the documented history of your people for all time."

A tribal official said it was one of the first direct apologies from a religious order to a tribal nation in the United States.

A government boarding school opened at White Earth in 1871. The Benedictine order opened a day school in 1878, and it became a boarding school in 1892. The boarding school closed in 1945, but the Benedictines continued to run a day school for local children until 1969.

The religious order also operated a school on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The Sisters of St. Benedict and the monks of St. John’s Abbey also ran industrial schools for Native students near their monasteries in St. Joseph and Collegeville, Minn., for about a dozen years in the late 1800s.

Joe LaGarde grew up on the White Earth Reservation where he serves on a boarding school advisory group and is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Niibi Center, which works on historical trauma and environmental issues.

LaGarde never attended the White Earth boarding school, but when he was 12 years old, he was sent to the day school run by the Sisters of St. Benedict.

"And I lasted two hours there,” he recalled with a chuckle.

He says that first morning, after recess, he watched in shock as a nun slapped a fellow student.

a woman and a man stand for a portrait
White Earth Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Jaime Arsenault and tribal elder Joe LaGarde are part of a group working to address the generational trauma that is a result of boarding schools.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"So I waited until that nun's back was to me, and she was working him over, and I took off," he said.

He recalls a sprint down the stairs and out the door with the nun in hot pursuit.

"She was fast, too. She was almost catching me, but I leaped over a little fence and I was gone," he said.

LaGarde never went back to the mission school, hiding in the woods until his parents agreed he could return to the public school.

Indigenous children had a variety of experiences at church run schools.

LaGarde said one of his sisters attended the White Earth boarding school and enjoyed the experience. Other siblings were sent to a school in South Dakota. They ran away and walked for days to return to White Earth.

Retired North Dakota State University professor Denise Lajimodiere documented the experiences of boarding school students in her book “Stringing Rosaries.” She heard stories of physical and sexual abuse, and harsh suppression of Native language and culture.

Truth must come before reconciliation

Benedictine Sister Pat Kennedy said the acknowledgement and apology from the monastic order are only a beginning.

"You know, words in a sense are very cheap. It's easy to say I'm sorry, but it's more challenging for me to say, I will do this,” said Kennedy, the monastery’s heritage coordinator.

As a first step, the monastery opened its archive to researchers from White Earth seeking information about former students.

An oral history project is in the works to collect boarding school stories from White Earth residents. Many who carry those memories are elderly, and the project has been delayed by COVID-19 concerns.

The Benedictine sisters also want to sit with tribal members and listen to what Kennedy expects will be painful stories.

"It's like a confrontation. You're the offender, and I would like you to know how you offended me,” she said. “And to acknowledge that, yes, cultural genocide happened, not only cultural genocide, but spiritual genocide too."

Still, the sisters are conflicted about the boarding school history.

Sister Carol Berg, a retired history professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, wrote her doctoral thesis 40 years ago on the White Earth boarding school, interviewing former teachers and students.

an elderly woman poses for a photo
Historian Sister Carol Berg said the nuns went to the White Earth reservation as "agents of cultural change."
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The nuns went to White Earth as cultural revolutionaries, their charge to overthrow Native culture, she wrote.

"I think they went up there feeling we have something great to share with these people, so let's share it,” said Berg in a recent interview. “Their Catholic faith, the Catholic values and virtues, and the three Rs of education to prepare these students for their future life."

Berg said the result was a clash of cultures. But she struggles to reconcile the trauma experienced by Native students with what her research found to be a model school. She heard little about abuse in her interviews 40 years ago.

"I only found one instance of a whipping. I think it was one of the younger sisters [who] said she was horrified because when one of the runaways was brought back to the school, she was whipped," Berg recalled.

Recovering the boarding school memories at White Earth will be an important part of finding the truth — a first step in the process of truth and reconciliation the Benedictine order hopes will happen with the people of White Earth.

Telling painful stories

Joe LaGarde believes that for many former students, the boarding school trauma may be too difficult to talk about, and they might not trust the church with those stories.

“You're going to find a lot of them are going to say, let's just leave it alone. And that's why we're in the shape we're in. We left things alone too long,” said LaGarde. “They swept everything under the rug all the time, and it was easier not to talk about things than it was to sit down and work things out."

Still, LaGarde doesn’t want to force anyone to talk about trauma they experienced.

“It has to be done as much as possible, but you’ve got to be careful. You can't hurt people any more than they've been hurt,” he said.

White Earth Historic Preservation Officer Jaime Arsenault favors a thoughtful and deliberate approach. The younger generation will be watching and learning, she said.

"My hope is that young people, as they watch this unfold, what they will see is that the adults in their life aren't going to run away from something that's hard, that they're going to face it in as respectful a way as possible and as healthy a way as possible, so that these kids coming up have a much better future," Arsenault said.

After recent news of unmarked graves found at Indigenous boarding schools in Canada, there’s been a surge of interest in U.S. boarding schools.

The process of searching for unmarked graves has also started at White Earth, and so far none have been found. But Arsenault doesn’t want that to be the focus. Finding any missing children is important, she said, but she’s intent on making sure the community is not re-traumatized by this difficult history.

"It's never been about shock value, and we're not just focused on unmarked graves. It's everything that goes along with it. It's trying to look at how these experiences have influenced other aspects of people's lives," she said.

Arsenault thinks the truth and reconciliation process that's now just beginning might last for a generation, and how that process plays out, she said, is up to the people of White Earth.

a woman wearing a mask looks at photos
Historic preservation officer Jaime Arsenault looks at historic boarding school photos in the cramped tribal archives.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Benedictine Sister Karen Rose agrees that the sisters must play a supporting role.

"We very much don't want to fall into that trap of being white people who come to tell the people of White Earth how to fix things,” Rose said. “We simply want to work with them. And so I think we feel that we need to be guided by them."

The supporting role will include actions such as paying for the technology to search for graves, funded by the Native Nation Revitalization initiative, part of the McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict and St. Johns University.

Monks from St. Johns Abbey were also involved in the operation of the reservation schools and ran a school at the monastery, but the abbey has not issued an apology. A spokesperson said a task force is being created to review the historical role of the abbey.

Action on campus

The issue is also raising awareness and provoking action on the campuses of the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

St. Ben’s senior Marissa Johnson grew up in Bloomington. She has family connections to the Red Lake Nation and is an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin.

She didn't know about the Benedictine role in Native boarding schools until she was exploring campus as a first-year student and happened across an old photo.

"Maybe 30 Indigenous boys all sitting in rows, and two white priests," she said.

She immediately recognized the photo as a Native school, and her response was visceral.

"I remember turning to my boyfriend, excuse my French, but I was like what the f--- is this,” she said. “At first I was shocked. I couldn't say anything, and then the second wave over me was just like anger."

She's turned that anger to action, helping to form an Indigenous Student Association and pushing for more education on American Indian history, treaties and contemporary issues to be included in the college curriculum.

"I've had to tell [people] yes, we still are alive, we did not die off. I've had to have that conversation way too many times, and that conversation needs to stop,” said Johnson.

“We are still living. We are still breathing. There is going to be future generations of Indigenous peoples,” Johnson said. “So to include us in important conversations is vital, especially at St. Ben’s, St. John's and within the student body.”

a man stands next to a stone wall
Professor Ted Gordon is working to create programs that will help support the White Earth Nation response to the historical trauma of boarding schools.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Ted Gordon, a faculty member at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, is trying to make sure that happens.

Gordon helped start the conversation about opening the monastery archives to White Earth.

The work of Indigenous students has created change on both campuses, he said.

“From now on, all incoming students will hear about the boarding schools in their first year,” Gordon said. “This is quickly going from a history that few in our community knew about to one that everyone knows and has discussed in class.”

Gordon hopes those conversations will change how students understand challenges facing Native communities.

“The more people understand about this past, potentially the more of an open mind they'll have when it comes to some of the policy discussions that we're having today,” he said.

At White Earth, there are also discussions taking place, often difficult and heart-wrenching conversations.

Since stories about graves found at Canadian boarding schools have been in the news recently, a few people have started sharing stories with Joe LaGarde.

Recently, someone told him a story about being a young boy at a boarding school and feeling responsible for protecting his sister from sexual abuse.

"It's really a bad feeling that hurts you for a few days before you can kind of shake that off,” said LaGarde, “But you can never really put it away completely, because that poor person had that carry that all their lives."

He hopes sharing that burden can help start the process of healing from trauma endured silently for a lifetime.