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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

747 We've got to provide a shared, bright future together

Day 747: Saturday, April 2, 2022

“We have to provide the hope and the vision that we can learn from the past and never go back there. We've got to provide a shared future together, that our children and grandchildren will have a bright future.”

- Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations

Yesterday Pope Francis apologized to Canada's Indigenous peoples for the Catholic Church's involvement in the country's abuse-ridden residential schools and vowed to visit Canada soon.

"For the deplorable conduct of members of the Catholic Church, I ask God's forgiveness," said Francis, who described the institutional abuses by church leaders as "contrary to the Gospel of Jesus."

With those words, Francis fulfilled a request for a papal apology that comes after years of appeals from Canada's Indigenous community for the Church to seek forgiveness for its century-long involvement in the country's scandal-plagued school system for Native children.

Francis met with members of Canada's indigenous tribes and listened to their stories. He said "through your voices I have been able to touch with my own hands and carry within me, with great sadness in my heart, the stories of suffering, deprivation, discriminatory treatment and various forms of abuse suffered by several of you.

It is chilling to think of the will to instill a sense of inferiority, to make someone lose his or her cultural identity, to sever their roots"

Throughout the week, Francis listened to firsthand testimonials about the abuses perpetrated in Canada's residential schools, many of them operated by the Catholic Church. For over a 100 years, people who attended the institutions were stripped of their Native languages and culture and often forced to convert to Christianity. Widespread abuse within the schools has been documented, with up to 6,000 deaths reported.

A new book by an Ojibwe author tells the stories life for American Indian children in boarding schools designed to purge their language and culture. Denise Lajimodiere's book began with the stories of her parents.

"Mama was made to kneel on a broomstick for not speaking English, locked in closets for not speaking English,” she said. “They would pee their pants and then the nuns would take them out and beat them for peeing their pants.”

Lajimodiere is Ojibwe, and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. She was an educator for 44 years, working as an elementary school teacher and principal before ending her career recently as an associate professor of educational leadership at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

Her parents were separated from their families and sent to federal government-run boarding schools as children. Thousands of Native children met the same fate during the boarding school era, which scholars estimate lasted from the late 1800s to well into the middle of the 20th century.

The children were sent to the schools to be purged of their Native cultures, languages and spiritual practices — forced to learn English, and often abused. The experiences of those children, now with children and grandchildren of their own, have left a deep scar on many in the generations that came after them.

“Papa was beaten with a belt. He saw one of his fellow students die from a beating at the school,” she said.

Her parents rarely talked about their boarding school experience. She only was able to coax stories from her father in the last years of his life.

“Papa said, 'I just couldn't learn that language,'“ she said, “so they put lye soap in his mouth and the kids would get blisters."

Lajimodiere believed her parents’ boarding school abuse was a reason for the family dysfunction she grew up with, so she began a decade-long quest to understand it, interviewing people who went through the experience.

"It's a journey I had to go on to forgive my dad for the way we were raised, for his temper, his verbal abuse and for the beatings,” she said. “So, it was a long journey to understand why my father was the way he was."

What she found was a trove of stories closely guarded for decades by those who lived them. She tells those stories in their own words in her book, “Stringing Rosaries.” She collected the stories using strict academic research protocols, but the listening was intensely personal.

Many of the former boarding school residents she interviewed prefaced their stories by telling Lajimodiere, “'I've never told anybody my story. I've never told my kids. I've never told my grandkids. I had to think about these stories all my life about what happened to me. I don't want my kids to have to think about it or know about it,’” she said.

She recalls one elderly woman who refused to even let family know she was being interviewed for the book.

"She became very quiet, even though it was a huge house, and no one was in the house,” recalled Lajimodiere. “She started whispering about being sexually abused and she said, 'I don't know why I'm telling you. I have not told anybody.' Almost every survivor in the book experienced sexual abuse, or they witnessed it."

Lajimodiere found that, while the stories people told her were often infused with painful and traumatic memories, that pain was not universal. Some people recalled their time at a boarding school fondly. But Lajimodiere says even those people — who said they preferred the school experience to alcoholism, abuse or hunger they experienced at home — shared stories of abuse in the boarding schools.

As she traveled the country doing research on boarding schools and collecting stories, Lajimodiere said she would often find herself sitting in her car, sobbing, after an interview.

She realizes now that she was experiencing the collective intergenerational trauma of losing language, culture and identity. Her parents both spoke their native languages, Ojibwe and Cree, before they went to boarding school.

"My father never spoke Cree again; that was completely beaten out of him,” said Lajimodiere. “So, now, at my age, I'm trying to relearn Ojibwe. Ojibwe is the language of our ceremonies — and our ceremonies have come back very strong."

She asked people she interviewed what it would take to heal from the trauma they experienced.

“Some of the people in the book say an apology would be a recognition of what the government did to us. Others have said, 'Boarding schools destroyed my childhood; I'll never get that back, so an apology would mean nothing,’" she said.

“Many of them said [what would be healing would be] a return to tribal spirituality and to the languages, our traditions and our ceremonies," she said.

Lajimodiere felt compelled to share the stories because many who attended boarding schools in the first half of the 1900s are now elderly and dying.

She's clear that she doesn't want the stories to elicit pity. She wants understanding.

“I want the world to know that part of why we are the way we are,” she said, “with high alcoholism, high diabetes and a lot of other health issues, one of the overarching reasons is the boarding school era.”

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