Quaker Indian Residential/Boarding Schools

For the past five or six years I’ve searched for and found opportunities to be engaged with and learn from Indigenous peoples. This grew out of working together to bring attention to the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) in Indianapolis, beginning in 2016. I felt a deep spiritual connection from the beginning of these interactions.

I’ve struggled my whole life to try to bring attention to the dangers of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases. As a Quaker I had been taught the way we create social change is by living according to our beliefs. To be an example to others. For the past forty years living without a car was my example. Much to my dismay, that didn’t convince anyone else to give up their car. So I was very grateful for opportunities to spend time with Native people, whose lives are examples of living within the ecological boundaries of Mother Earth.

I wanted to strengthen spiritual bonds between Native people and myself. Which meant trying to find appropriate ways to share my Quaker faith. I use writing on this blog as a way to explore my spirituality. But that wasn’t something Native people read, at first.

In the fall of 2018 I was blessed to participate on the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March. As the name implies, the idea was for a group of Native and non-native people to get to know each other, so we could work on things of common concern. It was a small group of about 15 Native and 15 non-native people. We walked and camped together over eight days, along the path of the Dakota Access pipeline, 94 miles from Des Moines to Fort Dodge, Iowa. During the hours walking together, mainly on quiet, rural roads, we shared our stories with each other. That, and the challenges of physical exertion, blisters, and walking through pouring rain, standing in a circle and offering prayers every time we crossed the pipeline, was a really effective way to create community among us. We became friends, and there have been multiple occasions since when we’ve worked together. As one example, several of us spent an hour with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s staff in Des Moines, talking about legislation related to native concerns.

Another result of becoming friends has been the opportunity to share my blog posts on Facebook groups that some of my new friends do read. Likewise, now I know where to find their writings. Seeding Sovereignty is one. These became one way to continue to remain in touch with each other.

I hope it gives you some context for the subject of this blog post, the Quaker Indian Residential/Boarding Schools. The schools are referred to as either residential or boarding schools. Not all of those schools were run by Quakers, but for several reasons many were. If you haven’t looked into this yourself, I imagine you think, as I did, that these schools were helping Indian children learn how to adapt to the White society that had taken over their lands. Unfortunately the truth was quite different.

Quaker Indian Boarding Schools

More than 100,000 Native children suffered the direct consequences of the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation by means of Indian boarding schools during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their bereft parents, grandparents, siblings, and entire communities also suffered. As adults, when the former boarding school students had children, their children suffered, too. Now, through painful testimony and scientific research, we know how trauma can be passed from generation to generation. The multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience is an open wound in Native communities today.

What does this history mean to us, as Friends, today?

This question is not for me to answer, but to pose to Friends for individual and collective discernment. It is clear that Quakers were instrumental in promoting and implementing the forced assimilation of Native children. Through a lens of European Christian superiority, Quakers tried to remake Native children in their own image. In their writings, I found no appreciation for what the children would lose in this process. “For their own good,” the children would be raised by Quaker teachers (removed from their own families and kinship relationships), receive English names (lose their family lineage), speak English (lose their Native languages), wear “citizens’ dress” (lose the beautiful and skillful art and handiwork of their tribes), become farmers and homemakers (lose the hunting and gathering knowledge of the land and ecology), and aspire to European lifestyles (lose competence in their own cultures and pride in their Native identities).

From our twenty‐first‐century vantage point, we know (or can learn) how Native people suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of actions that Friends committed 150 ago with the best of intentions. Can we hold those good intentions tenderly in one hand, and in the other hold the anguish, fear, loss, alienation, and despair borne by generations of Native Americans?

Native organizations are not asking us to judge our Quaker ancestors. They are asking, “Who are Friends today? Knowing what we know now, will Quakers join us in honest dialogue? Will they acknowledge the harm that was done? Will they seek ways to contribute toward healing processes that are desperately needed in Native communities?” These are my questions, too.

Paula Palmer, Facing Our History and Ourselves, Friends Journal, October 1, 2016

So what do we do as 21st-century American Quakers? How do we bring our values of peace, community, and equality to the truth of what our ancestors did? Palmer is working on that, too.  Learning our part is surely the first step; owning it, the second.  And after that, we must work to make sure we aren’t doing it again with our missions and projects on reservations and elsewhere in the US and beyond in South America and the Great Lakes region of Africa. And more to the question of what do we do in our everyday lives; we each seek the Light of God in our prayer and meditation and in the silent expectant waiting of worship with Friends.  And then we bravely do as we are led.

Quaker Indian Schools: A Legacy We Need to Heal,  AUGUST 8, 2016 BY MOLLY WINGATE, Patheos.com

Hopefully that explains why I felt there was one thing I had to do as I began to develop these friendships. I had to confront, within myself and then with my new friends, Quaker history related to Native peoples. Quakers were among those who taught at the Indian boarding schools that were created to assimilate native children into White culture. Forced assimilation, since these children were often forcibly removed from their families. All kinds of significant trauma occurred. Trauma to the children and to their families and communities. And that trauma has been passed from generation to generation. Examples below illustrate what Paula Palmer said above, that the “multigenerational trauma of the boarding school experience is an open wound in Native communities today.”

Many Quakers are very uncomfortable about examining this history. One reason is it doesn’t fit with the idea of Quakers doing good in the world. But that is the reason I’m bringing this up now. Too many times Quakers and other social justice people have used the approach of implementing a solution they have come up with, often with little or no input from those they want to help. And they think they should lead the implementation their solution. That approach never works, and the Indian residential school is an example of the grave dangers of that approach.

At first I wasn’t sure how much my Native friends knew about the Indian boarding schools. It was tempting hope they didn’t know, and to not bring this up.

Which shows my ignorance because they not only knew about those schools, but had their own experiences today related to the trauma that originated in the past. So there was no way we could get to know and trust each other if I didn’t acknowledge that somhow.

The following story occurred during the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March that I mentioned above.

It didn’t take too many hours of getting to know Matthew when the Spirit led me to say to him, “I know about Quakers’ involvement in the Indian boarding schools. I’m sorry they did that.” I was apprehensive about whether I should have said that, whether that was appropriate or could pull up bad memories. We continued to walk side by side. All I noticed was a slight nod of his head. He always smiles, and that didn’t change.

One of the next times we walked together, Matthew shared a story with me. He had been living at Standing Rock for about six months, when he learned a new rope was needed to ferry people back and forth across a narrow channel of water. He offered a rope so the ferry’s operation could continue. He went on to say his mother called him after she recognized the rope while watching a TV news story. She was very upset because that brought back terrifying memories of how the Native families would try to help their children escape when white men came to kidnap them and take them to a boarding school.

After the March I realized there were several other Native friends who knew I was a Quaker, but with whom I had not shared an apology like the one above with Matthew. I felt I needed to do so because we continued to work on things together, and I sometimes shared a Quaker perspective with them.

One of my friends said “Awww Jeff… as long as you acknowledge it and learning how to be an ally then that’s all we can ask.”

Another told me, “thank you. My grandmother grandfather and aunt were in boarding schools. The trauma is horrific and it still resonates within the generations afterwards. Because, as you know, the institutionalized racism and frontier culture still exist.”


One of the reasons this is so much on my mind now is because I’ve been hearing Indigenous Youth for the Wet’suwet’en speak very eloquently in their public gatherings. For the past several months I’ve been learning all I can, and writing about the Wet’suwet’en peoples and their courageous actions to keep pipelines like the Coastal GasLink pipeline from being built on their incredibly beautiful lands. And I have been surprised at how often the Indian residential schools, and forced assimilation, have been spoken about.

We’ve had to fight for over a hundred years. And despite the residential schools despite the epidemics of smallpox, tuberculosis. Despite the enfranchisement. Despite the reserve. Despite all the assimilatory policies of Canada that have existed up until the modern day, our system of governance and the Wet’suwet’en system of governance has persevered and they have remained strong as is demonstrated by the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en when they evicted Coastal GasLink from their territories.

Kolin Sutherland-Wilson

Victoria Redsun says it is difficult to be a young, Indigenous person in an urban environment right now.

“We see our people on the streets and hurting,” says Redsun who adds that residential schools are still fresh in her memory and the issues around violence and genocide against Indigenous women is still happening.


I am “inconvenienced” by the Wet’suwet’en protests. I live close to Clark and Hastings , am dependent on public transit, walk slowly, and use a cane. So when the buses are rerouted it is quite inconvenient for me. But , I need to talk about scale and proportionality here. Yes it is a drag and inconvenient for me, but it is far more “inconvenient” to have a pipeline you did not agree to traversing your land. It is far more inconvenient to have to live with boil water advisories. It was far more inconvenient to have your children forcibly removed and sent to residential schools, and it is totally inconvenient to have your unceded land stolen.
So while walking the extra way to or from the bus stop (and finding it) is inconvenient and not easy for me it is nothing in comparison to what Indigenous peoples and especially the We’tsuwe’ten are facing.
And, the courage of the protestors give me convenient hope.

MArion Pollack February 25 at 3:48 PM

This entry was posted in #NDAPL, decolonize, Indigenous, Indigenous Youth for Wet'suwet'en, Quaker, Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples, Uncategorized, Wet’suwet’en. Bookmark the permalink.

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