Moral injury, soul repair and Quaker Indian residential schools

Syracuse University. The Moral Injury Project

I’ve just learned of the concepts of moral injury and soul repair. The vast majority of the literature is related to soldiers and war. Unsurprising as there is a profound disconnect between religion’s commandment not to kill, and soldiers experiencing forceful training to condition them to be able to kill in conflict. And deeper injury when a soldier does kill, or observes others killing. It is sobering to realize the vast number of men and women who have been morally injured this way. Why so many soldiers cannot function when they return from conflict. Why so many commit suicide.


Syracuse University. The Moral Injury Project

Spirituality is related to moral beliefs and values, and thus related to moral injury. Thus the concept of soul repair.

I’ve been thinking about moral injury and soul repair in one specific case, the Quaker Indian boarding schools.


Quakers and Indian boarding schools

One specific example of moral injury is the Quaker involvement in the Indian residential schools. We (Quakers) would like to think the Quakers involved had the best of intentions, believing it was important that native children learn how to fit into the white society that was taking over their lands. Today we are horrified by the idea and implementation of the cultural genocide that occurred there. If we see that today, you would think Friends at those schools would have at times questioned what they were doing.

It is difficult to imagine the tremendous moral injury done to the native children, their families and their tribes. Those children were forced to behave in ways that were intended to supplant their beliefs and ways of being.

And that moral injury was passed from each generation to the next. Each new generation, seeing what had been done to those children, suffer their own moral injury. Besides that, each generation is forced themselves to similarly betray their beliefs and values as they try to live in white settler society.

Those who inflict moral injury are themselves injured. The Quakers involved with the Indian boarding schools must have had some moral injury. Though nowhere near what the Indian children and their families did.

And I believe the Quakers’ trauma has been passed from generation to generation as well.

I think this has a lot to do with Quakers’ strong avoidance of discussing the Quaker Indian boarding schools. Once we learn some of what happened in those schools, we experience our own moral injury. And you can’t “unlearn” that, even though many try very had to do so. We feel guilt and shame.

What should Quakers do? There aren’t easy answers. The moral injury must be acknowledged. And ways have to be found to bring those who inflicted the moral injury, and those who experienced the injury to come together. Truth and reconciliation processes have occurred, and model how this soul repair can be done. Likely the only way it can be done.

In the following video my friend Paula Palmer talks about the Quaker Indian boarding schools, and the need for Quakers to acknowledge what was done, how we can begin to heal. Soul repair.

Native people say that for healing to occur—and I think what Quakers are looking for when thinking about what the world needs is healing of many kinds… for healing to occur, the first thing that needs to happen is for us to acknowledge the harm that was done.

Seeking Right Relationship With Native Americans

My name is Paula Palmer. I live in Louisville, Colorado, which is the territory of the Arapaho people. They call themselves the Hinono’eino. My meeting is the Boulder Monthly Meeting and the Intermountain Yearly Meeting.

About 8 years ago, I experienced a leading to educate—myself first, and others—about the real history of what happened here in this country, the real history of the colonization of this country and the genocide of the indigenous peoples and the ongoing consequences for indigenous people here in this country and for all of us, really. For all of us as a nation and as communities.

Seeking the Truth

The first step toward reconciliation is truth telling. This is something that’s been important to Quakers since the beginning. We were called “seekers of the truth.” We need now to be seekers of the truth. I think one of the main problems is that we as a country are in such denial about the history of this land. We just so rarely mention genocide and colonization as foundational sins of our society, and—along with slavery—these are the foundational sins of our country and we continue to be wounded by these crimes against humanity.

A young Tohono Oʼodham man said in one of our workshops, “No one here today made these things happen, but we are the ones who are living now. And we’re all in this together.” And I think that’s what we need to hear. No one here today made all of these things happen, but we are the ones who are living now. So what are our opportunities to work with indigenous peoples, to engage them, to ask them, “What would right relationship look like?”

Paula Palmer, Seeking Right Relationship With Native Americans

Quaker Indian Boarding Schools, Facing Our History and Ourselves by Paula Palmer, Friends Journal, Oct 1, 2016


Syracuse University. The Moral Injury Project

 Treatment based on increasing willingness to experience painful emotions, developing greater psychological flexibility, and understanding and working toward personal values, which may have been violated during service, has demonstrated preliminary benefits to suffers of moral injury. A basic tenant of all treatment programs, however, appears to be a willingness of the therapist to facilitate the experience of the patients’ guilt- and shame-based feelings in an exploratory and nonjudgmental fashion without displacing or delegitimizing their presence.

Treating “Moral” Injuries. A potentially debilitating condition in veterans, distinct from PTSD, results from crossing moral lines By Anna Harwood-Gross, Scientific American, March 24, 2020

This entry was posted in Indigenous, moral injury, Native Americans, Quaker, Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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