Papal Apology is One Step on a Long Journey for Healing Indigenous People (*with update)

April 19, 2023
by Kathy Czepiel
Two child-sized beaded moccasins, tied together, hang over a painted wood cross marking a grave. They are, themselves, a marker of sorts—a reminder of thousands of children who perished and countless others who were abused at boarding schools for Indigenous children operated by Catholic and other Christian churches and intended to strip Native people of their culture.
“A lot of folks would put out little shoes the size that children would wear in memory of those children who were forced to go to those schools, and so the moccasins were referencing that,” explains I’noli Hall (ANS ’22), a member of the Chowanoke Nation and the executive pastor of Carpenter’s Shop International Church in Ahoskie, North Carolina, located on the traditional homeland of his people. Moccasins, he adds, are “the things that we wear, the things that are on our feet that touch the soil. They represent the path that we walk, which is to say, our experiences, our traditions, and our connection to the land.” 
A similar pair of moccasins was given to Pope Francis at the Vatican in April of last year by a delegation of Indigenous people from Canada, Hall says. The Pope apologized then for the “deplorable conduct” of representatives of the church who committed atrocities against Indigenous children and promised to visit Canada to issue his apology on Native soil—a promise he kept in July. Hall was present to watch the Pope symbolically return those moccasins during a five-day tour of Canada with the theme “walking together.” 
Anticipating the Pope’s visit was emotionally “heavy,” Hall says, “and it got heavier and heavier, the closer we got to the event.” Hall, who served as president of Native Crossroads at YDS during his time as a student, was in Maskwacis, Alberta, not just as a spectator but also as an adopted family member of Cree organizers helping to plan the Pope’s visit. He and his uncle, Ken Hall, a former council member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, were asked by Cree leader Chief Ermineskin to pray over and anoint the tribal grounds on which the Pope’s first event would occur—the place where he would issue his apology. A large circle there, known as “the arbor,” is normally the site of dancing at powwows. For the pontiff’s visit, it was transformed into a small outdoor auditorium. 
The day before the crowd arrived for the ceremony of apology, Hall and his uncle performed their own ceremony. “We were praying for God to bring truth, to bring justice, healing, and reconciliation and of course protection over the event,” Hall says. “Normally when we dance, we dance clockwise around that circle, but when we prayed, we walked around that circle counterclockwise, undoing the trauma, the pain of the past, the injustices of the past, and praying for the Creator to bring healing to our people.”
Hall and his family—including his aunt Cara Currie-Hall, former chief of staff for the Assembly of First Nations (comprising 634 Canadian tribal communities)—hosted a prayer breakfast, where Native leaders gathered to pray and to plan. Hall also attended a papal mass in Edmonton that followed the Maskwacis event and ministered in song during the Sunday mass at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, Maskwacis’s Catholic parish, which is primarily Indigenous. Next to the church is the former site of a residential school, as well as an incinerator used to burn human remains. The community’s current graveyard is also nearby.
The response of Canada’s Indigenous people to the Pope’s apology was wide-ranging, Hall says. “People are in different places in terms of their relationship with the church, if any… and their relationship with non-Natives,” Hall says. “Some people have already forgiven the church and Westerners… There are others on the opposite end of the spectrum who will never forgive, no matter what the Pope says… And then there are people who, for them, that event was what enabled them to begin their healing journey or maybe find closure.” 
Hall’s tribe, the Chowanoke, avoided the legacy of boarding schools. They first had contact with colonizers in the 1500s; by 1869, when Indigenous boarding school policies were created in the U.S., they had already been dispossessed of their land and were running their own schools for Indigenous children, Hall says. Even so, he recognizes the pain of his Cree family. “The same sort of treatment, the same sort of trauma, the same sort of story certainly happened, and it was actually fascinating to me to be there with the Cree and to see just how similar those emotions and experiences are for us.”
Whether individual forgiveness was forthcoming or unattainable or a work in progress, there seems to be agreement on one thing: The work of communal healing has only just begun. The last federally funded Indigenous boarding school in Canada closed in 1996. In the United States, more than 400 boarding schools located in 37 states remained under a federally controlled system until 1969. Several boarding schools still operate today in both countries, now under Indigenous leadership. This legacy and the journey to confront it belongs to Canadians and Americans, Indigenous people and non-Natives, Catholics and Christians. It belongs, Hall, says, to everyone. “Because it’s everyone’s problem—because we all inhabit this land—I want people to do something about it,” he says. 
That includes continuing to pressure the Pope and federal governments to denounce the Doctrine of Discovery, which says, in essence, that whoever “discovers” land has a right to its ownership. The doctrine, still on the books today and even cited in 21st-century legal cases, was used as one justification for the boarding schools. The Pope has signaled that he plans to make a statement on the doctrine soon. (See the end of this article for an update on the Papal Bull repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery)
In the meantime, Hall names two meaningful actions that could be taken closer to home, making Andover Newton and YDS as a whole more welcoming to Indigenous students. First, he lifts up several of his professors for giving him valuable opportunities to study his own culture in the context of their courses. Hall says, more professors have opportunities to share Native perspectives in their courses because “Natives are part of the present reality, but our voices are too often overlooked.” 
Second, everyone—whether affiliated with the seminary or not—can push their members of Congress to support HB5444, Hall says. If passed, the bill would establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States. Hall also encourages people to follow the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative begun by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman to serve in the cabinet.
The legacy of Indigenous boarding schools is hard to talk about, Hall says. The stories that emerged last summer as people gathered intimately around a dinner table or “in the glare of cameras” outside a teepee—stories that many had kept silent until that time—weighed heavily on him. “It was difficult for all of us,” he says, “but we did it together.”
**UPDATE** Since this article was first written, the Associated Press released this announcement from the Vatican repudiating the “Doctrine of Discovery.”