The Episcopal Diocese of Alaska says it will join a national effort to investigate the history of church-operated boarding schools for Indigenous children.
Episcopal Diocese of Alaska Bishop Mark Lattime said the action was prompted by the discovery this summer of unmarked graves where Indigenous children were buried at Canadian boarding schools run by churches.
“We recognize that it opened wounds that have been carried by so many of our Alaska Native brothers and sisters,” he said. “And the fact that the church was involved in this process is something that concerns us.”
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The Episcopal Church was among those that ran boarding schools in Alaska and the Lower 48 in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Lattime said the Alaska church must look beyond its own account of history.
“The history that we’ve received is that those missions in schools were operated with care and respect for Indigenous culture and children. You know, we also have to recognize that history is written by one side of the story,” he said.
Lattime said the church in Alaska and nationally must “stand in the light of truth.”
“We might be able to say, ‘This wasn’t an issue in the Episcopal denomination.’ The fact is, if it happened in any church denomination, we, as a Christian body, I think are all responsible,” he said.
Lattime said the church is going through archival records and will work with Alaska Native organizations to hear from former boarding school students and their descendants.
The Episcopal Church hosted a national webinar on Indigenous’ Peoples Day about boarding schools, during which speakers described cultural genocide.
Pearl Chanar, who grew up in the Interior Athabascan village of Minto, recounted attending a boarding school hundreds of miles away.
“And what I remember most is that loneliness, missing my parents,” she said.
Chanar said she was denied expression of her culture.
“Not being able to speak my Native language, not being able to enjoy my traditional cultural activities such as my singing, dancing,” she said.
Chanar said she’s heard from other boarding school survivors who were abused. And she cautioned the Episcopal Church to be careful asking people about their experiences.
“That individual is going to tell you a story that happened 70 years ago,” she said. “It might have been traumatic for them. And if it was, then you’re asking them to repeat something that they’ve had buried for a very long time.”
Chanar noted that many boarding school survivors were subsequently lost to alcohol, drugs and suicide.
“And this is part of the truth of the Episcopal Church,” she said. “It’s a part of the history now. It’s not pleasant and it hurts.”
Chanar said the trauma experienced at boarding schools is passed to successive generations.
Bishop Lattime said the church is looking for Native guidance as it pursues “truth and reconciliation.”
“We need to be about listening and hearing and then following the lead of our Alaska Native people on the best way forward, and so really we’re just at the start of this process,” he said.
Lattime said Alaska Natives will be well represented in a state delegation which will attend a national Episcopal Church convention next summer in Baltimore, during which the boarding school issue will be a primary topic.