How Friends Can Make Reparations for Quaker-Run Indigenous Boarding Schools

Superintendent Asa C. Tuttle with Quaker teachers and students at Modoc School, Indian Territory, 1877. Courtesy of Quaker Collections, Haverford College.

Friends across the country are reckoning with historic Quaker involvement in Native American boarding schools. The Quakers who worked at and financially supported the schools felt obligated to teach Indigenous children English, so they could fend for themselves among European settlers. Friends also believed they were “civilizing” Native children by indoctrinating them into Western culture, according to letters, journals, and articles researched by Paula Palmer, co-director of Toward Right Relationship With Native Peoples, a ministry of Friends Peace Teams.

“You know that these people were convinced that what they were doing was right and good,” Palmer said in a telephone interview.

The U.S. federal government operated 408 Native American boarding schools in 37 states (or what were at that time territories) according to a 2022 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Congress is considering companion bills (H.R.5444 and S.2907) that would establish a federal commission to investigate how removing Indigenous children from their families, communities, and cultures impacted them and their relatives at the time and continues to do so in the present.

Quaker historians have begun researching the archives of monthly and yearly meetings to document financial and staffing support for the boarding schools, following the advice of a model minute distributed to yearly meetings by Friends Peace Teams, Decolonizing Quakers, and Quaker Earthcare Witness.

Palmer spent four months at Swarthmore and Haverford colleges in Pennsylvania researching Quaker support and financing of Native American boarding schools. A Cadbury Scholarship from Pendle Hill, a study and retreat center outside of Philadelphia, and a Moore Fellowship from Swarthmore College supported her inquiry. Palmer describes her research as an overview. She suggests that subsequent researchers should examine personnel records from the boarding schools.

Palmer cried a lot while reading the letters and journals of Friends who worked for, or otherwise supported, the boarding schools. Quaker staff and funders of the institutions felt certain that they were helping the students. In fact, the schools deeply harmed children, families, and communities, Palmer said.

Palmer traveled for two weeks visiting the sites of 11 former boarding schools. Remnants and whole school buildings still stand. A local historical society preserved part of a school in Nebraska. The charred ceiling shows that the students set the school on fire to protest mistreatment, Palmer said. Many children ran away from the boarding schools, she added.

Visiting the schools deepened Palmer’s commitment to educate Quakers about their historic role in the institutions. She said, “When you stand there and you see the evidence of the resistance and the despair of the children, it is ultimately motivating.” 

Quaker staff of the boarding schools physically and emotionally abused students, Palmer said. Physically dragging children to have their hair forcibly cut off—an act that stripped Indigenous children of dignity, as short hair suggests cowardice in Native American cultures—is an example of corporal abuse that Palmer cites in her 2016 Friends Journal article on the boarding schools. 

Contemporary Indigenous people suffer from having been severed from knowledge of songs, dances, and language because their parents and grandparents went to Indigenous boarding schools, Palmer said. Teachers forced assimilation by forbidding students to speak Indigenous languages, sing traditional songs, or participate in ceremonial dances. Students in the boarding schools lost the daily experience of loving care from their parents and grandparents. Some legacies of the boarding schools are “diseases of despair” including suicide, interpersonal violence, alcoholism, and substance abuse, according to Palmer.

Palmer has traveled throughout Friends General Conference (FGC) for six years to offer talks, workshops, and slide presentations on her research. She spoke online at the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists on October 19. Readers can learn more about her work by watching this video https://vimeo.com/192219802/376f2f1ddb.

Contemporary Indigenous people suffer from having been severed from knowledge of songs, dances, and language because their parents and grandparents went to Indigenous boarding schools

Archival research on Quaker support for the boarding schools

A minute adopted by New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) in August, 2022 commits that yearly meeting’s Permanent Board to working with the Archives Committee and the Right Relationship Resource Group to research Quaker support of Native American boarding schools.

The minute acknowledges that such research might require funds beyond the usual operating budget. Many Friends have experience writing grants and could help apply for additional money to support the research, said Leslie Manning, clerk of the Permanent Board, in a telephone interview. One challenge for researchers is that New England Quakers split into two yearly meetings in 1845 before reuniting in 1945. The relevant documents are archived at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as well as in state historical societies. In addition, families in the yearly meeting might have journals and letters written by relatives who worked for the boarding schools or otherwise supported them. 

Manning wrote in an email that a small group of Friends from NEYM will complete a “scope of work” study to determine how best to research the archives and other sources to document New England Quaker involvement in the boarding schools. “We don’t know the extent of our relationship with the boarding schools; we definitely know we were involved,” Manning wrote.

Other yearly meetings have begun researching their archives.

After spending four days at the Standing Rock protest in 2016 (the plane ticket was a birthday gift from her daughter), Julie M. Finch returned to New York City and joined the New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) Indian Affairs Committee, which she now co-clerks.

Familiar with research work, being the daughter of a genealogist, Finch volunteered to investigate the yearly meeting’s financial support of Native American boarding schools. She has relied on the digitized repository of meeting minutes at the New York Public Library, as well as documents housed in the library of Swarthmore College. She considers documenting the financial contributions to the boarding schools essential to uncovering Quaker involvement. The work is painstaking and ongoing. “I’m just in the middle of all these details,” Finch said. (Brendan Glynn is the other co-clerk of the NYYM’s Indian Affairs Committee.)

Individual Friends can support their monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings in allocating money, staff, and time to archival research on boarding school involvement. 

Individual Friends can support their monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings in allocating money, staff, and time to archival research on boarding school involvement. 

Supporting legislation to form a Truth and Healing Commission 

Quakers can also urge their Congress members to pass bills that would form a boarding school truth and healing commission. The truth and healing commission would suggest methods to safeguard unmarked burial sites, assist with repatriation, discover from which nations students were removed, and prevent state child welfare agencies from fracturing Indigenous families, according to a summary of the proposed legislation at www.congress.gov.

Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker lobbying organization in Washington, D.C., recommends contacting Congress members to ask them to co-sponsor the bills establishing the Truth and Healing Commission. FCNL endorses subpoena power for the Commission.

In a video-conference interview, Portia Skenandore-Wheelock, congressional advocate for Native American Policy at FCNL, said, “The purpose of that subpoena power is [to be] part of the truth-telling process.” The ability to subpoena records would empower the commission to gather documents from entities that wish to hide historic involvement in boarding schools or whose members do not know about their previous participation in the institutions, Skenandore-Wheelock said. 

FCNL’s Young Adult Advocacy Corps especially encouraged Quakers to support the legislation establishing the Commission, Skenandore-Wheelock said. If their monthly or yearly meetings have approved minutes endorsing the bills, Friends can share copies of those minutes with Congress. 

Readers can ask their monthly and yearly meetings to approve the model minute promoted by Friends Peace Teams, Decolonizing Quakers, and Quaker Earthcare Witness. The model minute calls on Friends to lobby Congress in favor of the Truth and Healing Commission legislation and research their meetings’ historic support of the schools. 

Quakers can also thank Congressional representatives who co-sponsored the bills. A group titled Towards Right Relationship with Indigenous Peoples that can be found at Twin Cities Meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, sent thank-you letters to four congresswomen from Minnesota, wrote member Diane Peterson in an email.

When Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) held a small bipartisan women’s gathering in August 2022, Cathy Walling attended and thanked Murkowski for having co-sponsored legislation aimed at establishing the truth and healing commission. Along with Jan Bronson, Walling serves as co-clerk of Alaska Quakers Seeking Right Relationships.

The model minute calls on Friends to lobby Congress in favor of the Truth and Healing Commission legislation and research their meetings’ historic support of the schools. 

Donating money to Native-run Indigenous language schools

Some Friends have committed to financially supporting Native American language schools that are directed by Indigenous people. Students at Indigenous boarding schools were forbidden from speaking their mother tongue, so these languages are in danger of dying out. Indigenous people working on language-reclamation projects must race against time.

“They want to reclaim the language before they lose the elders who grew up with it and speak it well,” Leslie Manning, clerk of the Permanent Board of NEYM, said in a telephone interview. “Language is a way of rematriating the culture,” Manning added.

Other Friends echoed Manning’s view that Quakers could begin to make reparations by funding Indigenous language schools. Paula Palmer suggested individual Friends and meetings contribute to such institutions with the intent to counteract the effort in the boarding schools staff’s to “annihilate” Native languages.

Jeanne Landkamer, member of Twin Cities Meeting, wrote in an email:

An important step Friends can take, both individually and collectively, to address the deep harms caused by boarding schools is to support Native language revitalization. One of the key ways that Native children in boarding schools were harmed was by being forbidden to use their own language and often treated brutally if they did. 

Quakers could begin to make reparations by funding Indigenous language schools. Individual Friends and meetings contribute to such institutions with the intent to counteract the effort in the boarding schools staff’s to “annihilate” Native languages.

Seeking relationships with and guidance from Indigenous People

Quakers should not rush into offering reparations without first asking Indigenous people what actions they would welcome, according to Liseli Haines, former co-clerk of the New York Yearly Meeting’s (NYYM) Indian Affairs Committee. Remembering that at least some Quakers who supported the boarding schools mistakenly understood their work to benefit Native children should make present-day Friends wary of giving Indigenous communities well-intentioned assistance that might cause harm.

“It seems to me that one of the most important steps is to build relationships with Native people in their area and find out what the Indigenous people want from us,” Haines said in a telephone interview. Haines spoke with this reporter on the phone, along with Buffy Curtis, also a former co-clerk of the NYYM’s Indian Affairs Committee. 

Haines and Curtis belong to the ally group Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation. They have also learned from Paula Palmer to offer the “Roots of Injustice, Seeds of Change” presentation.

Haines returned approximately 30 acres of her land in New York State to women from the Oneida Nation in 2019. Skenandore-Wheelock of FCNL is one of the Oneida women who received the land. 

Curtis and Haines participated with local Indigenous people in a boating trip to commemorate the Two Row Wampum Treaty, a seventeenth-century agreement pledging peace and equal coexistence between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. The journey helped Haines and Curtis establish friendships with local Native Americans and learn about their concerns and priorities.

Participants did not undertake the commemorative voyage lightly. “There was a year of preparation and education before it even happened,” Curtis said. 

Friends can begin seeking connections with Indigenous communities by visiting museums and cultural centers as well as by attending pow-wows, Haines suggested.

Other Friends recommended supporting and following the lead of the Indigenous-run National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). Carolyn Carr Latady, an attender at Twin Cities Meeting, wrote in an email: 

Quakers could sign up for e-news updates from the organization, singly or as a group; apply for membership; and advocate for local school districts to use NABS curricular resources to teach Native American history. 

“Southeast Yearly Meeting’s Committee (SEYM) for Ministry on Racism encouraged the yearly meeting to contribute at least $300 a year—a large sum for their yearly meeting—to NABS,” wrote Kathy Hersh, rising clerk of SEYM’s Committee for Ministry on Racism.

Friends can begin seeking connections with Indigenous communities by visiting museums and cultural centers as well as by attending pow-wows.

Spiritual necessity for reparations

Friends should seek to make reparations for historic participation in Native American boarding schools in order to promote healing of Indigenous communities as well as Quakers’ own spiritual health.

According to an email copy provided by co-clerk Mike Huber,  a minute approved in June by the Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting (SCYMF) encourages Friends 

to acknowledge and repent of the harm that Quakers inflicted on Indigenous children and their families by operating Indigenous boarding schools and by promoting the federal policy of forced assimilation of Indigenous children . . . to provide space for collective lamentation: a time and/or space to acknowledge, grieve, and integrate these truths, with the guidance of the Spirit. 

Palmer considers truth-telling about participation in the boarding schools essential to Quaker spiritual wholeness. “I really hope that Quakers will understand that this is work that is necessary for our own souls, for our own integrity, for our own cleansing and healing,” Palmer said.

Friends can lobby their Congress members to co-sponsor the bills using this FCNL campaign. Other Friends recommended supporting and following the lead of the indigenous-run National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). Readers can view Indigenous People’s testimony on the legislation at these links, which Skenandore-Wheelock provided. Here are links to testimony on the House and Senate versions of the bill: 

1 thought on “How Friends Can Make Reparations for Quaker-Run Indigenous Boarding Schools

  1. Thank you for teaching me about the Quaker involvement in Indian boarding schools. I have been appalled at learning about these schools and had no idea that Friends participated. It’s no good pointing fingers when it seems everybody was to blame, even if they thought they wee doing a good thing.

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