Things are not looking up for Indigenous Americans this Thanksgiving. The Supreme Court is considering the retraction of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. Cherokees in Oklahoma are suing for the seat in the House of Representatives to which they are entitled under a treaty signed 187 years ago but never honored. Last summer, Pope Francis went to Canada in a wheelchair, in person, because the Catholic school system had sexually and physically abused Indigenous children forced to go to church-run schools by the Canadian government.
Sitting at the center of a powwow circle, amid teepees and traditional headdresses, the Pope begged forgiveness “for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples… in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated…in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
Cultural destruction sums it up.
The U.S. will celebrate Thanksgiving on November 24–the holiday which the Pilgrims celebrated in 1621 after their first harvest in the New World, with 90 Wampanoag Native American people. It is well past time to take a page from Canada’s reconciliation playbook.
Most Americans know about the “Trail of Tears,” about the broken treaties, and the pushing of natives off their homeland. What is less known is that U.S. government also forced Native Americans into reeducation camps they called schools.
Those schools were not simply places of learning. They were meant to erase the native identities of the students by requiring haircuts, new Christian names, and uniforms. The Department of the Interior recently released a report that identified more than 400 such schools across the country. They remained in operation for 200 years–from the 1700s into the 1960s. Even as the Biden administration implores China to shut down its forced reeducation centers for its Indigenous Uyghur population, our own genocidal practices go unacknowledged.
This past July, at a reconciliation hearing in Oklahoma, tribal elders from different areas of the U.S. testified about the beatings, whippings, sexual assaults, and racial slurs they endured while in schools designed to strip them of their cultural identities. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, attended. She said, “Federal Indian boarding school policies have touched every Indigenous person I know. Some are survivors, some are descendants. We carry the trauma in our hearts.”
So, what are we going to do about it?
There are several treaties to sign–the U.S. failed to endorse or sign the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People–which is unsurprising since the U.S. government signed 368 treaties with native tribes from 1778 to 1871 and broke nearly all of them.
We could offer more accessible health care. American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy that is nearly six years less than the rest of our population.
We could offer job training and mentorships. The 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data reported the unemployment rate among Native Americans was 6.6 percent, aligning closely with the percentage of African Americans at 6.5 percent, but lagging far behind Hispanics at 4.7 percent, and Whites at 3.5 percent. Native Americans have a poverty rate of 25 percent, over three times the poverty rate of White Americans.
We could offer scholarships. Despite increases in educational attainment over the last 25 years, Native Americans have the lowest educational achievement rates in comparison to other national racial and ethnic groups, with only 14 percent of Native Americans having a bachelor’s degree or higher.
At the very least, we could at least follow the Pope’s example and apologize.
We could offer, as Canada did, billions of dollars in payments and reparations to Indigenous communities. We could return most of the 85 million acres of lands our forefathers appropriated for our national park system. Returning the national parks would be a meaningful form of restitution, reversing an era of ecocidal land use and pollution, allowing renewed Indigenous stewardship and reverence for the Earth to regenerate land and wildlife.
We could set up an American Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The truth must be told, recorded, and verified.
Our forthcoming book, “Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence,” details the cases of Indigenous people around the world targeted for extinction because of their beliefs and spirituality. Healing and reconciliation start with correcting the lies we have told about Indigenous communities, whether from the mouths of presidents or the pages of our school textbooks.
The fact is that over the centuries millions of Native Americans have died from violence, forced assimilation, enslavement, displacement, and starvation. Entire cultures were destroyed, and those Native Americans who survived face an uphill battle to heal, reclaim their rights, and rebuild their traditional way of life.
In the face of unspeakable atrocities, we often do not know how to make things right. This is why the example of Pope Francis in Canada resonates. While living Americans are not responsible for what our ancestors did, we can claim responsibility for the society we live in now—and chart a more constructive and healing way forward.