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What hides in the records from WA Catholic Native boarding schools? Tribes may soon find out

caption: A church at St. Mary’s Mission is shown on Thursday, July 20, 2017, in Omak.
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A church at St. Mary’s Mission is shown on Thursday, July 20, 2017, in Omak.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

The Catholic Church has started reviewing records of its boarding schools for Native students, a spokesperson for Catholic bishops in Washington state said. This comes after increasing calls for greater transparency and accountability from the Catholic Church.

Catholic missions ran many of the boarding schools in the Pacific Northwest, and they still have records of who passed through those schools, including here in Washington.

Helen McClenahan is the chief communication officer for the Archdiocese of Seattle, one of three major dioceses in Washington state. The Seattle archdiocese manages the church in Western Washington.

McClenahan said the Archdiocese of Seattle does not speak on behalf of the Vatican, but there has been a statewide approach to address what happened at Native boarding schools. McClenahan said the decision came after Washington bishops discussed the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children found in a Canadian boarding schools in 2021.

“Through these conversations, the bishops engaged with the bishops in Spokane and Yakima to take a more comprehensive look at the Native American experience historically,” she said.

That led bishops to announce last year they've hired a researcher whose job is to locate and decipher church records from Native boarding schools in Washington state.

That work is now nearing its end. Next month the bishops will meet to review the findings. Then the bishops from the Archdiocese of Seattle will consult with their Native American Advisory Board about what they’ve learned, and how they’ll share the information.

The Archdiocese works with people from several tribes including the Lummi Nation, the Tulalip Tribes, and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, McClenahan said. All three tribes had children sent to nearby Catholic mission schools.

Groups nationwide have been calling for the Vatican to make the records at boarding schools available for tribes who had children sent to those schools, often against their will.

Deborah Parker is a member of the Tulalip Tribes, and CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. They've been one of the groups calling on the Vatican to release boarding school records.

Parker said the impact from these schools is felt through generations. Her coalition is building a database of people who have gone through Native boarding schools.

“This goes down to even in my family we want to know what happened to my great-great grandmother,” she said.

The impacts range from family to family. Some people went to boarding schools and didn’t come back home.

Parker said they need the Catholic Church’s records to complete this work.

“What happened to them? We don't even know where they went, where are they?" she said. "Where are the burial sites?”

But Parker said getting complete records is only one part of the healing process.

“There's a tremendous amount of listening to do and bringing those survivor stories forward so that we can begin that truth telling, begin that healing and find some justice for those who have suffered for generations,” she said.

On Sunday, Deb Haaland, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, will be in the Seattle area as part of a nationwide listening tour for survivors and descendants of boarding school survivors.

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