Native Boarding Schools Revisited - Kit Roberts Johnson

Native Boarding Schools Revisited

I listen to KNBA, an Anchorage radio station. They broadcast a daily program, Native America Calling. Just a few weeks ago, they started sending a weekly email announcing the topics for the week. What I’m sending you today debuted on March 3, 2023, but it reports on the shameful treatment of native Americans, including Alaska natives.

One of the shocking things I learned when I moved to Alaska in 1976, and wrote about in my book, ONLY IN ALASKA!, is the treatment of Alaska native children regarding schooling. The Bureau of Indian Affairs contracted with religious organizations to educate the children until they were old enough to be sent away to boarding schools. Until I moved there, I had no idea there was a system of apartheid written into the law. That system was being dismantled when I arrived in 1976, but the traumas live on.

In 2019, two Alaskan villages sued nine Jesuit priests, volunteers and laypersons who were credibly accused of sexual abuse between 1949 and 1987 in those villages. That’s not back in the 1800’s; that’s while I was there.

Then Sunday night, I made the mistake of watching episode 1 of the television series 1923. In that episode, which takes place in Montana, we are shown an Indian boarding school. The nun punishes a young lady for not pronouncing something correctly by repeatedly slamming a wooden ruler across the back of her hands and fingers. (This is why we have speech therapists. We don’t consider mispronunciation a sin and we don’t punish people for it, we help them.) Later, the Sister takes the girl to the Priest to tell on her. The Priest first beats the Sister, then the girl, this time on the back of her legs until she is dripping with blood. This may have been exactly how it happened, but I refuse to watch it again. I won’t continue with that series. I prefer to live in the present and relieve and repair the trauma of the past as much as possible.

So, to bring you up to date, I have for you a letter from the Catholic Church and the statements from The National Congress of American Indians and The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition responding to the Church letter, provided by Native America Calling.
Kit Roberts Johnson


Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery”, 30.03.2023

1. In fidelity to the mandate received from Christ, the Catholic Church strives to promote universal fraternity and respect for the dignity of every human being.

2. For this reason, in the course of history the Popes have condemned acts of violence, oppression, social injustice and slavery, including those committed against indigenous peoples. There have also been numerous examples of bishops, priests, women and men religious and lay faithful who gave their lives in defense of the dignity of those peoples.

3. At the same time, respect for the facts of history demands an acknowledgement of the human weakness and failings of Christ’s disciples in every generation. Many Christians have committed evil acts against indigenous peoples for which recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions.

4. In our own day, a renewed dialogue with indigenous peoples, especially with those who profess the Catholic Faith, has helped the Church to understand better their values and cultures. With their help, the Church has acquired a greater awareness of their sufferings, past and present, due to the expropriation of their lands, which they consider a sacred gift from God and their ancestors, as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures. As Pope Francis has emphasized, their sufferings constitute a powerful summons to abandon the colonizing mentality and to walk with them side by side, in mutual respect and dialogue, recognizing the rights and cultural values of all individuals and peoples. In this regard, the Church is committed to accompany indigenous peoples and to foster efforts aimed at promoting reconciliation and healing.

5. It is in this context of listening to indigenous peoples that the Church has heard the importance of addressing the concept referred to as the “doctrine of discovery.” The legal concept of “discovery” was debated by colonial powers from the sixteenth century onward and found particular expression in the nineteenth century jurisprudence of courts in several countries, according to which the discovery of lands by settlers granted an exclusive right to extinguish, either by purchase or conquest, the title to or possession of those lands by indigenous peoples. Certain scholars have argued that the basis of the aforementioned “doctrine” is to be found in several papal documents, such as the Bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493).

6. The “doctrine of discovery” is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith. At the same time, the Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples. The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon. Furthermore, Pope Francis has urged: “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”

7. In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being. The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political “doctrine of discovery”.

8. Numerous and repeated statements by the Church and the Popes uphold the rights of indigenous peoples. For example, in the 1537 Bull Sublimis Deus, Pope Paul III wrote, “We define and declare [ … ] that [, .. ] the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect”.

9. More recently, the Church’s solidarity with indigenous peoples has given rise to the Holy See’s strong support for the principles contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The implementation of those principles would improve the living conditions and help protect the rights of indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their identity, language and culture.

Published on MAR 30, 2023

Today, the Vatican released a statement repudiating long held, church-endorsed concepts that “fail[ed] to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.'”

Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery” (

NCAI’s official statement:

“The National Congress of American Indians commends Pope Francis and the Catholic Church for finally repudiating the dehumanizing Doctrine of Discovery and acknowledging what Indigenous peoples have known all along—that the Doctrine ‘did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples’. It is no secret that many governments — including the United States — have relied on this doctrine to justify the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and the taking of our lands. It is our sincere hope that today’s announcement is more than mere words, but rather is the beginning of a full acknowledgement of the history of oppression and a full accounting of the legacies of colonialism—not just by the Roman Catholic Church, but by all the world governments that have used racism, prejudice and religious authority to not only justify past inequalities, but to allow, fuel, and perpetuate the institutionalization of those inequalities that continue to this very day. We thank the Creator that Indigenous peoples are strong, resilient, full of wisdom, faith, hope, and love, and we stand ready to have difficult conversations about the future and to work together to build off of today’s  step forward to bring about meaningful positive change to our people and nations, and for the healing, reconciliation and restoration of all peoples across the globe.”


About the National Congress of American Indians:
Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the United States. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies. NCAI promotes an understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people, and rights. For more information, visit

NCAI Statement on Vatican’s Repudiation of “Doctrine of Discovery” | NCAI


NABS believes Vatican’s statement renouncing Discovery Doctrine lacks accountability 

“While the Vatican’s decision to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery is the right one, it downplays the Church’s role and accountability for the harm it has caused to Native peoples. It does not change the fact that the Church’s views gave permission to colonizers to take Native lands and assimilate Native peoples. 

This doctrine imposed itself into U.S. policies and played a crucial role in justifying the genocide of Native peoples. This led to a series of atrocities, including the forced enrollment of Native children into Indian boarding schools, and gave colonizers the license to steal lands and commit acts of violence against Native children and families for centuries. 

We demand more from the Catholic Church. We demand more transparency, including access to Indian boarding school documents, which they have refused to provide. We demand that the Church returns lands to the Tribal Nations in which it operated Indian boarding schools. 

We demand that the Church supports the Truth and Healing Bill, which would establish a federal commission and conduct a full inquiry into the assimilative policies of U.S. Indian boarding schools. 

And we demand that the Church respects Tribal sovereignty and Indigenous ways of being. We believe these are ways in which the Church can begin to take accountability for their actions.” 

-Deborah Parker (Tulalip), CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS)

NABS statement on Vatican renouncing Doctrine of Discovery Doctrine – The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

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