Forgive you, Father 

Decades of abuse by the Catholic Church resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements and the bankruptcy of the Diocese of Helena, but it will take more than money to make things right for survivors.

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If a child wet his bed, he was forced to stand with his arms straight out to the side like Christ on the cross while the urine-drenched sheets were draped on his shoulders to air dry.

"You got beat and then you got raped," Salois says.

Ken Bear Chief, the paralegal who has helped organize Native American abuse victims across the West, says he sees terrible intentions in the systematic abuse that happened at St. Ignatius.

"With pedophiles, it's not about sex or satisfaction," he says. "It's about power and control."

That desire for control meshed well with the broader role of the Catholic mission schools in Indian Country. Bear Chief believes the Church was part and parcel of the national effort to eradicate the heritage of western tribes that began with forced relocation and the killing of the bison in the 19th century. He says the sexual, physical and spiritual violence at St. Ignatius and other reservation schools was part of a genocide.

"Any time that you deprive any society, any race of people of their language, of their religion, of their culture and traditions, that is genocide," says Bear Chief. "The policy of the day was 'kill the Indian and save the man.' And these mission schools, they embraced this philosophy."

click to enlarge Clarissa Nichols, a member of the Kootenai tribe, went to years of counseling to try to overcome her experience with sexual, physical and verbal abuse at the St. Ignatius Mission. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Clarissa Nichols, a member of the Kootenai tribe, went to years of counseling to try to overcome her experience with sexual, physical and verbal abuse at the St. Ignatius Mission.

In his deep-voiced, deliberate speech, Burke makes a poignant remark that perfectly captures Bear Chief's point:

"They used us for their playthings and stole our culture and everything, you know," he says. "I don't even consider myself an Indian or a white man. I have to live in this world now because ... I don't know my heritage."

The role of the Catholic mission schools in assimilating Native American children to the dominant European-American culture is well known. The U.S. government, in its zeal to conquer the West, often relied on the infrastructure of the Catholic missions to accomplish its goals.

"[The Catholic missions] are tacitly part of this broader government policy," says Aaron Hyams, a doctoral student in history at Marquette University who studies the Flathead Indian Reservation. "The government had to tolerate their presence because Catholics got out to the tribes so quickly and had such a vast infrastructure in the 19th century, especially in the case of a reservation like the Flathead."

The Catholics were in western Montana early. Father Pierre-Jean De Smet and Father Adrian Hoecken established the St. Ignatius mission at its current location in 1854. De Smet came to Montana after the Salish tribe sent envoys to St. Louis in the 1830s to request the presence of "black robes" in the Bitterroot Valley.

The first school at St. Ignatius opened in 1856 and eventually evolved into the Ursuline Academy, the on-site boarding school for Salish and Kootenai boys and girls that was the site of many of the worst abuses.

In the beginning, the federal government financed the national network of mission schools, says Hyams. By the turn of the 20th century, however, federal funds dried up and mission schools like St. Ignatius turned to private donations and tribal funds in order to continue to operate.

In the end, tribes were using federal annuities to pay for the eradication of their own culture and the sexual abuse of their children at Catholic mission schools. But they didn't really have a choice.

When Burke, Dowdall and Salois were at school in St. Ignatius, a new wave of assimilationist fervor had gripped the nation. The federal government's "termination" policy sought to break up the tribes as sovereign legal entities during the 1950s and '60s.

"How [this policy] manifested itself in the schools, especially in the government schools, was a return to some of the older pushes for assimilation that took place in the early 20th century and the late 19th century," Hyams says.

One particularly prominent outcome of the termination policy was the passage of Public Law 280 in many of the states that contained Indian tribes. The law placed Indian reservations under the jurisdiction of state law and forced tribes to adhere to the mandatory schooling policies of state governments. Local Catholic mission schools were often the only, if not the best, choice for financially strained Native American families.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"The United States was virtually requiring Indian families to send their children to these schools. It was a mandatory education process," says Blaine Tamaki, one of the lead attorneys in the case against the Ursulines and the Diocese of Helena. "These residential schools were created to 'tame the wild beasts' as the racists used to say."

Burke and Salois both recall a Kootenai-speaking truancy officer who roamed the Flathead reservation picking up kids who ran away from St. Ignatius. If parents refused to send their kids back, they faced jail time and other penalties.

"I would run away, and drag my brother along with me, and we would walk home and sit around with my grandpa and uncle and try to tell them what happened to us," Salois says. "They either didn't believe or they didn't care. I would try to tell them but it didn't work and I'd get sent back."

Salois' grandfather finally believed him and broke him out of school for good in 1958.

"When the cops and parole officers came he told them to get the hell off our property," he says. "We weren't going back."

For the survivors, the violence at St. Ignatius has had ripple effects that are impossible to quantify. Clarissa Nichols, Burke's older sister, attended the Ursuline Academy from 1957 to 1962. She says the abuse made her mean. She spent her youth fending off priests in the school's dark halls and her adulthood fending off the world with drink and distrust.

"I was afraid of people behind me. I was always watching my back, always afraid," she says. "It's like post traumatic stress disorder ... it never leaves you."

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