Religious institutions have done catastrophic harm to Indigenous peoples over the centuries. The stated mission of government boarding schools was to “civilize” Indigenous children by eradicating Native culture and religion. This genocide was sponsored by the United States government, and carried out by religious institutions, in the name of Jesus. This was done by dividing the country up into “Indian agencies” that were each managed by a federal employee called an “Indian agent”. It was the Indian Agent’s job to regulate trade with Native Nations and ensure that the Federal policies designed to subjugate and assimilate Indigenous peoples were carried out. This included making sure that all Indigenous children went to boarding school, away from their families, where their language and culture could be stripped from them most effectively. Between 1869 and the 1960s, federal agents removed hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children from their homes and took them to boarding schools. In 1872 the U.S. government assigned agencies to the following denominations, which ran the boarding schools in their respective area:
Methodists, fourteen agencies in the Pacific Northwest (54,743 Indians)
Orthodox Friends, ten agencies, scattered (17,724)
Presbyterian, nine agencies, in the Southwest (38,069)
Episcopalians, eight agencies, in the Dakotas (26,929)
Catholics, seven agencies (17,856)
Hicksite Friends, six agencies (6,598)
Baptists, five agencies, in Utah, Idaho, and the Indian Territory (40,800)
Reformed Dutch Church, five agencies (8,118)
Congregationalists, three agencies (14,476)
Christians, two agencies (8,287)
Unitarians, two agencies (3,800)
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in the Indian territory of Oklahoma (1,496)
Lutherans, one agency (273)
We are just beginning to understand the full impact that boarding schools had on Indigenous people, communities, and families. The U.S. Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, recently announced that her department will investigate the schools and their lasting impact on the lives of Indigenous people.
Looking upstream of my dad’s lineage, it’s clear that my grandparents attending boarding school is where we lost our language and cultural ties. Both my grandfather and my grandmother knew only Navajo before they went to boarding school. Even though both of my dad’s parents were fluent in Navajo, they didn’t teach my dad or any of his siblings to speak it: they wanted their children to have a good education, so they wanted them to speak only English, just as they had been taught in the boarding schools. I’ve never heard my dad or any of his 5 siblings speak Navajo, and I am struggling to learn it myself. The pressure to learn, and pass on this language is crushing because I know that if I don’t learn my language and teach it to my children, it could cease to exist. This pressure is even greater for Indigenous people who belong to nations who only have a few fluent speakers left. The loss I feel, not having been raised speaking Navajo, is immense. Language has the power to shift an entire worldview; I know that the English language is insufficient to express a Diné worldview. Because of this, I will keep trying to learn my language. With each Diné word I learn, I am reclaiming what the boarding schools took from my family.
Today, many government-run Indian boarding schools still exist. Indigenous advocacy organizations are in the process of taking a boarding school inventory, so that we know where to look for the bodies of the children who didn’t come home. Most boarding schools are closed, or repurposed. Some boarding schools are now tribally-run, meaning a tribal government is now in charge of running the school. Often, these tribally-run schools have language programs to make sure that Indigenous youth today are equipped with their Native languages.
Fort Lewis College, where I earned my undergrad degree in psychology, is a former Indian boarding school. When I was 15, the first trip I took with Angela (the abusive youth minister) and the youth group was to Fort Lewis College for summer church camp. It was the trip that won me over, got me to join the church permanently, and marked the beginning of what would quickly become a toxic relationship with Angela.
I believed that Angela only wanted what was best for me, which is why I listened to her when she told me that dating is sinful. To back up her claim, she often quoted Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians 7, summing it up for me so I wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of interpreting it myself. “Paul says that only weak people need partners and spouses, but strong people stay single” she repeatedly told me. She told me that it was sinful to want love and partnership from anyone except Jesus. Because I trusted her, I took note. I was not weak, so I would not date, and I definitely wouldn’t marry. For two years, I turned down dates and denied crushes, trying my best to be a good, strong leader in the eyes of Angela and the Lord. Angela told me to deny myself love and connection to stay pure, leaving more of my time available to fill her emotional needs.
Ironically, it was love for a boy that finally gave me the courage to stand up to Angela and bring an end to our toxic relationship. The boy’s name was Chris. He was also in the youth group, and he was one of the smartest, funniest, most talented people I had ever met. He still is.
Angela knew that I liked Chris, and she was very jealous of the time and energy I spent with him. She tried everything in her power to keep me away from him. She told me he wasn’t any good for me. She said it was sinful for me to care about him. She told me that I idolized him, which was ungodly. She constantly encouraged me to “fast from him”, which I did multiple times throughout high school, always returning to him when the prescribed month of fasting was over. In her harsher moments, Angela’s words hurt.
“You’re not even in love with him,” she said. “You’re in love with the idea of him. He is just an idol, and you don’t know what love is.”
Angela’s gaslighting was one of her more harmful tactics because it made me question what I knew.
Do I know what love is? I think I have a good understanding, but maybe Angela is right, and this feeling is just the devil’s way of trying to distract me from God. If she’s right, I need to shove this feeling down, and focus on making God my only idol. Of course she’s right; she’s a church leader. She went to school for this, and she’s read the entire Bible. She’s much older and wiser than me, and it’s her job to know this. This feeling must be bad, and it can’t be love.
These thoughts were so far from the truth, but I didn’t know any better at the time. In hindsight, I know that two things are true: 1) I probably did have Chris on a pedestal, because he could play guitar and sing well, and he drove an old stick shift Bronco, which I thought was awesome, and 2) I was definitely in love with him.
Leading a child to question their own feelings, as Angela did, is a very harmful thing to do, and can lead to feelings of paranoia, depression, and self-doubt. As an adult, I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to learn how to validate my own feelings and trust people again. When we’re honest about them, feelings are important guides that can lead us in the right direction. And trusting others is an essential part of a happy life. In traditional Diné teachings, there is an important concept called Hózhó. It means that inner harmony and respectful thought, speech, and behavior should be nurtured, and that all relationships should be supportive and positive. In my formative years, I was looking to Angela for spiritual leadership, and she did not teach or embody the concept of hózhó. So I am largely learning it as an adult; I am learning how to be honest with myself and honor my feelings. I am learning that feeling insecurity and shame in a relationship means it’s time to leave, not try harder.
As my connection to Chris grew stronger, Angela attempted to tighten her grip on me. The summer after I graduated from high school, I made a plan to go see Chris in Nashville, where he was pursuing a career in music. My parents were comfortable with me going, because they trusted me and they liked Chris. But Angela hated my plan. She spent the summer trying to convince me not to go to Nashville, and shaming me for wanting to pursue a relationship with Chris. In her mind, I was being weak and sinful, and she had no trouble sharing that opinion with me. I absorbed everything Angela said to me that summer as truth, but I no longer cared. If going to see Chris was sinful, then I would live in sin, I decided. If wanting connection with him made me weak and pathetic, then I would be weak and pathetic while he held me in his arms. And if loving him made me a bad Christian, then I would burn in hell for eternity. I was tired of trying to convince Angela of my goodness, so I embraced being bad.
Chris and I had a wonderful week together in Nashville, and it was great to see his new life. He was chasing his dream and I felt so proud of him. When I returned to Farmington a week later, it was clear that Angela was no longer my friend, boss, or even acquaintance. I was no longer in the circle. To her, I had proven that I was a foolish and sinful girl beyond the possibility of redemption. To myself, I proved that I could no longer be controlled by her manipulation.
Looking back, I feel so thankful for the love I felt for Chris. My love for Chris was the only thing strong enough to pull me out of the spin cycle of abuse that Angela kept me in. But walking away from my relationship with Angela was only the beginning of what would be a very long healing process.
After high school, it would take me years to begin to understand the effects that Angela’s emotional and spiritual manipulation had on me. Emotional abuse can lead to a multitude of challenges for the victim, including a core feeling of worthlessness, difficulty establishing trust, trouble developing healthy relationships, chronic body pain, depression, and thoughts of suicide. I have experienced each of these symptoms and more. I tell you this not to evoke sympathy, but to help you understand that emotional abuse has lasting effects for both on the victims of abuse and those who love them. I’m learning that healing is not something that is done alone. I’ve had to humble myself to share difficult thoughts and feelings with those close to me. And my support system is always there to ground me in important truths and positivity that I can so easily forget: It wasn’t my fault that Angela abused me as a child. I am worthy of love and relationships that feel respectful and meet my needs. It’s ok to want a loving, committed relationship. And I am strong and smart and deserving of love that doesn’t hurt.
It is important for everyone to know that suffering from lasting symptoms of emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual abuse does not make you weak. For proof, look at our elders who have experienced so much pain, yet live their lives with love, strength, and humility. Indigenous people are resilient AF, but we shouldn’t have to be.