Native American Boarding Schools
and Religious Archives
A Brief Resource Guide
A robust discussion presently exists over rights to data and access to information: data sovereignty is a concept revolving around the legal and ethical questions of information ownership. Does the data belong to the Native community from which data was collected, or the institute who collected it?
In our quest for healing, religious institutions might consider how they can best serve as vehicles for the just redistribution and appropriate sharing of data. More information about data sovereignty may be found at nativeland.info/about/data-sovereignty
Where to Begin: First Steps
Determine whether your community holds archives related to your operation of or other involvement with Native American boarding schools. Your archivist should be able to help you with this. Key records to look for are annual or monthly mission reports, government contracts, house annals, attendance ledgers, faculty & student lists, correspondence with the chancery or civil or Native officials.
Begin to organize basic facts about the school(s) with which you were involved: How long was this school open? How many students attended this school across its existence? What kinds of records do you hold? What is the status of those records? Where are they?
Determine what kind of records your community is unwilling to share (e.g., personnel records). Be clear about why not. The goal is to be as transparent as possible while respecting both the community and the tribal nations’ privacy needs.
As early in the process as possible, reach out to the tribal nation(s) impacted by the school(s) with which your community was involved to build relationships and to determine proper protocols. Most tribal nations have a Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) responsible for the archival records for their communities and may serve as the initial point of contact for non- Native agencies. If there is no THPO, contact the tribal government. Ask who would be the best person to work with. Let them know that your community has records regarding a boarding school that members of their community attended, and that you want to make sure these records can eventually be accessed by families. Commit to involving them in each step of the process.
Create a “finding aid” – an inventory or catalog – of the relevant records. Depending on the scope of your collection, a brief summary of the collection as a whole, or summaries of each file folder, would be helpful. (Contact ACWR for guidance on how to do this.)
Work with the Native community to determine what records can and should be shared, the manner by which they are shared (such as in an online format or in person), what records are sensitive and should be restricted, what cultural protocols should be kept in mind, and the interpretive lens through which records can be read.
Work with the tribal nation(s) involved to establish a process for determining wider access to records. Boarding school records are not only about you and your community; they are very much about Indigenous people and their history. It is important to respect their right to determine who gets to research and share their story. Religious communities should work with tribal nations to create bodies of approval that determine research access. Many tribal nations will already have established Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) for this purpose.
—This guidance summarizes insights from Maka Black Elk, Executive Director for Truth and Healing at the Jesuit Red Cloud Indian School and board member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS).
“Bishops encourage cooperation to address church’s past in tribal schools,” NCR article
Leadership & Archival Relations
Religious Archives & Canon Law
Canonically, diocesan archives have very broad rules that also apply to “provincial archives” of religious institutes of men and women. Documents concerning the diocese or parish—or religious community—must be kept “with the greatest of care”: established in a safe location, filed in an orderly fashion, and locked. Inventories or catalogs called “finding aids” are to be made of the documents, with short synopses or summaries of the files.
The canonical regulations for curial archives refer to three types of archives— those for general documents concerning spiritual and temporal affairs; secret [restricted] archives; and historical archives. Practical considerations and current standards for effective records management play a role in determining access and organization strategies. Canon law does not have the last word on how knowledge is constructed, but it does provide some useful guidance for how it can be arranged and accessed.