The Holy Rosary Mission Church on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Raymond Bucko, SJ

Mary Annette Pember: Catholic Church took $30 million in trust funds from Indian students

The impacts of the Indian boarding and day school era extend beyond the emotional, physical and sexual abuse suffered by students. The financial toll, it turns out, was heavy as well.

In some cases, schools run by religious institutions took money from students themselves, Mary Annette Pember reports following a year-long effort by Type Investigations and In These Times. When adjusted for inflation, she discovered that the Catholic Church took $30 million in funds held in trust for individual Indians -- all to pay for tuition at their schools:

According to Pember's extensive reporting, the practice began in 1900 and was even the subject of a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It continued for several more decades, stopping only because the trust accounts at the Bureau of Indian Affairs eventually ran dry:

In 1900, Catholic leadership introduced the idea of allowing Native Americans to authorize the federal government to divert individual Native treaty and trust funds to pay for tuition at Catholic schools. Shortly after, a group of three Sioux Indians from South Dakota sued the federal government, arguing the agreements amounted to theft. Schooling should have already been provided for free, the plaintiffs argued, through previous treaties. The case, Quick Bear v. Leupp, reached the Supreme Court in 1908.

Ultimately, the court ruled that mission school leaders could ask Native Americans to use individual treaty and trust funds to pay tuition at their religious schools. Chief Justice Melville Fuller wrote that forbidding Natives to use their money as they wanted would deny them free exercise of their rights. Beginning in 1908, then, the principal of each school was required to gather signatures (or thumbprints) from parents to authorize the use of the funds. The petitions then had to be submitted to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions (BCIM) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The cumulative drain from Native families’ wealth was significant. Type Investigations and In These Times located annual reports from BCIM for nine years that Catholic mission schools received funding this way. Given the limited information available to the public, it is difficult to know the total amount of funds paid to the missions during this period. These records, however, offer a glimpse of the scope.

In 1910, BCIM records show Native American parents signed over $128,308 to the mission schools—more than $3.5 million today. In 1935, the schools received $234,675 from Native trust and treaty funds—about $4.3 million today. In total, over the nine years records were available (1910, 1933, 1935, 1939–1943, 1954), Native parents gave the schools some $30.4 million, adjusted for inflation.

This number does not include federal student rations diverted to schools, other federal funding, the value of the extensive Native lands given to the schools by the government, nor the other 53 years between 1908 and 1970 for which records were unavailable.

According to a report from the Raynor Memorial Libraries at Marquette University, a Catholic Jesuit university that maintains a special collection of BCIM archives, the practice stopped in the 1970s—because the Native trusts had been siphoned to depletion.

Read More on the Story
Mary Annette Pember: The Catholic Church Siphoned Away $30 Million Paid to Native People for Stolen Land (In These Times July 7, 2020)

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