‘Listening session’ on Catholic boarding schools stirs emotions

The Oklahoman [Oklahoma City OK]

January 30, 2022

By Carla Hinton

Ask and you shall receive.

A recent gathering at a rural Catholic church highlighted painful emotions rising to the surface as a Native American couple sought perspectives of people affected by Oklahoma Catholic boarding schools in the state between 1880 and 1965.

The “listening session” at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Konawa ended abruptly after several Native American women spoke about the troubled history of some of the boarding schools. The schools, they said, ultimately stripped many Native youths of their Indigenous identity in assimilation efforts that were often abusive.   

Deacon Roy Callison has been facilitating the sessions with his wife Susan. He said the gatherings, which are conducted by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s American Indian Catholic Outreach, have been informative and generally positive. 

“However, we have begun to get feedback from some people who emphasize the hurt they feel about their language and culture being restricted or taken from them at boarding schools,” he said in an email. “But we want to hear as many varying experiences as possible so we get a fuller picture of our specific history in Oklahoma.”

Such was the case at the session at the Konawa church attended by Amy Warne, of Oklahoma City, and two other Native American women.

The session held after Mass on Jan. 9 was unexpectedly ended by a priest after 30 minutes of remarks by Warne, her sister and a handful of Sacred Heart parishioners. At the time, Roy Callison expressed his surprise at this turn of events, but dutifully ended the program. The Rev. Joseph Reddy Duggempudi, the church’s administrator, told The Oklahoman that several parishioners were upset by some of the comments made by the trio of Native American women.

Indeed, at least one Sacred Heart parishioner said she felt her faith was being attacked by Warne and her group. 

Afterward, Warne, who said she and her sister were raised Catholic, expressed her disappointment with the parishioners’ defensive response to her remarks and the session’s abrupt end. 

“The congregation was not ready to hear what we have to say,” she said while standing in the church foyer.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account

“Our initial idea was to come and support the elders — we brought snacks and water, we brought journals — but none of them are here and it’s very telling.”

Warne, who said she is a member of the Mvskoke and Semvnole tribes, said her idea was to offer support because the topic of the boarding schools is difficult to discuss for some older Native Americans. The metro-area woman said she spoke to the Konawa church parishioners about the Catholic boarding schools in Oklahoma in general in terms of her family members’ memories. She said she heard her uncles talk about abusive things that were done to keep them from practicing their Indigenous culture while at the boarding schools. She said an aunt ran away from home each time someone tried to make her attend one of the schools. 

She and her sister and a friend decided to represent their family members and speak on the topic at hand because there were no other Native Americans there to voice their perspectives. 

“I do think it’s emotionally traumatizing and taxing to ask people to relive those traumas, and when you do relive the traumas, people don’t believe you as what happened here today,” Warne said. “People say they never heard that, ‘I feel attacked,’ ‘those were our ancestors and basically “we shouldn’t be held to what they’ve done”‘ — when in reality, we’re still dealing with the traumas of the re-education camps. We are still learning what our sacred ways were because those were taken from us.” 

During an interview a few days after the gathering in Konawa, Warne wore an orange shirt featuring 215 crosses to represent the Indigenous children found in May 2021 in unmarked graves near the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada.  

She said she has been wrestling with connecting to her Indigenous spiritual traditions which have been suppressed because of the Catholic faith she was raised in. 

“There’s definitely an inner conflict within me in terms of who I really am and now what I’m told to be,” Warne said. “It’s hard when you’ve been taught there is only one way when my spirit says there’s so much more.” 

Meanwhile, a Sacred Heart parishioner who declined to give her name said she was a descendant of Potawatomi Native Americans. Speaking to The Oklahoman after the listening session ended, she said she didn’t remember hearing her relatives talk about any bad memories from the Catholic boarding school they attended. However, she said the Catholic Church likely played a lesser role in any culture shaming that might have taken place at such schools.

“I think if there’s any blame, it probably needs to go on the federal government,” the woman said.  

She said she felt empathy for Warne and others whose family members had negative experiences at the boarding schools.

“I feel for them. That was emotional for me to hear them talk,” she said. 

Another Sacred Heart parishioner, Joe Semtner, also discussed the issues raised during the gathering. 

Semptner, who identified his family as white, said his parents attended the Sacred Heart Catholic Boarding School in Konawa, but neither of them told him about witnessing any bigotry aimed toward their Native American classmates. He said his mother talked about growing up at a time when Catholics faced bigotry in America because of their  faith, and she taught him not to treat people poorly because they were different.

“There were abuses of all kinds back in the day and there still are to some extent, but not the way it used to be,” he said.

Semptner had an optimistic outlook on the listening sessions and people’s willingness to hear perspectives other than their own. 

“I think we hear people speak out and we hear all perspectives like we did here today,” he said. “I think most people are willing to listen.”

Diane Clay, the Oklahoma City archdiocese’s communications director, said the American Indian Catholic Outreach led by the Callisons, and the listening sessions, were started before the official launch of the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project begun by the archdiocese and the Diocese of Tulsa. She said the outreach and the listening sessions have been incorporated into the project because they have a similar objective. Clay said the project also will include oral histories and research conducted by a Marquette University scholar. 

“The main point of the project is we need to understand our history,” she said.