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New grant will expand research into Indigenous school history and help envision future relationships

Continued efforts to investigate and explore the troubling history of the Native American boarding schools operated by the Order of Saint Benedict and the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict in the 19th and 20th centuries will receive a big boost thanks to a recently awarded grant from the Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC).

Not only that, but the grant will allow the work to expand to other boarding schools where members of the White Earth Nation were enrolled.

It was announced in June that the College of Saint Benedict was one of 86 recipients of Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment (Legacy) Cultural Heritage awards. The school was awarded $157,514 to be used over the next year to fund a grant proposal titled “Redressing Native American Boarding School Injustices Through Tribal-University Partnerships.”

Ted Gordon, a visiting professor of sociology at CSB and SJU, has previously helped obtain grants from the National Endowment for the HumanitiesCouncil of Independent Colleges and the McKnight Foundation (in partnership with the tribal community, CSB and Saint Benedict’s Monastery).

That funding has helped make possible research into the history of the boarding schools and those who were forced to attend them, conducted by Gordon and his students in cooperation with the monastery and the White Earth Nation in Northwest Minnesota.

Gordon said this grant will be led by CSB and fund a three-part partnership between CSB and SJU, the University of Minnesota-Morris and the White Earth Nation.

“It’s important because there is so much potential for indigenous and non-indigenous institutions like Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s to work together on projects that benefit everyone,” Gordon said. “One of the challenges with so much of indigenous history, especially the more traumatic parts like the boarding schools and the forced assimilation, is that so much of that history has never been taught.

“Working together becomes a challenge when people don’t have a shared understanding. These efforts are meant to help achieve that.”

The boarding schools arose from a federal government policy designed to assimilate Native American children into non-native culture. Attendance was mandated and many children were taken from their homes against their will and the will of their families.

Only three colleges in the nation had such schools located on their campus: CSB, SJU and Minnesota-Morris. Many brought to those schools came from the White Earth Nation.

The Order of Saint Benedict and the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict separately and together ran four boarding schools.

Two were located on the CSB and SJU campuses. But the White Earth Mission School was opened on the reservation in 1878, and soon it became a boarding school. It converted back to a day school in 1945 and closed in 1970. The St. Mary’s Mission School at Red Lake was opened in 1889 and it soon became a boarding school as well, converting to a day school in the 1940s. It’s still open today, though it’s no longer affiliated with OSB or the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. 

Gordon said the new grant will allow for work in three areas:

  • Minnesota-Morris-led archival research into over 20 other boarding schools around the state of Minnesota that also had students from the White Earth band. Researchers will look into the archives to find data from those schools and pull together what they find.
  • The continued compilation of oral histories from those still living who were enrolled or worked at the schools and/or their families, as well as interviews with members of the Minnesota-Morris, CSB and SJU campus communities based around what they would like to see the relationship with native communities look like in the future.

Gordon said the grant previously received from the McKnight Foundation led to 45 interviews into the history of the boarding schools. That work will continue, but adding an examination of what the future should look like is a new component.

“We are the only three campuses in the country that share this history,” Gordon said. “We want to interview key community members and ask how this history has shaped experiences on campus, and what they want to see the relationships with native communities look like in the future. Most oral histories look back, but we want to look forward as well.”

  • The final piece, and the most public facing, will be work between two members of the CSB and SJU department of education, two CSB and SJU students and the White Earth department of education to develop plans for a website on which all the interviews and records being gathered could be hosted. The website would also be used to provide resources for teaching the history of the boarding schools. 

“We want to see these materials used so that future generations will know about this,” Gordon said. “This will not be hidden history anymore. People can learn from it.”

Gordon said the application for the grant was made last December at the request of the White Earth Nation. MHC officials said the number of organizations applying for funding was high.

“This was an unprecedented year for MHC conducting community outreach, promotion, providing technical assistance, reviews and making Legacy grant awards with MHC receiving 568 applications, requesting nearly $60 million dollars across four distinct grant lines,” MHC CEO Kevin Lindsey said in a release announcing the award recipients.

“The competition for Cultural Heritage grants was extremely fierce with 387 applications requesting more than $47 million from a pool that was less than $9 million. We are grateful to the (Minnesota State) Legislature for the additional appropriation this year to allow us to make a few additional Cultural Heritage grant awards.”

Given that demand, Gordon said earning the grant was an honor – one made possible by the cooperation of the White Earth band and Minnesota-Morris.

“So much had to happen for this to come together,” he said. “First, we had to be asked, and we’re honored that we developed enough trust with the White Earth Nation that they’d ask us to take the lead on this and trust us to take on this work. We’ve already been working with them on a number of projects, as has Minnesota-Morris. We haven’t been officially working with Minnesota-Morris, but we’ve developed strong relationships with them because of our shared campus histories.

“This truly was a team effort.”