Breaking our denial
Mark Charles shares his reaction to the injustice of Canada's residential school system and the continued injustices against Native peoples
Content warning: The following post is about severe injustices faced by the Native communities of Turtle Island, or North America.
Over the last several days, you may have seen the heinous story of a mass grave being unearthed in Canada that contained the remains of 215 Native children. According to the BBC:
A mass grave containing the remains of 215 children has been found in Canada at a former residential school set up to assimilate indigenous people.
The children were students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia that closed in 1978.
The discovery was announced on Thursday by the chief of the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was a "painful reminder" of a "shameful chapter of our country's history".
The First Nation is working with museum specialists and the coroner's office to establish the causes and timings of the deaths, which are not currently known.
Rosanne Casimir, the chief of the community in British Columbia's city of Kamloops, said the preliminary finding represented an unthinkable loss that was never documented by the school's administrators.
Canada's residential schools were compulsory boarding schools run by the government and religious authorities during the 19th and 20th Centuries with the aim of forcibly assimilating indigenous youth.
On Sunday May 30, 2021, Mark Charles preached for Hope Hell’s Kitchen for the second week in a row, wrapping up his teaching on Acts 10. The two messages pushed our church to wrestle with Scripture in ways that many are rarely encouraged to, and to ask—and confront—the question: How important is the discipleship, the guidance, of the Holy Spirit in our faith? (You can watch both sermons in the videos at the bottom of this story.)
After service on May 30, Mark graciously hung out on our Zoom call to interact with us, answering any questions we had. Near the end of our time together, someone messaged me the story of these 215 children, and so I asked Mark about it.
“I saw the news when it first broke,” he told us. “Two-hundred-and-fifteen Native children dying in a school usually means they were killed. Canada has had a process with their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and so they’ve been dealing more intentionally with their history of boarding schools, but even this news, this is very devastating. Canada was a bit more robust in their implementation of boarding schools than the U.S. was; the stories are horrific from both nations, but the stories from Canada are especially horrific about what they did in the boarding schools and how they mistreated the Native children.”
Carolyn Bennett serves as the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations for Canada and recently said, “Residential schools were part of a colonial policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities. Thousands of children were sent to these schools and never returned to their families. The loss of children who attended these schools is unthinkable.” To be clear, the residential school system was set up by the Canadian government and operated by churches, and more often than not, operated by the Catholic church.
“On one hand, this isn’t news,” Mark added. “We knew this was happening. But this is evidence of how egregious the injustice was against the Native students and Native peoples. They found these graves today and I’m sure there are a lot of people in the community, both in Canada and throughout the U.S., who are mourning because this opens up that same wound that’s been festering for a long time.”
As Mark shared his reaction to this specific news, it opened up a conversation for the ongoing erasure of Native communities in North America. Mark had no intention of creating an “oppression olympics” as he called it, but he did want to make sure we began to understand how different injustices have been enacted against different communities.
“The way race was constructed in the U.S., the Black race was constructed, in part, through the ‘one-drop rule,’” he said, “where it was said if you had a single drop of African blood, you were Black. We had this rule because Black people were the labor force and we wanted to multiply that demographic as best as possible. This allowed white slaveowners to rape their female slaves and produce more children that they could enslave. This resulted in a massive growth of the Black population.”
Because of this growth, this put the Black community much more at the forefront of people’s minds. For Native peoples, the opposite became the reality.
“Our race, the American Indian race, was constructed through what was called ‘blood quantum' [laws],’” he explained. “This states that depending on who you marry, you’re considered ‘full,’ then ‘half,’ then ‘a quarter,’ then ‘an eighth,’ and then eventually you can be bred out of existence.” You might ask yourself why this rule exists. As Mark asserted, it’s because the mythology of the land of America is that it was empty and there were no people here. “And now, we have treaty obligations to Native peoples, so the government wants as few Native peoples as possible. The American Indian race was constructed to breed us out of existence.”
Mark went on to explain that because of this reality, the history of Native nations being ethnically cleansed from the lands on which they lived is almost completely unknown to most. Simply put, most Americans are not aware of these histories.
“We have the injustices against the African Americans in our line of sight, it’s at the forefront, and we have the injustices against the Native peoples hidden and not seen at all,” he lamented. “Most people are not aware of this, but Native men actually have a higher chance of being killed by police officers than Black men do. As a Native male, I’m more likely to be killed by a police officer. Because we have a smaller number of people, it happens less frequently, but there is a higher percentage. Our stories literally don’t get covered. They don’t get covered in the news, so people don’t see them.”
As he considered this juxtaposition of injustices and different communities, Mark also considered the grim discovery of the mass grave in Canada. “Things like what happened there, where they discover the remains of 215 children … when it comes to our history with African people and Black people, our nation has been working very hard to sanitize and declaw the conversation as best we can. The Native conversation, we don’t have any clue what to do with it. We’ve never wrestled with it. It’s not that one community has faced more injustice than the other. It’s just that there are different levels of visibility.”
As he ended his thoughts on this particular topic, Mark challenged our church to contend with the history that precedes us. “Stories like this make our history so undeniable, and yet, our nation is doing everything it can to stay in this state of denial,” he remarked.
Hope Hell’s Kitchen strives to be an antiracist church, fearlessly led by the Spirit in all we say and do, and to break ourselves out of this denial. We are grateful for voices like Mark who have invested in our community as we continue to grow in this beloved and complex neighborhood.
And if you are at all convicted to join us on this journey, we encourage you to read Mark’s book, co-written with Soong-Chan Rah: Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.
You can watch Mark’s first sermon on Acts 10:1-20 below, followed by his sermon on Acts 10:21-48.
Mark Charles - Hope Hell’s Kitchen - May 23, 2021
Mark Charles - Hope Hell’s Kitchen - May 30, 2021