Native Hawaiians urge Synod response to legacy of Indian boarding schools, language loss

The 2023 General Synod of the United Church of Christ will consider 17 resolutions and several bylaw changes when it meets June 30-July 4 in Indianapolis. This is one in a series of articles about them. Full texts of each of the proposed resolutions are available at the General Synod website.

In recent years, the United States government has drawn new attention to the haunting history of Indian boarding schools with an aim to offer some healing and repair.

Two proposed resolutions before the General Synod of the United Church of Christ call the denomination to consider taking a deep dive into its participation in this history and the ongoing cultural impact.

One resolution calls on the UCC to conduct a new study on its relationship with Indian boarding schools and the boarding schools in Hawaii. A second resolution urges reparations that would fund Christian Hawaiian language education programs for the language that it says has been extinct for a century.

The resolutions are proposed by the UCC Association of Hawaiian Evangelical Churches, made up of 31 historically Native Hawaiian congregations.

‘Troubled legacy’

In 2021, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, announced an initiative to investigate the “troubled legacies” of boarding schools for Native children with the goal of addressing the trauma and “intergenerational impact” they have caused. The department released the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report in May 2022, the first-ever inventory of federally-operated boarding schools.

The intended purpose of these boarding schools, the report finds, was to “culturally assimilate Indigenous children” by forcibly relocating them and suppressing their native languages, beliefs and identities.  

Members of the AHEC Ho`okolokolo Committee, who authored the proposed resolutions, were surprised to find 11 Hawaiian schools named in the report among more than 400 boarding schools operated by the U.S. and over 1,000 that received federal support.  

“I could have guessed maybe three of the Hawaiian boarding schools, but finding 11 locations was surprising,” said Ronald Fujiyoshi, AHEC committee member. He learned that in Waialua on O‘ahu where his father was a pastor, there was a boarding school — something he had never known.

Committee members were also surprised to find the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions listed as receiving funds through the Indian Civilization Fund Act of 1819 to send 12 missionary companies to Hawaii that would “promote Calvinism and claimed civilized practices.” The ABCFM, formed by Congregationalists in 1810 as America’s first foreign mission society, is a historical predecessor to Wider Church Ministries.

The proposed resolution on boarding schools cites this background as the impetus for General Synod to respond by initiating a UCC study on how the missionaries were associated with federal funding. It suggests that the study investigate the “history between the Federal Civilization Act of 1819, the ABCFM, and the identity-altering education programs upon American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.” It also requests that the UCC take on this task with cooperation of the Association of Hawaiian Evangelical Churches and the Council for American Indian Ministry (CAIM).

‘Tip of the iceberg’

This proposed resolution comes thirty years after the UCC’s 1993 apology for its predecessors’ roles in the United States’ overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. UCC National and Conference bodies followed that apology by paying millions of dollars in reparations in money and property.

“Even with the apology and acknowledgement of the complicity of the church in the overthrow, what we knew 30 years ago was just the tip of the iceberg, and still we are finding out new things even today,” said Fujiyoshi. “We’re asking that the UCC do its own survey while the Department of the Interior completes its survey to see what we know from the church side.”

A previous resolution on American Indian Boarding Schools, proposed by CAIM and passed by Synod in 2003, resolves that “the UCC begin its reparation process by formally apologizing for the harm done to Indigenous people.”

“Maybe an apology was done, but the reparations process, as far as we know, has not gone further,” said Fujiyoshi. “We feel that this (2023) resolution is the next step.”

The resolution that will come before General Synod 34 delegates resolves that “if the survey reveals clear violations,” then the United Church of Christ Board should propose further steps for reparation.

Reviving a language

The second resolution offered by the AHEC requests reparative action for the “Christian Hawaiian” language lost in relation to the history of boarding schools.

This language became extinct following intentional efforts to restrict its use, the resolution says. It traces this history from bans on speaking the language in classrooms to a slew of state and federal policies that “led to extinguishing the spoken Christian Hawaiian language as part of a larger project of cultural genocide.”

Kalaniakea Wilson, an AHEC committee member and Hawaiian language immersion teacher currently working toward a related PhD, described the Christian Hawaiian language as an important evolution of the Hawaiian language.

“In 1820 when Christians arrived, they figured the best way to spread the Gospel was in our native tongue,” he said. “With the merging of American language culture and Hawaiian language culture, early missionaries and chiefs developed letters to incorporate new ideas and foreign concepts into our linguistic system.”

This Christian Hawaiian language consisted of 21 letters and was used to create the first Hawaiian Bible. It was spoken for over a century, Wilson said, until Americanization policies caused its extinction. When efforts to revitalize the Hawaiian language began in 1980, it did not include the nine additional letters of the Christian Hawaiian language.

“The language resolution is to remedy the 100-year history of assimilation and Americanization,” Wilson said. “I hope to create Christian Hawaiian language schools and communities in and around our churches. If we can bring in funding support and these programs, we will not only revitalize the Christian faith among the Hawaiian communities, but also the language that has been lost.”

The proposed resolution urges General Synod to:

  • Recognize the Christian Hawaiian language as “relevant and valuable.”
  • Increase awareness of the Americanization practices that caused its extinction.
  • Support an AHEC initiative to solicit funds from UCC settings for revitalizing the language through education programs in its churches.

‘For future generations’

For the resolution writers, these proposals are part of ongoing efforts to address a long history of trauma and pain tracing back to events within the early Christian missionary work.

AHEC committee member Joyclynn Costa noted that it might not always be comfortable or kind to hear the history described in these resolutions or the emotions of those most impacted, but that it’s important to move through the discomfort.

“I pray grace and wisdom upon the United Church of Christ, that God will speak to them to do what is right for the things that were made wrong,” she said. “They fight for everything else, and that’s good — I can stand with that. So can they stand with me? And all our ancestors that come with us?”

“For me personally, it started in the church, it should end in the church,” said the Rev. Wendell Davis, Papa Makua (association minister) of AHEC. “The church must drive this effort – church meaning all of us. We need to work toward reconciliation, forgiveness, and settle the justice issues so that we can move on. This is not just for us, but this is for the next generations. There’s no better place for us to settle this than the church so that we can be, as John 17 always reminds us, one church, one family.

“That is our goal. We’re hoping that as we move forward with the United Church of Christ and our Conference, that we will be able to, with God’s help, have that come to fruition.”


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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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