By Dr. Susan M. (Elli) Elliott, Westar Think Tank Analyst and Coordinator | July 29, 2021
Red Lodge, Montana

A profoundly disturbing editorial recently published by The American Conservative reveals assumptions grounded in the fusion of Christianity and European colonialism, assumptions to identify and unlearn. The author actually makes a case for the moral necessity of the deaths of Indigenous children in the unmarked graves being discovered at institutions called “residential schools.” Many of these graves are coming to public attention in Canada and planned investigations into similar institutions in the United States are likely to reveal many more.

The numbers are staggering, and the stories of what happened in these institutions are more than disturbing. For Indigenous people, most of whom are in some way affected either directly or indirectly by these institutions, “disturbing” hardly describes the suffering. I cannot fathom the complexity of what those who suffer from the legacy of these institutions must feel as news continues to emerge, as the children’s remains are returned, and as the heart-rending stories of the thousands who experienced these institutions receive wider attention.

A boarding school survivor hugs a member of the Sicangu Youth Council as a caravan of Rosebud youth and their chaperones prepared to leave Sioux City, Iowa, on Friday, July 16, 2021, on their way home to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

I do, however, trust the stories those who have suffered tell. Children were forcibly taken from their families. Their traditional clothing was taken, and their long hair was cut short. They were scrubbed with harsh soap. They were brutally punished for speaking their own languages. Many were abused, including sexually. They were ill-fed, housed in poorly heated crowded barracks, and were often worked rather than educated. Many died of communicable diseases that spread easily among them. Many child survivors now grown have heart-breaking stories to tell. Many choose not to speak about their experiences.

I also know that not absolutely every school fits this description. Children in the Bond Mission, a Unitarian school in Montana in the late nineteenth century that Apsáalooke friends have researched and commemorated, maintained contact with their families who gathered at the school on weekends, but the government funding for it was eliminated after a decade. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people subjected to these “residential schools” carry the legacy of a system designed to erase their Indigenous identities, to cut them off from their families and traditions, and to obliterate their existence as Indigenous.

This photo from about 1900 shows pupils at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The school helped shape policies for Indian boarding schools in the United States and Canada. (Photo courtesy of the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

A famous quip by Captain Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, explicitly stated the purpose: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” His 1892 speech proposed that the schools were an alternative to the wholesale massacres, enacting another adage of the time: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  His views might even be considered as advocacy for the equality of Indigenous people, so long as they were educated according to Euro-American definitions of “civilization.” This seemingly more humane approach to the destruction of Indigenous peoples had devastating consequences, nevertheless.

The purpose of the so-called “residential schools” was clear: to obliterate Indigenous culture. They did this by separating children from their families and communities to indoctrinate them in European “Christian” culture. The indoctrination was to assimilate them into a white society that sadly would not actually accept them because they were not white. Christian denominations administered most of these institutions. Christianizing and civilizing were synonymous.

For Declan Leary, this was a good thing. As an associate editor of The American Conservative, he has published an editorial that defends these institutions, their mission, and their practices in the name of the mission of spreading Christianity. He uses language in his defense of the actions of the church-sponsored institutions that reveals at least seven elements of Christian colonial thought that have led to these atrocities. His terms show how Christian thought can be used to defend the indefensible. The elements he takes to a disturbing extreme are instructive to show some commonly held notions that we need to question and unlearn as we confront the consequences of Christian colonialism.

1)     “An untamed continent”

Leary starts with a narration about one of the early Jesuit missionaries to Canada, Jean de Brébeuf, depicting his courage in venturing to “an untamed continent.” Such language reveals a conception of the non-European world as territory to tame and Christianize, a conception that has justified conquest and colonization under the guise of Christian mission. Imagining that the continents of the Western Hemisphere were vast expanses of empty and “untamed” wilderness fits a narrative that allowed Europeans to colonize and claim ownership of land for themselves.

These lands were not, however, empty, nor were they unmanaged wilderness. What the Europeans actually found was a vast continent occupied by peoples who had lived quite well and managed the land with a variety of community forms adapted to the many environments of the continent. These forms included cities that relied on settled agriculture as well as nomadic lifestyles. The continent was already filled with peoples and cultures and civilizations. To call it “untamed” assumes that Europeans had some moral superiority and entitlement to conquer, subdue, and own it.

Cahokia as it may have appeared c. 1150 CE; painting by Michael Hampshire. Courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site; painting by Michael Hampshire.

2)     Mission “to bring the Christian Gospel to the natives.”

“Taming the continent” also assumes taming or “civilizing” its presumably “wild” inhabitants who were, of course, “wild” only from the Europeans’ perspective. The Jesuit missionary Leary mentions thus joined the mission to tame the continent, the mission “to bring the Christian Gospel to the natives.” This mission assumes that the Indigenous peoples of the North American continent lacked something, that something must be wrong with them that could only be fixed by what the Christian missionaries had to offer.

The assumption that other peoples must be part of European culture in order to be worthy of acceptance runs deep. The missionary mentality appears to be impervious to the notion that other peoples might not need or want Christianity or the notion that others have the right to refuse Christianity. Coercion is then seen as helping people who do not know what is good for them. This European Christian missionary attitude condescendingly assumes the role of adults taking care of non-Europeans as if they are children. Leary’s language assumes this perspective.

3)     “Pagan religion”

The notion of “pagan religion” is part of this missionary mentality. Leary uses the term “pagan religion” to describe Indigenous practices and beliefs. “Pagan” is a term Christians and religion scholars have used problematically to designate religious practices in the world of early Christianity, lumping those who were not Christian or Jewish together in an identification none of them would use for themselves. The identification may originate in a derogatory reference akin to “country bumpkin.” Categorizing the Indigenous peoples of North America as “pagan” shows that the term has no actual content that relates to their own religious understandings but simply merges them with all the others who are not Christian. It is a term meant to define people as “other,” as targets for evangelization, not as people to understand and learn from.

Noteworthy is Leary’s comment that “few had much interest in leaving [their religion] behind.” Even when he acknowledges that the Wyandot, in this case, were not interested in Christianity, Leary cannot fathom the simple notion that they can make a valid choice for themselves. Perhaps this is a small clue to the problem when the Christian mission defines everyone who is not Christian as “pagan” and assumes that they must become like “us” as Christians in order to be defined as worthy of existence.

4)     Christian martyrs’ lives most valued, Indigenous children’s deaths just routine

Leary also dwells on the story of the French Jesuit priest’s martyrdom. He begins his historical narration with the Jesuit’s heroic missionary journey. Leary’s vision of history does not imagine significant events on the North American continent before the arrival of Europeans, and his vision of heroic sacrifice fixates exclusively on the hero journeys of Christian missionaries and the gruesome details of their martyrdoms, particularly the Jesuit’s death.

He leaves no doubt that the lives of those who died in the mission to spread Christianity as the one true religion are more valuable than other lives. He considers their sacrifice to be more important than the suffering and death of the children whose remains are being discovered in the burial grounds of the residential “schools.” He names the Jesuit, but he takes the anonymity of the children in the unmarked graves for granted. His discussion of recent church burnings similarly indicates that he values those buildings more than the children.

Apsáalooke (Crow) girl and boy, Montana Historical Society, Lot 035 B11F11.07, unidentified photographer, “Two Crow Indian children, Montana,” Between 1910-1930]

Leary makes no mention of the atrocities and traumatic experiences that are becoming more widely known. He shows no willingness to listen to those who suffered in the “schools” nor to take their stories seriously. He attempts, instead, to dismiss current concerns by depicting the graves that have been discovered as normal cemeteries:

The “mass graves” of public hysteria are, in fact, the ordered and intentional burial sites of people we always knew were dead, and who died of more or less natural causes. In more literate times, we might have called that a cemetery.

Here he has simply reconstructed history. While some of the graves were marked, many were not. At one large gravesite, an angry priest bulldozed all the existing grave markers in the 1960’s. The children who were buried at these sites had, however, been taken from families who loved them. Their bodies were not returned to their families but buried on the grounds of the institutions instead. Records of their names and existence are often difficult to reconstruct.

To call something a “cemetery” also usually means grave markers. Cemeteries are places where burial ceremonies take place, where people gather to lay their loved ones’ remains to rest. A cemetery is where family members come to place flowers to commemorate loved ones who have died. Crosses often mark the graves of Christians who are buried in cemeteries. Is a mass grave without grave markings a cemetery? Are burials without ceremony in graves without markers where family are not informed or permitted to come to pay respects cemeteries? Or are these locations, as some suggest, better termed crime scenes? If the Christianizing of these children’s souls was so important, why were there so often no crosses to mark their resting places? In at least some instances, the unmarked graves indicate that they were, instead, being hidden.

Leary also downplays the issue of the causes of death as by “more or less natural causes.” Many died from epidemics that spread due to the poor and crowded housing conditions. Others died from direct physical and sexual abuse, from attempts to escape and run away, suicide, and as survivors recount, murders.

The insensitivity of Leary’s summation in the face of the grief this has caused is arresting: “People die, and when they die, you put them in the ground. There is nothing inherently scandalous about this.” He reveals a great deal about his own moral deficiencies in his inability to understand that this is, indeed, scandalous, and that moral outrage is the normal human response. Normal moral outrage is not “public hysteria.” He reveals quite clearly that he is unable to value the lives of these children or the suffering of others who survived.

Indian girls forced to attend a Catholic day school.

5)     Church and state—The state should serve the Church

After downplaying the scandal of these children’s deaths, Leary also attempts to shift any blame from the Christian denominations that administered most of these “schools” to the governments that oversaw and funded the effort. The children died of malnutrition, disease, and other “natural” causes, in Leary’s reconstruction, due to government underfunding of the “schools.” While funding may well have been a factor, Canadian Christian denominations are publicly acknowledging responsibility with apologies. Church institutions recognize that their own guilt goes beyond limited governmental funding.

In absolving Christian entities, however, Leary goes further and reveals a problematic notion of the relationship of church and state: “But this failure of the secular authority to sufficiently serve the Church does not in any way indict that Christian mission.” Does he really intend to imply that government should serve the Church? This would be consistent with his view of the paramount importance of the mission of spreading Christianity as the one true religion and church administration of the residential “schools” as part of that.

6)     Saving souls is worth whatever atrocities it takes

Leary’s view of Christian mission focuses on saving souls. Nothing else counts, not the hunger and sorrow of the children, not their deaths.

The certain fact that souls were saved by the missionaries, the enduring belief of Christians that the Gospel is true and must be spread, is paramount; everything else is secondary.

Not only does he discount the staggering number of physical deaths of children in the residential “schools,” but he also ignores the soul-killing effect they had on the survivors. He imagines the anonymous souls of the dead children counted as if there were a divine scorecard to tally the winnings of missionary Christians. Evidence of the recently discovered remains and the survivors’ accounts hardly match his imagination. His moral calculation that includes cultural genocide in the justifiable cost of saving souls for Christ is truly horrifying:

Whatever natural good was present in the piety and community of the pagan past is an infinitesimal fraction of the grace rendered unto those pagans’ descendants who have been received into the Church of Christ. Whatever sacrifices were exacted in pursuit of that grace—the suffocation of a noble pagan culture; an increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence; even the sundering of natural families—is worth it.

7)     Or “two millennia of Christian civilization” [and the lives of the martyrs] is “all for nought”

In his final paragraph, Leary discloses what is really at stake for him in the news of the deaths and atrocities at the residential schools. After the astonishing statement that the atrocities are worth it because of the “grace” of the Indigenous people becoming Christian, he continues with the assertion that this has to be true because otherwise:

two millennia of Christian civilization, in which oceans have been bridged, wars waged, continents conquered, and the lives of a million Jean de Brébeufs given in service to [the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20] has all been for nought.

Not only does he appear unable to distinguish the Christian mission from European colonial expansion, but he also shows that he values European Christian expansion efforts and the lives devoted to this mission more than others’ lives or cultures. With this commitment to defend the colonial project and continue it, Leary and those who think like him are prepared to defend any form of atrocity for their form of Christianity.

The doors of St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral were marked with red paint on June 24, 2021 in response to the announcement from Cowessess First Nation that 751 unmarked graves graves had been identified near the former Marieval Residential School. Photo by Facebook: Donna Heimbecker

This blog has identified seven Christian colonial assumptions that Leary’s editorial shamelessly articulates as acceptable, even virtuous. As many Christians and other descendants of Europeans in North America rethink longstanding involvement in colonialism, these are assumptions to consider and unlearn. Some of these assumptions have been commonly held, taught in elementary school history lessons and church school stories about heroic Christian missionaries. Many of us may have uncritically accepted them. Leary’s editorial reveals the dreadful consequences of these Christian missionary assumptions. Yet they are deeply and not always consciously held. An editorial like Leary’s surfaces them along with the surfacing of the long-buried children. Bringing these matters to light is a beginning. Canadians have engaged in a truth and reconciliation process that may point the way for similar efforts in the United States. The process is arduous and long and still a beginning, yet this is the path toward healing and a more just future.

Indigenous people are creating healing actions and forging new future directions. As I write this blog, a group of young people of Sicangu Youth Council and their Tokala Mentors are escorting the remains of nine of the children from the Carlisle barracks back to the Rosebud Sioux territory, holding healing prayers and ceremonies and conversations along their journey across the United States. On July 17, they held a burial ceremony for Rose Long Face (Little Hawk), Dennis Strikes First (Blue Tomahawk), Maud Little Girl (Swift Bear), Alvan (Kills Seven Horses), Dora Her Pipe (Brave Bull), Friend Hollow Horn Bear, Warren Painter (Bear Paints Dirt), Lucy Take the Tail (Pretty Eagle), and Ernest Knocks Off (White Thunder). As Indigenous peoples reclaim the cultures and identities, languages and traditions of their nations, they also create a healing way by refusing to be erased.

From the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Repatriation Info site: “From what we understand, those flags were a “gift” from the military to the descendants/representatives. The reason our youth and the descendant were standing there was we made prayer flags for each relative and they were waiting for the military rep to move their flags so we can put our prayer flags across each of the boxes.”

Even more basic is the action of resistance and healing that Marci McLean-Pollock explained to a group in Billings, Montana, in talking about the “Voice” in Western Native Voice, the organization she was then leading. She explained the devastating emotional legacy of the “schools” in her own family and how the power to love was an act of resistance. Saying “I love you” to members of her family, showing them love, becomes a way to resist the erasure of the soul that the “schools” attempted and sadly accomplished for too many.

Christian colonization erases souls. However we might define “soul,” we must recognize that colonization destroys something essential to our humanity and our ability to love. The cruelty of the attempt to destroy Indigenous people and cultures leaves no souls intact, Indigenous or colonizer. Evil lurks in the sheer hubris of Europeans believing that our own ways and our own religion are so superior to all others that we are entitled to seize others’ homelands and destroy their ways of life. Unlearning these basic assumptions is a step in reclaiming our souls, our capacity for empathy, our basic human decency.

Those of us who are the material beneficiaries of colonization must take stock of what has happened to our own souls, and we must learn new ways to resist with reawakened empathy and love. That reawakening also means true remorse for the damage done by colonial cruelty. Reawakening begins in the moral outrage and empathy that is a normal human response to learning about the children and the “schools.” Reawakening includes learning from Indigenous peoples whose homelands we occupy as they choose to entrust us with knowledge and understanding. Reawakening includes supporting Indigenous peoples to thrive and grow. Reawakening means sharing normal human moral outrage at all the harm done.

That moral outrage also means identifying evil for what it is. Leary’s editorial is an outrage. He brazenly justifies atrocities and adamantly refuses to acknowledge the anguish of Indigenous people or to listen to their testimony. He dismisses the human pain caused by the Christian colonial system he intentionally perpetuates. Leary and The American Conservative endorse great sins in publishing this editorial. Their refusal to see or account for these sins is appalling. While this blog has offered those who seek healing from centuries of colonialism a list of assumptions to unlearn, we need to go beyond attention to our own attitudes. I invite a conversation, too, about actions that can call The American Conservative to repentance for the publication of this disgraceful editorial and to actions that will address the harm they have done. Some initial recommendations will be shared in the comments for further discussion.

Susan M. (Elli) Elliott

Writer, Workshop Leader, and Environmental Activist in Red Lodge, Montana

Susan M. (Elli) Elliott is a writer, lecturer, workshop leader, and environmental activist based in Red Lodge, Montana. She began her doctoral work after years in urban ministry in Chicago where she served a local church, directed human rights organizations, worked in grassroots economic development, and organized direct actions on local and international justice issues. For several years, she managed construction companies and a mailing service as ventures to employ and train urban young people in Chicago. She also spent a year in a village in Mexico assisting with the economic development work of the Arizona Farmworkers Union.

Elli Elliott’s scholarly work focuses on the pagan and Roman Imperial backgrounds of early Christianity, including Greco-Roman mystery cults—particularly the cult of Cybele—and central Anatolian popular religiosity. Her first book explores Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the relation of the circumcision controversy to the practice of ritual self-castration. Her current book project is based on a lecture series offered in local churches and uses George Lakoff’s work on the family metaphor in political discussion to understand early Christian family language in the context of the Roman Empire She is the author of scholarly articles and reviews that have appeared in the Journal of Biblical LiteratureCatholic Biblical QuarterlyBiblical ResearchSemeia, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and Listening, and a contributor to Eerdmans’ Dictionary of the Bible and The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.


Academic Credentials

  • B.A. equivalent, The Institute at Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona
  • M.Div., Jesuit School of Theology at Chicago
  • Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago

Academic Appointments

  • Adjunct Instructor, Humanities Department, Northwest College, Powell, Wyoming, August , 2010 to present
  • Faculty Member in New Testament, Lay Ministry Institute, Montana Association of Churches, August, 2008 to closure of institute
  • Faculty Member, Theological Education Institute of the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1999–2003
  • Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, 1997
  • Lecturer of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, 1993-1996

Professional Service

  • Minister, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Fairmont, Minnesota, 2005–2007
  • Minister for Faith & Learning, Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2003–2005
  • Pastor, Zion United Church of Christ, Sterling, Colorado, 1997–2003
  • Director, Justice and Peace Network of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1990–1992
  • Pastor and Community Program Director, Douglas Park Church of the Brethren, 1987–1990
  • Director, Interfaith Coalition for Justice to Immigrants, Chicago, 1981–1982
  • Coordinator, Alliance to End Represssion, Chicago, 1978–1980

Membership in Professional Societies

  • Society of Biblical Literature
  • Westar Institute
  • Catholic Biblical Association
  • North American Patristics Society
  • Chicago Society for Biblical Research
1 reply
  1. Henry Galganowicz says:

    Bravo. Beautifully stated. Have you considered forwarding to Religious News Service as an editorial?

Comments are closed.

Image by Fra Angelico entitled noli me tangerePublic Domain