"Those Who Wear Black Dresses": A History of Catholicism at St. Francis Mission School
Zara Surratt

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Primary Discipline

This dissertation uses St. Francis Mission Boarding School to examine Catholic participation in Federal Indian Policy during the late 19th and early 20th century and the concurrent experiences of Native American youth. St. Francis was an on-reservation Catholic boarding school for the Sicangu Lakota children of South Dakota?s Rosebud Indian Reservation. It was established during a widespread attempt to block Catholic participation in assimilative education, which emphasized the destruction of Native American cultures and communities as a prelude to total socio-cultural absorption into the U.S. mainstream. At St. Francis, first-generation Catholic immigrants, especially women refugees of Prussia?s Kulturkampf, understood themselves to be assimilating students into an American mainstream and a Catholic universe. I argue they were simultaneously Americanizing themselves through this education. Religious violence via a nationalized rhetoric of exclusion propelled a Catholic reform movement that ironically targeted a Native ?other? to fashion itself and the ?other? as American. This orientation departs from earlier Catholic missionary campaigns, which emphasized religious education of others and were not oriented towards transformation of the missionary themself. In this setting, Anglo-European and Indigenous religious subjects drew upon their own knowledge and practice to respond to the demands of assimilatory education. Careful study of professional and personal sources from the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, material cultural sources, and student authored sources such as articles in The Indian Sentinel, the official publication of the Society for the Preservation of the Faith Among Indian Children, reveals a site where assimilation produced a myriad of unexpected identities.
About Zara Surratt
Zara Surratt is a Ph. D. candidate in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her specialty is Religion in the Americas, and her research interests include history of the American West; religion and the state; Catholic Missions; Native American Religious Traditions; race, gender, and disability; and women and children?s cultures. She is especially interested in the ways that religion has historically affected education in policy and praxis. Her project centers on a residential school in 20th century South Dakota and the experiences of the Catholic staff and Indigenous students who lived there. It examines how religious power and conflict propelled a version of educational evangelization that was as much about the educator as the educated, affecting the experiences and outcomes for staff and students alike in a contact zone flush with racial and national dynamics. As an educator, Zara teaches students how to read and analyze sources that reflect perspectives across the history of the Americas. Her students learn to critique the powerful narratives of race, gender, sexuality, and disability that frame their worlds, and how people historically and contemporarily live these paradigms. While her work currently focuses on boarding schools, future work will explore how hospital schools, TB sanitoriums, industrial training camps, prisons, and asylums worked in tandem with boarding schools to shape an approach to the national education of minorities that complicates current historical understanding of 20th century liberalism and the promise of inclusivity.

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