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The Church and the Native Americans: The Real Story

by Margaret Bunson

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    In this article author Margaret Bunson takes a closer look at the Church's true role in bringing Christ to the Native Americans in North America.
  • Larger Work:
    This Rock
  • Pages: 14 – 19
  • Publisher & Date:
    Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, April 2009

Catholics are attacked with remarkable regularity for supposed crimes against the native peoples of the New World. Much has been written, for example, about the demolition of the Meso-American cultures such as the Aztecs and the South American Andean civilization of the Incas by the Spanish Conquistadors, the severe oppression of the indigenous peoples, and the devastation delivered upon the Indian tribes across the Americas from displacement, disease, war, and slavery.

In truth, the plight of the Native Americans in North America was the source of great concern to the Church, and missionaries distinguished themselves for their heroic defense of Indian rights. There is no question that European colonialism wrought vast troubles for the tribes and cultures of the New World. But it is unfair to blame the Church for the actions of the European powers — who regularly punished the Jesuits, Franciscans, Augustinians, and countless priests, nuns, and laypeople for speaking out in defense of the suffering natives. John Tracy Ellis, one of the fathers of American Catholic historiography, wrote:

No informed person would endeavor to maintain that the churchmen were always in the right, but by the same token no one can deny that they were generally on the side of the angels in their treatment of the Indians. It was the outraged voice of the friar, Bartolome de las Casas, which first made Europe aware of the fate that had befallen thousands of the natives in enslavement by the Spanish conquerors. As it was the agitation aroused by Las Casas and his kind that prompted Pope Paul III in 1537 to issue the bull Sublimis Deus in which he declared: "The said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ." (American Catholicism, 5)

During the Age of Exploration, two basic factors influenced the Europeans in their efforts. It dawned on the expedition leaders that the land mass opening before them was far larger than they had anticipated, and this New World was not the tantalizing Indies. The explorers of North America had arrived on a continent containing approximately 2 million inhabitants, a rich variety of tribes with established cultures.

Catholic Spain began to conquer Mexico and the Incan Empire, and Catholic France occupied present-day eastern Canada in the north. The Spanish and French governments provided the explorers and settlers with patents and royal permissions that contained specific instructions about bringing Christ to all they met and welcoming such peoples into the Catholic faith. Christopher Columbus, for example, was steadfast in his belief that there was a higher purpose to his explorations. He thanked God for the spirit and strength to accomplish his feat. As he wrote, "render thanks to Jesus Christ, who has granted us so great a victory and such prosperity . . . let Christ rejoice on earth, as he rejoices in heaven in the prospect of the salvation of the souls of so many nations hitherto lost."

The Spanish Conquistadors were not impressed with the royal declarations concerning evangelization, but most of their expeditions were accompanied by devout priests and religious who took such counsel to heart. The French explorers, on the other hand, were decidedly dedicated to evangelization as they opened trails into the American wilderness. Thus the stage was set for Catholic missionary efforts unparalleled in history.

The First Seeds

The protomartyr of the United States, the Spanish Franciscan Juan de Padilla, epitomized the zeal of these accompanying priests. Entering modern America at the Rio Grande with the explorer Francisco de Coronado, Fr. Padilla and two Franciscan companions traveled with the expedition as far north as Kansas, where they were welcomed by the Wichita tribe. When Coronado and his men returned to the south, Fr. Padilla and his companions remained in the area and established a mission. As he walked towards present-day Herrington, Kansas to welcome another community to Christ in 1542, the priest was slain by a war party of a neighboring tribe.

Subsequently, the Society of Jesus and the Franciscans sent their best-educated and most trusted priests into the new lands. Fr. Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit, volunteered for the missions in 1666 and served the Algonquins in Canada. The Indians there spoke of his faithfulness and caring ways, and the Illinois Indians invited him to visit them and to see the "Great Waters," the Mississippi River. He and Louis Joliet explored the Mississippi and the Great Lakes, making possible a series of missions among the Illinois, Kaskaskians, and other tribes. Fr. Marquette died on the trail while trying to return to his mission. His Indian companions recorded his calm passing on May 18, 1675. They dried his bones, placed them in a birch bark container, and returned them with solemnity to St. Ignace Mission at Mackinac.

In the south, a very unique Jesuit was earning the nickname of the "Padre on Horseback." Fr. Eusebius Francisco Kino was a nobleman of Tyrol. In 1681, he was sent to La Paz Bay and then to an area of the southwest desert known to the Spanish as Primeria Alta. In 1687, he founded Mission Dolores and traveled night and day on horseback to visit local Indian settlements. His lasting monument is Mission San Xavier del Bac, near Tucson, Arizona, but he founded other missions. Fr. Kino also taught the local tribes how to adopt the innovations of European farmers and shepherds and modernized their irrigation projects. Beloved by the Indians of the region, he was esteemed even by the Apaches, who had learned early on not to trust white men. Fr. Kino also mapped the area of Baja, California, and proved that the region was not an island, as previously believed, but a peninsula. He died on March 15, 1711, with his head resting on a worn saddle.

Old Ones from the East

The missions in French America likewise flourished because of the dedication of such priests, and in the process, Indian nations and their leaders made a commitment to the Catholic faith that has had an impact on American life ever since.

One such nation, called the "Old Ones from the East" and respected by other tribes, accepted Jesuit Fr. Pierre Biard on Mount Desert Island in Maine. They were the Abenaki, a large and powerful nation, and once committed to the faith they remained steadfast. When the British banned Catholics from Maine and the other colonies, the Abenaki refused to accept an Anglican Bible or a Protestant minister into their enclaves. Jesuit Fr. Sebastian Rale, a dedicated missionary and a gifted linguist, served them for decades until the British put a price on his head. The Mohawks ultimately murdered Fr. Rale during a raid on the mission and gave his Abenaki dictionary and other works to the British, who deposited them at Harvard University. General George Washington asked the Abenaki to aid the American cause during the Revolutionary War, and they agreed to become allies if he provided them with a Blackrobe, or priest. Washington sent a request to some nearby ships of the French Navy, and a French navy chaplain was assigned to the Abenaki enclaves.

The Abenaki never lost their commitment to the Catholic faith. In fact, the first Native-American bishop of the United States was Donald E. Pelotte, S.S.S., Bishop of Gallup, New Mexico from 1990 to 2008. He is an Abenaki by birth.

Similarly, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain befriended the Hurons (the Wendat) during his first years in North America early in the 17th century. Over the next decades, many of the Huron became Catholic. Champlain's decision had unforeseen consequences, however. The greatest enemies of the Huron were the powerful Iroquois, the so-called Five Nations of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (joined later by the Tuscarora), in northern New York. Initially allied with the Dutch, they switched their allegiance to the English.

Since the earliest eras the British had cultivated the Iroquois League in the Northeast of North America, knowing that the French had long before sided with the Hurons against them. The Iroquois League had been founded in 1570 by a holy man, Dekanawidah (or Tekanawita) who was aided by the revered Onondaga warrior, Hiawatha, and the five tribes were united under the Tree of Peace and maintained trade and defensive alliances. The Iroquois League was capable of fielding some 5,000 warriors into battle when threatened. The Mohawks were feared by colonials and the French, and the tribe martyred the Jesuit priests who came among them, including Sts. Isaac Jogues and Rene Goupil.

As the French were allied to the Huron, the Iroquois became their enemies, including the French missionaries. From 1648-1650, the Iroquois waged a staggeringly savage war upon the Huron during which thousands of the Huron were slaughtered. The remnant of the Huron relocated near Quebec City and finally settled at Wendake, an area that was called "Huronia."

Lily of the Mohawks

Other Jesuits followed the martyrs into Mohawk lands, however, and one of them, known to the Iroquois as "Dawn of Day," Jesuit Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, baptized Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks. He also sent her to the Sault Mission in the north, where she died on April 17, 1680. When word of her passing was spread throughout the region, only four words were necessary. The priests, Indians, trappers, and settlers simply announced: "The saint is dead."

The Iroquois League provided another stalwart defender of the faith, the Onondaga chief Garaconthie or Garakontie. A highly respected warrior, Garaconthie traveled to Quebec to meet Bl. Francois Laval de Montmorency, the bishop of the Quebec diocese. The bishop was a remarkable prelate, called a true father of the Indian nations. Garaconthie told the bishop that he desired baptism, and Bl. Francois performed the ceremony. Many other chiefs joined Garaconthie in his conversion. The Onondaga chief, who took the Christian name of Daniel, protected the Blackrobes and reopened the Iroquois missions about 1667, thus making the baptism of the Bl. Kateri possible.

In California and Florida, meanwhile, other missions were also rising. The Jesuits and Franciscans, aided by Carmelites, Vincentians, Benedictines, Dominicans, Oblates, and secular priests from the Quebec Mission Seminary, opened the vast chains of outposts of the faith in Indian territories, bringing thousands into the Church. Catholic bishops came from Cuba to confirm these converts.

Jesuits and Franciscans worked together in some regions but differed considerably in their approach to evangelization. The Jesuits labored alone or in small teams, traveling with the tribes on their seasonal treks, even hunting the buffalo herds. They became famous as "circuit priests" riding horses across vast wildernesses to visit the faithful. They were held in places of honor among the tribes.

The Franciscans, on the other hand, built permanent missions. Led by Bl. Junipero Serra, Franciscans established the missions of Alta California (the name given to California above Baja).The first was begun on July 16, 1769, at San Diego. Twenty-one more missions were founded between 1769 and 1823, along El Camino Real (the Royal Road), a chain that extended from San Diego to Napa. The missions served as the principle centers of evangelization in California. Within them, thousands of Indians were taught trades and helped to adjust to life in the Spanish society that had suddenly been thrust upon them. The missions safeguarded the Indians against often cruel Spanish landowners who sought to exploit them and turn them into indentured workers, little better than slaves.

British Anti-Catholicism

The Florida missions were launched almost immediately after Ponce de Leon first entered Florida in 1513. For the first half of the 16th century Spanish expeditions failed to establish a lasting presence, and missionaries traveling with them encountered determinedly hostile native tribes. In 1558, a more concerted effort was made when the Dominicans assumed direction of the missions, starting with the expedition of Tristin de Luna y Arellano in 1559. This proved a failure, and the Dominicans were succeeded by the Jesuits. They in turn left Florida in 1572 as conditions there and the hostility of the Indians offered little prospect for a permanent settlement.

As the French were by then making their presence felt in North America, the Spanish government decided to make another try. Under Pedro Menendez de Aviles, an expedition in 1565 founded the first permanent city in Spanish Florida, St. Augustine. He was accompanied by two priests who founded there the first parish in the United States. Real progress followed from 1577 with the Franciscans who forged a chain of missions across Florida and then into Georgia. More than 30,000 Indians converted by 1634.

As the English colonies expanded to the north, the missions fell under attack as part of the wider conflict between Spain and England. During Queen Anne's War (1702-1713, known in Europe as the War of the Spanish Succession), English troops and colonists, with their Indian allies, launched brutal attacks on the Florida missions from their bases in the Carolinas. Over the next years, churches were burned to the ground, friars were tortured and then killed, and Catholic Indians were slaughtered.

One of the worst attacks was in 1740 under General James Oglethorpe of Georgia; Franciscans were slain with a remarkable savagery. A reported 1,400 Catholic Indians were taken to Charleston and sold as slaves. Already suffering decline because of the weakened Spanish government in Florida, the missions received further blows during the French and Indian Wars (in Europe, the Seven Years' War); St. Augustine was sacked in 1763. That same year, Spain lost Florida to England in the Treaty of Paris. There was supposed religious freedom in Florida under the English, but the lingering Spanish elements soon left the area.

The Trails of Tears

The British anti-Catholic policies had no impact in Texas, Louisiana, and on the west coast, where missions functioned without too much interference. Ven. Antonio de Margil labored in Louisiana and Texas, and his fellow Franciscans built the glorious San Antonio shrines, including San Antonio de Valera, now revered as the Alamo.

Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and San Xavier del Bac stood as monuments of the faith in North America, but they were built at a terrible price: More than 120 Catholic missionaries in some 18 states were slain at their posts between 1542 and 1812. But more missionaries followed in their footsteps into the missions.

The American Revolutionary War not only ended British rule in the colonies but provided Catholics with civil rights concerning the practice of their religious beliefs. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase opened new regions for Americans, hastening the great trek westward. Emblematic of the treatment of Native Americans during this westward movement was the "Trail of Tears" endured by various Indian nations forcibly removed from their lands and marched to barren and harsh new sites.

One of these Indian nations was the Potowatomi, who in 1837 were guarded by federal troops on the trail westward. A young, newly ordained priest, Fr. Benjamin Petit, accompanied the Potowatomi and marched alongside his Indian flock, providing the sacraments and consoling the victims of the forced migration. Fr. Petit was horrified at the cruelty and inhumane treatment. When the Potowatomi reached Kansas, their destination, another Catholic priest was waiting. Fr. Christian Hoeken, the Jesuit companion of the famous Fr. Pierre Jean de Smet, had built a mission and had stored vast supplies to welcome the exiles. Fr. Petit was already ill, and he bade the Potowatomi farewell and returned to his home parish, where he died soon after. Even today he remains a cherished figure in the memory of Potowatomi nation. The first Native American archbishop in the United States is Charles Chaput, O.EM. Cap., a Potowatorni and the archbishop of Denver.

The Potowatomi nation was also served at Sugar Creek Mission by the Society of the Sacred Heart. An older nun founded the Indian mission schools and a novitiate. Unable to speak the language of the Potowatomi, and not truly conversant in English, she visited the school in 1841. The Potowatomi called her "the Woman Who Prays Always." The world honors her today as St. Rose Philippine Duschesne.

A Stray Bullet

The ongoing evangelization continued unbroken, in such places as Montana and the Dakotas, with missionaries becoming part of the lives of the Indian nations. One Oblate missionary, Fr. Albert Lacombe, was caught up in an attack on the Blackfeet by the Cree, around 1875 in the Rocky Mountain region. A stray bullet grazed his head, and the battle came to an abrupt halt as the Blackfeet shouted to the Cree: "You have wounded your Blackrobe!" The Medicine Men from each tribe went to Fr. Lacombe's aid.

The Diocese of St. Louis had received a plea in 1840 that a priest be sent to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. The bishop sent a tested missionary Jesuit, Fr. Pierre Jean de Smet. Fr. De Smet was welcomed by the Flatheads, Crows, and other tribes and founded a large chain of missions, bringing priests and religious to staff them. He also interceded when local tribes had conflicts. In 1851 he addressed 10,000 Indians from 10 tribes at the gathering at Horse Creek Valley, near Fort Laramie, urging the nations to pursue the path of peace.

Soon after, the U.S. government asked him to accompany bureaucrats on a journey to arrange a peace with Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief. He met the bureaucrats and then went ahead of them alone, entering a gathering of 5,000 armed Sioux. They led him to Sitting Bull, with whom he spent the next three days. Fr. De Smet left the Sioux camp with a pledge of peace, having told the Sioux that the whites would probably break any treaty agreed upon.

It was reported that Fr. De Smet was told by a Sioux warrior that there were vast deposits of gold in the Black Hills, lands held sacred by the Sioux nation. He made the warrior swear silence on the matter and then made the long journey to the camp of Sitting Bull. There he explained that gold caused a fever among the whites, who would invade the sacred lands if they had word of such deposits. Sitting Bull and the council commanded all Sioux to maintain total silence about the gold, on pain of death. The secret was kept safely for decades.

Fr. De Smet died on May 23, 1873. During his missionary labors he had traveled a remarkable 16,000 miles across America serving Indian nations. Before his death, he visited Archbishop Francis Norbert Blanchet in Oregon, and they discussed the alarming policies of the U.S. government concerning Catholic missions. Archbishop Blanches sent a veteran missionary, Fr. Jean Baptiste Abraham Brouilet, to Baltimore to confer with Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley. Archbishop Bayley was the nephew of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. He was a convert to Catholicism and a dynamic defender of Catholic rights. He sent Fr. Brouilet to Washington, D.C., where President Ulysses S. Grant's new "Peace Policy" for the Indians placed all Indian missions under the auspices of Protestant groups.

The American bishops were alerted to the growing threats and backed the efforts of the archbishop to establish a reliable agency of defense. On March 17, 1873, the first meeting of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions was opened with the task of defending Catholic rights in caring for Native American Catholics and the safety of the Catholic missions. Catholic leaders spoke out on behalf of the missions in the U.S. Senate, and by 1882, Grant's Peace Policy was defeated. Prominent Catholics then volunteered to serve on the federal Bureau of Indian Missions, including the famed Washington lawyer Charles Joseph Bonaparte (grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) and James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore.

The Catholic Church in America had come of age after centuries of service. The battles were now in the bureaucratic wild lands of America. The legacy of the missionaries and the Catholic Native Americans, however, provided the model for future generations.


Pope John Paul II on Native Americans

The authentic approach to the history of the encounter between the Native Americans and the Church was expressed eloquently by Pope John Paul II in 1987 when he addressed a gathering of Indians in Phoenix, Arizona. The pope noted:

The early encounter between your traditional cultures and the European way of life was an event of such significance and change that it profoundly influences your collective life even today. That encounter was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged. At the same time, in order to be objective, history must record the deeply positive aspects of your people's encounter with the culture that came from Europe. Among these positive aspects I wish to recall the work of the many missionaries who strenuously defended the rights of the original inhabitants of this land. They established missions throughout this southwestern part of the United States. They worked to improve living conditions and set up educational systems, learning your languages in order to do so. Above all, they proclaimed the Good News of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, an essential part of which is that all men and women are equally children of God and must be respected and loved as such. This gospel of Jesus Christ is today, and will remain forever, the greatest pride and possession of your people. (September 14, 1987)


Margaret Bunson is the author or co-author of numerous books, including the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, John Paul II's Book of Mary, and The Encyclopedia of Saints. She is also the author of Kateri Tekakwitha Mystic in the Wilderness and Faith in the Wilderness: The Story of the Catholic Indian Missions.

© Catholic Answers, Inc.

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