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The resilience of Native American Catholicism

Some estimates put the proportion of Native Americans who identify as Catholic at as much as 25 percent of the Native population.

Nicholas Black Elk, his daughter Lucy Black Elk, and his wife Anna Brings White in their home in Manderson, South Dakota, about 1910. (Image via Wikipedia)

It can take an added personal conviction for a Native American to be a Catholic. Early American missionaries are often linked to colonization along with its decimation of native populations and the decline of indigenous culture.

To their credit, there were European missionaries who decried the mistreatment of natives by those far more intent on conquest than conversion. Such benefactors include the Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean de Smet, the Franciscan missionary Anselm Weber, and St. Katharine Drexel, who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They would be glad to celebrate November as National American Indian Heritage Month.

More than 340 US parishes serve congregations that are primarily Native American, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; some 30 percent of US dioceses have an office or program geared to Catholic natives.

Many Native Americans have embraced the Church while still valuing their indigenous heritage. Of the 2.9 million US persons who identified as primarily Native American in 2008, an estimated 580,000 (or about 20 percent) are Catholic. Some sources put the proportion of Native American Catholics at 25 percent.

Rev. Michael Carson, whose maternal grandfather belonged to the Choctaw tribe from Louisiana, thinks the 20 percent figure sounds more accurate. He points out, though, how the percentage can vary drastically based on the particular tribe. For example, the Pueblo tribe of New Mexico is about 75 percent Catholic, while only about 3 percent of the Navajo tribe is Catholic. That said, Navajo Nation does have St. Michael Indian School, which Father Carson credits with putting a “high priority on Native American language and culture.”

Ordained in 1998, Father Carson subsequently served with Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico. He is currently with the Diocese of San Jose, California, and also serves as Assistant Director for the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.

Carson tells how the US government divided tribal reservations according to religious denomination, and at most reservations the Protestant denominations were in charge of schooling and ministry.

The Pueblo tribe was evangelized early, long before the heyday of reservations, when Franciscan missionaries made their way up the Rio Grande Valley in the 1600 and 1700s. The Pueblo currently have a very successful ministry, which Carson credits in part to Shirley Zuni, the Native American Ministry Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Other venues that have Directors of Native American Ministry include: the Dioceses of Duluth, Gallup, Tucson, and Rapid City, along with the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. The Sooner State is also home to the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Center for Native American Ministry, which opened recently at St. Gregory’s University.

The Lakota Sioux have a thriving Catholic community, thanks in large part to Chief Red Cloud, who invited the Jesuits (known as “Black Robes”) to instruct their young. Another iconic figure in the Lakota Sioux community is Nicholas Black Elk, a Catholic convert and catechist. The Diocese of Rapid City is currently promoting his cause for canonization. Rapid City is also home to the Sioux Spirituality Center, which has been furthering Native American ministry since 1973.

Other tribes with significant Catholic populations include the Ojibwa in Minnesota, the Winnebago in Nebraska, and some tribes in southern Arizona.

Such progress did not come easy. Many natives at first were understandably suspicious. Some were outright defiant, and more than 120 Catholic missionaries met a murderous demise in the New World before 1812.

Among such martyrs were those of the La Florida Missions, which spanned from 1549 to 1761. During this time, a considerable number of missionaries and native converts were killed. October 2015 saw the opening of La Florida martyrs’ canonization cause, and some 43 martyrdom incidents are under review.

The Church’s hard-fought victory has brought significant benefit—both spiritually and in terms of social programs—to many natives. However, mistakes have taken place. In recent years, the Church (through Pope Benedict in 2009 and later through Pope Francis in 2015) has apologized for abuses perpetrated against native students in Catholic boarding schools.

October 21, 2012 saw the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), a member of the Mohawk tribe. She is both the first Native American saint and the most prominent Catholic Native American hero.

Father Carson describes her as “one of the more important foundations of Native American Catholic faith and ministry.” Aside from being “an example of courage and dedication,” she is “an example of a blending of culture and faith.” Father Carson adds that her example “guides our ministry and gives us hope [to overcome] any problems that we face in the Native American community.”

Since 1939, the Tekakwitha Conference has promoted Catholic ministry to Native Americans. Each year, Catholics from different tribes come together to commemorate the conference’s namesake, St. Kateri.

According to the 2010 US census, about 22 percent of Native Americans live on reservations or trust lands. Overall, those who do are “are more likely to be Catholic,” according to Father Carson, who adds, though, that it can vary depending on the reservation.

Father Carson credits the American Indian Catholic Schools Network, based at the University of Notre Dame, for doing a “fantastic job of working with Catholic schools on reservations.” Aside from the five schools in the network, he knows of 25 other Catholic schools with a sizeable Native American student body.

Native American Catholics are less likely than other groups to become nuns or priests. “Vocations are very difficult in the Native American population,” says Father Carson. “Many vocation directors are looking for those who already have a bachelor’s degree. The Native American population as a whole has one of the lowest rates of college graduation. We are working on making vocation resources available that connect to Native American cultures, but that is very challenging.”

Based on figures at the beginning of the millennium, there were 34 Native American women in religious orders and 27 Native American priests, along with eight seminarians, 74 deacons, and 26 deacon candidates.

In 1986, Donald E. Pelotte, of the Abenaki tribe, became the country’s first Native American bishop (for the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico). Two years later, Charles J. Chaput, of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, became the nation’s second Native American bishop (for the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota). In 1997, Chaput became the first Native American archbishop (for the Archdiocese of Denver). Since July 19, 2011, he has served as the archbishop of Philadelphia.

Some native parishes blend their culture with their faith, and Catholic worship might intersect with native culture in the form of the Prayer in the Four Directions and the smudging ritual. Both prayer and song might take place in native tongues. Mass is sometimes conducted in indigenous languages, but these languages are “dying out,” as are the priests who speak them, Father Carson relates, before adding that the newer priests “are moved around [more] frequently, so they do not have enough time to pick up the language.”

Many of the native languages now have fewer than 100 speakers, and young speakers are significantly rarer yet. Of the 175 existing Native American languages, it is projected that fewer than 20 will last another century. Native Catholicism, however, appears more likely to survive.

About Ray Cavanaugh 5 Articles

Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

3 Comments

  1. “The resilience of Native American(sic) Catholicism” Ray Cavanaugh

    Correction: The resilience of American Indian Catholicism

    There’s no need for Cavanaugh to be engaging in revisionist history and dismissing the fact that the ancestors of American Indians migrated to North America across the Bering Strait.

  2. Everything was going so well until mention of the Prayer in Four Directions and smudging. These are “spiritualist” rituals that even if approved do not mesh with the Catholic liturgy. Catholics should not be offering salutations to the four directions any more than they should to the four winds – this is pagan prayer in its original formula. As for smudging, I can go down the street from my parish to the local crystal and medium supplier for instructions on burning incense to release me from bad energy – I can also purchase a dream catcher there – the Portuguese and Spanish cultures in my neighborhood still dance traditional dances, eat traditional food, etc. but they have put off Iberian pagan practices. Perhaps we would not be plateaued at 20% of the Native American populous if we expected of it 100% practice of the faith.

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