US Bishops Plan Response to Native American Catholics Who ‘Want Their Voice Heard’

The ‘Lily of the Mohawks’ statue depicting St. Kateri Tekakwitha is seen at the Shrine at Our Lady of Czestochowa Roman Catholic Church in Turners Falls, Massachusetts.
The ‘Lily of the Mohawks’ statue depicting St. Kateri Tekakwitha is seen at the Shrine at Our Lady of Czestochowa Roman Catholic Church in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. (photo: By Cmichael1977 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Native American ministry was an action item for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Thursday, as the relevant subcommittee sought approval for a new statement and a “comprehensive vision” for indigenous Catholics and those who serve them.

“There is at present no guide for the Catholic Church in the U.S. in approaching, understanding and promoting Catholic Native ministry,” said Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, head of the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs under the U.S. bishops’ Standing Committee for Cultural Diversity.

In his June 17 remarks to the bishops’ spring assembly and in an interview with CNA, Bishop Wall outlined a plan for better enculturation of the Catholic faith, recognition of Native American ministry and spirituality, and the needs of Native American communities. He especially noted the need to address lingering issues of justice and reconciliation regarding historical matters like Catholic boarding schools that were part of the effort to assimilate and Americanize Native American children, often through coercion. 

Native American Catholics have not had a new statement from the U.S. bishops in over four decades.

Subcommittee listening sessions with Native American Catholics drove home the point that “they wanted to make sure that their voice was being heard within the Church here in the U.S.,” Bishop Wall said. There was concern about a “perceived lack of interest” in Catholic Native American ministry by the Catholic Church. The statement would reassure Native Americans that their ministry has “a high priority” in the Church.

As subcommittee chairman, Bishop Wall proposed the formal question to the bishops: “Do the members authorize the development of a new formal statement and comprehensive vision for Native American and Alaska Native ministry?” 

The measure passed easily, with bishops voting 223 in favor, six voting against, and zero abstentions.

“The last time we had a pastoral plan was 1977. That was a long time ago, and a lot has happened since,” Bishop Wall said. Many aspects of Native American ministry have changed in the last 44 years: approaches to racism; canonization of the first indigenous North American saint, St. Kateri Tekakwitha of the Mohawk people; and new approaches to social justice in Native American communities. Pope Francis’ remarks “have made indigenous peoples a priority in the universal Church,” Bishop Wall added.

For their part, Native American Catholics have seen a need for coordination between Native Catholic organizations, dioceses, parishes, schools and missions. A pastoral plan is “a most important step” in this coordination, said Bishop Wall.

The bishops who spoke in response welcomed the proposal.

“Natives can be present, yet unseen and unheard,” lamented Bishop Michael Warfel of Great Falls-Billings, Montana, who previously served in Alaska.

“The opportunities to deeply listen to Native Americans and see how we could be of assistance would be a wonderful thing, and writing this document could help this,” said Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a former bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming. He said he had seen “tremendous, tremendous needs” among Native Americans and their communities, including “a lot of need for healing.”

Bishop Ricken suggested the subcommittee speak about the importance of Catholic spirituality “intersecting with Native American spiritualities to help them see the similarities and the differences.” St. Kateri Tekakwitha, he said, could help advance understanding, given “the two worlds she lived in.”

Some bishops emphasized the need to consider the majority of Native Americans who live in urban centers.

“There’s great poverty in urban centers. I certainly experienced that here in the Twin Cities,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Bishop Wall said the subcommittee was taking the urban presence of Native Americans into account. The subcommittee is also looking at the needs of immigrant indigenous people with roots in Central and South America.

Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne said there was a need for “greater understanding” of the history between Native and non-native peoples to help improve relations. Bishop Douglas Lucia of Syracuse, New York, asked whether the subcommittee might address the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the 500-year-old principle by which Christian explorers, European monarchs and their colonies asserted the right to claim the lands of non-Christian natives.

Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark of Los Angeles cited his two decades of involvement with the local Native American community, whose presence in Los Angeles is among the largest in the country. Bishop Clark said he has heard “deep suffering and pain over and over” from some Native Americans and noted the “suspicion” that many have toward the Church. California’s bishops have made “an outreach and a promise” to Native communities.

Bishop Wall said that the subcommittee’s listening sessions showed the need for the bishops to address the boarding-school period of American history, which involved tens of thousands of Indigenous children and their families

Boarding schools were run by the U.S. government, the Catholic Church or Protestant ecclesial communities and bound up in the ideologies and assumptions of late 19th-century America. Children were sometimes forcibly removed from their homes to go to the schools. The schools generally assumed white racial superiority, the inferiority of Indigenous cultures and the need to assimilate and Americanize children in isolation from their families. They were physically punished for speaking their native languages. Native dress and cultural practices were also targeted for elimination.

Some schools had significant problems of neglect or physical, emotional and sexual abuse. A lack of trained staff and adequate resources to care for the children compounded the dangers of common threats at the time like outbreaks of deadly diseases.

Bishop Wall’s comments came only weeks after the rediscovery of unmarked and likely undocumented mass graves of 215 children on the grounds of the closed Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The school, which closed in 1978, had hundreds of students each year. It opened in 1890 under lay Catholics and then was operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1893 to 1969, followed by a short period of government operation.

The Canadian residential schools, whose mission was similar to American boarding schools, came under major scrutiny in recent decades and have prompted apologies from many Canadian government and Catholic leaders. Prior to the discovery at Kamloops, a commission had estimated 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of neglect or abuse in the Canadian schools. Though established by the Canadian government, two-thirds of them were run by the Catholic Church or individual Catholic religious orders.

Bishop Wall told CNA the Kamloops revelations were “really sad and tragic news.” Bishop Wall said the bishops “need to be able to address that in a pastoral way so that we can bring things into the light and we can talk about it. We can bring healing; we can bring reconciliation; we can move forward in a healthy way.”

In response to Bishop Wall’s presentation, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix said the current work of Catholic schools deserves to be acknowledged.

“We not only need to look at the residential schools in the past, but also the Catholic schools we have now that are serving the Native American people. We are blessed in the Diocese of Phoenix to have the St. Peter’s Indian Mission School, which does a really great job.” 

“We should not forget that COVID had a really terrible impact on Native American peoples, certainly here in Arizona. The health and the well-being of our Native brothers and sisters is really important,” he said, adding that the bishops should seek to foster religious vocations among young Native Americans, who are “a great source of leadership.”

Bishop Wall told the bishops’ assembly there is a need to address “a true sense of inculturation” for the Church in Native American communities, including through the Christian liturgy.

“Within the Native American communities, how is it that we are allowing the light of the Gospel to truly shine, like light through a prism?” he said to CNA. “How much are we letting that light shine through the beautiful culture of Native American peoples?”

Centuries ago, at the same time the Protestant Reformation drew millions of Europeans away from the Catholic Church, Bishop Wall noted, “Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to an Indigenous person, St. Juan Diego.” 

 “The evangelization of the ‘New World’ first came through an Indigenous person,” he added. “They’ve always been a very integral part of the Church, just as any baptized person.”

In Bishop Wall’s view, Archbishop Emeritus Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was a “trailblazer” in this ministry. The part-Potawatomi Churchman, the first Native American U.S. archbishop, has “always been a strong voice for the Native American Catholics in the U.S.” 

While Bishop Wall was hard-pressed to name younger Native American Catholic leaders, he said some Native Americans are notably serving as deacons. He acknowledged the need for more vocations and lay involvement.

He praised the work of Maka Black Elk, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, who heads the reconciliation process at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

The proposal put to the bishops on Thursday had its origins in a meeting with Catholic Native American leaders in 2019, Bishop Wall told CNA. The bishops of the subcommittee were joined by bishops whose dioceses have a large Native American population for a “listening session” with Native American individuals and groups involved in Native American ministry. Also in attendance were subcommittee adviser Father Henry Sands of the Black and Indian Catholic Mission Office and some leaders of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization that now has a Native American initiative.

About 20% of Native Americans are Catholic and make up about 3.5% of all U.S. Catholics, according to the Native American Affairs subcommittee section on the U.S. bishops’ website. More than 340 parishes serve predominantly Native American congregations. As of 2008, about 2.9 million Americans identified as Native Americans or Alaskan Natives. Another 1.6 million people claim some kind of Native American ancestry, about 780,000 of whom are Catholic.