In 1869, as a way to end the violence inflicted by white settlers upon Native American land in the West, President Ulysses S. Grant implemented his “Peace Policy.”
“Let us have peace” had been his campaign slogan the previous year, and after his election, Native people were forcefully confined to reservations where they would become “civilized.” To sidestep the abuse and corruption within the government’s Indian Bureau, Grant awarded contracts to religious groups to run reservation boarding schools. Those would eventually be dominated by Catholic missionaries, who took Native children from their parents and placed them in classrooms where they were taught to dress, speak and pray like white people.
Native people’s autonomy was further diminished in 1871, when the Indian Appropriations Act declared Native Americans wards of the state.
These policies followed hundreds of years of conflict between indigenous people, the colonizers who would eventually claim their land and name it America and the Catholic missionaries devoted to converting them.
Grant’s government policies also set the stage for the contemporary horror stories still fresh in the collective memory of Native communities — the ones that have been invoked since Friday, when a Native American elder and a group of mostly white Catholic school teenagers met face to face on the Mall in Washington.
The Native man, Nathan Phillips, was singing a song of unity that encouraged strength against the ravages of colonialism.
The teens, some from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, had attended the March for Life and wore Make America Great Again caps, invoking President Trump’s campaign slogan.
Videos of the confrontation showed the faces of Phillips and one male student inches from each other, locked in a staredown.
What was painful about that sight for indigenous people, scholars said afterward, was the tension it evoked.
Nicky Belle, the director of the First Nations Education and Cultural Center at Indiana University, said his interpretation of the conflict came down to the idea of space and who has the right to invade it.
“It was just so in line with the history of colonization and appropriation,” Belle said. “This youth felt he had the right to be in that space, to be taking up this man’s space, to be in the space of this song and this honor.”
“Unfortunately, it is a great example of how these things still exist,” Belle said.
Phillips has said he approached the students in an attempt to break the growing tension between them and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who believe African Americans are God’s chosen people. Nick Sandmann, the youth featured in a photograph of him and Phillips, said in a TV interview Wednesday he would not have blocked Phillips if he had tried to walk past him.
Catholicism today in Native communities
The outrage that followed Friday’s conflict has pitted Native Americans and Catholics against one another, but the reality is the relationship between the groups is more complicated. It is the kind of complicated that has 500 years of history fueling it.
“To simply say that Native peoples are opposed to the Catholic Church is simply missing the picture,” said Christopher A. Woolley, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
Today, as much as 25 percent of Native peoples in the United States identify as Catholic. Others were raised Catholic on reservations but later left the church, and some see the presence of Catholicism in indigenous communities as a continuation of the abuses that stemmed from colonization centuries ago.
Then there are Native American Catholic communities like the one at Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota, a private, Roman Catholic grade school attended by Oglala Lakota children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Belle previously worked there and said the school teaches a hybrid curriculum that honors Lakota traditions while practicing Catholic doctrine.
“It’s the church community and the Native community working together to promote and further a combined mission,” Belle said. “It’s not just making Native kids better Catholics.”
Red Cloud is one of a number of mission schools that still exist today, and though their policies are far removed from the whitewashing goal of their inception, their history remains painful for many.
The first nonreservation Indian boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, served as a model for dozens of others. Its mission was to assimilate Native American children into white, mainstream American culture by stripping away their native languages, forcing them to convert to Christianity and instituting harsh forms of military discipline to accomplish a full “Americanization.”
The school’s founder, Civil War veteran Richard Henry Pratt, had a catchphrase: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
Though some families willingly sent their children to these schools, far more had their children taken from them forcefully, Belle said. Some were as young as toddlers.
Frances Washburn, now a professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, is Lakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation. She was raised Catholic but walked away from the church as an adult. She remembers stories from the community elders, her grandparents and great grandparents, who would scare the children into Catholicism.
Go to church, they said, or the bad men will get you.
“They weren’t doing it to be mean,” Washburn said. “They were trying to protect their children.”
Their comments were rooted in history, referencing a time when Native Americans who were caught practicing their traditional religions were deprived of food or health care.
“There is that genetic memory of those terrible times,” she said. “All of this began far, far prior to the formation of the United States even."
Catholicism in the era of colonization
Long before Catholic missionary schools worked to convert indigenous youth, Spanish Catholic missionaries had been working in what became the southwest United States to spread Christianity to Native communities. That history, too, is stained by blood and coercion.
Catholic bishops in Mexico who had worked with Native people ended up torturing those they found betrayed monotheism by practicing their traditional religions. In one famous instance, a Native man caught practicing his own religion was burned at the stake, said Woolley, the history professor.
Later missionaries were less violent and militant, Woolley said, and there is evidence they worked hard to learn about aspects of local culture and spirituality to help them better package and sell Catholicism.
Today, the tension between oppressor and oppressed still exists. Native communities are still grappling with hegemony, or the concept of buying into their own oppression. The Catholic church is grappling with its complicity in wiping out indigenous culture and people.
In July 2015, while speaking in Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized for the church’s role in the colonization of the Americas.
“I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the Native people of America in the name of God,” he said. “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the Native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
The U.S. government continues to come under scrutiny for the poverty and health issues that plague Native reservations today. American public schools still teach a history that gives the indigenous experience a footnote.
The conflict on the Mall on Friday exemplified all those tensions, Washburn said.
“To me, this seems like the latest iteration of using religion to beat Native people in the head,” Washburn said. “More than 500 years later, I’m sick and tired of having to fight these same battles to be treated as a human being.”