The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Catholic Church’s shameful history of Native American abuses

Fog covers Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., on Saturday. A diocese in Kentucky apologized Saturday after videos emerged showing students from the Catholic boys' high school mocking Native Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial on Friday after a rally in Washington. (Bryan Woolston/AP)

This article has been updated.

The Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday was marred by a disturbing incident. Nathan Phillips, an elder of the Omaha Nation, tried to intervene in a conflict between a large group of teenagers, many of whom wore red Make America Great Again hats, and activists from the militant Hebrew Israelites, a group whose long enemies list includes "whites, Jews, Asians, members of the LGBTQ community, abortion rights advocates and continental Africans, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

What happened next is in dispute: we know that the teens, who are students at a Catholic high school in Kentucky and participants in the simultaneous March for Life, began chants. Phillips claims they were hurling insults, and 11th grader Nick Sandmann stood inches from Phillips with a smirk on his face.

Footage of the incident provoked immediate denunciations. New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland (D) condemned the “students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance,” calling it “a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration.”

The political dimensions of the students’ actions are obvious, given the hats several of them wore. Phillips noted afterward, “I heard them saying, ‘Build that wall. Build that wall.’ ” Nor was that the only way the students were echoing President Trump. Just five days before the Indigenous People’s March, Trump continued his racist attacks against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), once again referring to her on Twitter as “Pocahontas” and, in an outrageous twist, making light of the 1890 massacre of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee by U.S. soldiers.

On Saturday, the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School issued a joint statement apologizing to Phillips and decrying the students’ actions as “opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.” They noted that the “matter is being investigated” and that they would “take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”

While they’re at it, they should also investigate the Catholic Church’s history of interactions with indigenous people in the United States. Catholic parishes rarely examine the church’s record of actively participating in the federal government’s conquest and colonization of Native Americans and the West, part of the church’s effort in the 19th and 20th centuries to gain mainstream acceptance in America. Numerous bishops and priests partnered with federal officials and their Protestant rivals in a shared project of forced assimilation of indigenous people, participating in family separations and involuntary placement of Native American children in boarding schools where abuses regularly occurred.

Colonizing indigenous land and constructing walls, both figurative and literal, to win public influence and political power is not a new story in American Catholic history. Many white Catholics of the Reconstruction Era and Gilded Age depicted Native Americans in racist, infantilized ways. Historian Carol Berg argues that even when they had “the best of intentions, most missionaries failed to respect Indian culture for its own worth.” They denigrated indigenous cultures in attempts to fuse Catholicism and Americanism at a time when Catholics were frequently considered inherently un-American. They then used this colonizing experience to help spread the American empire beyond the country’s borders at the turn of the 20th century.

President Ulysses S. Grant’s description of indigenous people in his 1869 State of the Union message to Congress as “wards of the nation” represented a view shared by many white Catholics and Protestants. One Benedictine priest used identical language in 1893, describing “the Indian”’ as “a spoiled child” and characterizing Native Americans as “the wards of the Nation, like overgrown children and minors.” It was up to white Americans, the priest argued, to pull indigenous people out of their “filth and ignorance.” Amazingly, he used these descriptors in the context of defending Native Americans from abuses perpetrated against them by the federal government and white settlers.

Even if Catholic missionaries acted out of what they felt were spiritually pure motives, the colonizing impulse was not hard to find in Catholic writings during the period. One Catholic commentator in 1893 described the Sacred Heart mission in the Oklahoma Territory as “a solitary monument in the undulating wilderness, extending aloft the beacon-light of Christianity, hope and civilization long before the opening of the country to white settlement.” Jesuit priest Lawrence Benedict Palladino argued the year before that eliminating Catholic influence from reservation schools would take away “the one factor without which the civilization of the red man is an utter impossibility.” Palladino claimed that without his church’s continued colonizing role, “Catholic Indian youths are to be driven back to moral and religious barbarism, whence Christianity rescued them through infinite toil and sacrifice.”

The Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions (BCIM), an organization founded by U.S. Catholic bishops in 1873 to counter perceived prejudice toward Catholics, used the language of religious liberty to enter into a competition with Protestant rivals for dominance in western missions. The BCIM engaged in an arithmetic of spiritual colonialism, keeping meticulous records of baptisms, conversions and mission construction projects to justify increasing the number of reservation agencies the Catholic Church controlled.

Catholics feared that if their church was deprived of the ability to appoint agents to reservations with majority Catholic indigenous populations, priests would be expelled and forced to maintain whatever churches they could afford to build “[o]n the borders of the reservation.” The result, according to the Catholic World in 1877, would be that “Catholic Indians on the reservation might be — as they have been — forbidden to cross the line in order to visit their priests and to receive the sacraments.”

This Catholic and, indeed, American preoccupation with borders, physical walls and the intersection of nationalism, race and religion in the West continued beyond this era of colonization of the Native Americans. The figurative wall-building would spread throughout the U.S. Catholic Church during the Progressive Era, with many clerics and prelates erecting borders within their own church to separate American-born white Catholics (themselves often the descendants of immigrants) from the new European immigrants filling American parishes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, one Catholic writer favored keeping Italian congregations under Irish control, arguing the most successful Italian congregations were those that met in the basements of Irish American churches.

Trying to make sense of the troubling scene that took place at the Indigenous Peoples March may be difficult for the Diocese of Covington and for Catholics not familiar with the U.S. Catholic Church’s often violent relationship with indigenous Catholics and non-Catholics. The records of abuse of Native Americans by Catholic clerics in Alaska and New Mexico, for example, are just starting to be uncovered by historians, even though memories of colonizing violence have remained alive within local communities for decades. Reckoning with this past is essential for coming to terms with the injustices faced by indigenous people both in history and in the 21st century.