Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The release of the documentary, “Enduring Faith: The Story of Native American Catholicism,” has unfortunate timing.

According to its press and marketing materials, the film created by the Knights of Columbus “examines the spiritual and cultural gifts of Native American Catholics, the wrongs inflicted upon them by the unjust policies of the British and American governments, and how Native American Catholics today continue to live out their faith in fully enculturated ways.”

It’s release, however, comes on the heels of stories about discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at Indian residential schools run by the Catholic Church in Canada that has set off a wave of demands from Indigenous people and allies for accountability and transparency about the church’s role in operating schools both in Canada and the U.S.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative on June 22 that calls for a survey of historical federal records in the National Archives and the American Indian Records Repository, as well as those held by non-governmental organizations operating Indian boarding schools.

(Related: US boarding schools to be investigated)

The Interior Department will prepare a report providing insight into residential facilities, enrollment records, vital statistics, correspondence and administrative reports with a particular focus on records relating to cemeteries or potential burial sites.

The initiative applies to churches that ran schools, according to Giovanni Rocco, Haaland’s press secretary.

Remains in unmarked graves were recently found at two Canadian schools formerly run by the church — the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, where 215 remains were found in May; and the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, Canada, where more than 700 remains were discovered in late June.

This historical image shows the Marieval (Cowessess) Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, Canada. More than 700 remains were discovered at the site in unmarked graves in late June, 2021. The school was run for years by the Catholic Church. (Photo courtesy of St. Boniface Historical Society Archives via APTN National News)

Catholic missionaries operated approximately 60 percent or 78 Indian residential schools in Canada and more than 25 percent of Indian mission and boarding schools, about 100, in the U.S.

To date, the Bureau of Black and Indian Missions, formerly called the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, the organization that oversaw Catholic Indian boarding schools, has been resistant to allowing public access to its extensive archives held at Marquette University, a Catholic school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Despite efforts by Canada’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Catholic Church continues to refuse access to all of its historical Indian residential school records. The church paid only a fraction, $3.7 million, of its $25 million obligation as part of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Agreement Settlement, in which school survivors took the government and churches to court in 2008 and won the largest class-action lawsuit in the country’s history.

The Vatican recently declined once again to offer a public apology for the church’s role in the residential school program, despite public calls from Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Bureau of Black and Indian Missions did not respond to Indian Country Today’s request for comment about Haaland’s initiative or its plans regarding releasing records.

In light of the recent events, the “Enduring Faith” documentary — with its scant attention to the church’s role in the U.S. Indian boarding school era — emerges as a harbinger of how the church will respond to record requests in the U.S.

The film donates about six minutes of the 58-minute film to the era and briefly touches on the pain and trauma many Native people report having experienced at the schools.

According to its marketing materials, the film explores the rich contribution and witness that Native American Catholics have given to the faith over the course of nearly 500 years.

The press release includes a comment from Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly.

"The history and deeply ingrained traditions of Native American Catholics demonstrate how Christ reveals himself through the uniqueness of every culture,” Kelly said in the statement. “Our hope is that this film will inspire a greater appreciation of the faithful witness of Native American Catholics."

Press representatives for the film initially contacted Indian Country Today suggesting we review the film and offered to connect us with spokespersons for both the Knights of Columbus and the Black and Indian Mission school office in Washington D.C. When Indian Country Today requested interviews, however, officials said questions should be submitted in writing. The questions were submitted but officials have not responded with answers.

In response to a question sent via email to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asking if the church would be turning over its records as directed in Haaland’s initiative, Chieko Noguchi, director of public affairs, did not provide a direct answer.

“We are deeply saddened by the information coming out of two former residential boarding school sites in Canada,” he wrote. “We cannot even begin to imagine the deep sorrow these discoveries are causing in Native communities across North America. It is also important to understand what might have occurred here in the United States, and therefore, we are following closely the announcement last week by the Department of the Interior of a formal inquiry into residential boarding schools. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will look for ways to be of assistance.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the highest Catholic authority for the church in the U.S.

A different perspective

About 18 percent of Native people consider themselves to be Catholic, according to “Two Rivers: A Report on Catholic Native American Culture and Ministry,” published by the Conference of Bishops. Although the film may be an accurate description of Native American Catholics’ subjective relationship with their faith, it’s historical accuracy is flawed and filtered through a lens that paints the Catholic Church as unmitigated saviors of Native American people and culture.

“Enduring Faith” begins its story in the 16th century, describing Spanish missions in Florida and how missionaries baptized Indigenous people, treating them as “brothers and sisters.” Filmmakers fail to include the troubled history in California and other states in which Spanish missionaries conspired to enslave and brutalize Indigenous people in the name of evangelization as authorized by the Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery.

The doctrine is part of the 15th century Papal Bulls, or laws, issued by the pope that imparted Christian European explorers with the right to claim land uninhabited by Christians for their Christian Monarchs. Thus land occupied by Indigenous peoples, viewed as pagans, was up for grabs. Pagans could be spared if they agreed to convert. If not, they could legally be killed or enslaved.

The film includes an acknowledgement of that policy by Father Henry Sands, executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office, but does not link it to the papal doctrine.

“The U.S. developed a doctrine called the Doctrine of Discovery in 1823 that allowed European settlers and the Americans to take away Native land and property,” Sands says in the film.

But it was the Roman Catholic Church that created the doctrine that was later used as the basis for a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the early 19th century as a means to invalidate or ignore Indigenous possession of land. Among those rulings were the Marshall Trilogy, in which Chief Justice John Marshall adopted the doctrine.

The Catholic Doctrine of Discovery informed and validated missionaries’ relationship with Indigenous peoples, a relationship based on the belief that Indigenous people, their cultures and spirituality were inferior and in need of correction.

In the film, Catholic missionaries are described as defending Native people against the violence and greed for land by American and British interests.

Whitewashing history

Although filmmakers try to frame the church as being in opposition to the forces of settler colonialism, one has only to read historic U.S. Congressional documents to see that the church was deeply involved in creating and carrying out federal assimilationist policies.

Catholic missionary leaders helped craft federal policies aimed at Native people, policies that reflected a decidedly colonial, assimilationist perspective as a means to deal with what was dubbed the “Indian problem” in Canada and the U.S.

The “problem” Indigenous people presented was their impediment to white settler expansion.

Kathleen Holscher, professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at the University of New Mexico observed that the film paints the Catholic Church as being in opposition to forces of colonialism that helped destroy Native culture. Holscher holds the endowed chair of Roman Catholic studies at the university and is currently working on an essay about clerical sexual abuse that happened at Native missions.

“The film presents as a very conscious decision to whitewash history,” she told Indian Country Today.

For instance, the documentary focuses on a brief period in the late 19th century when President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy favored funding Protestant boarding schools over those run by Catholics. It fails to note that in the early 20th century the Catholics regained their hegemony in Indian education.

“In 1900, William Ketcham, director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, served on the board of the Indian Commissioners, an organization that advised the federal government on Native policy,” Holscher said.

The bureau was created in 1874 as an institution to protect and promote Catholic mission interests among Native Americans. The office, a stone’s throw from the White House, continues to operate today.

Growth of Catholic dominance

From the early 19th century, Catholics and other Christian missionaries received financial support from the federal government to civilize Native Americans through legislation such as the 1819 American Indian Civilization Act; Catholics had the greatest number of denominational missions.

Christian missions, including those run by Catholics, also received allotments of Native land during the General Allotment Act years from 1887 to 1934; it’s unknown today how much Native land Catholics still own from this era.

Later, in 1908, Catholic leadership prevailed in the Supreme Court case, Quick Bear v. Leupp, allowing Indigenous people to use their trust and treaty funds to pay tuition in Catholic Indian boarding schools. Plaintiffs in the case argued that school for Native students should have already been provided for free through treaty agreements.

The cumulative drain from Native families’ wealth was significant.

“At a time when Catholics were viewed with suspicion, it was work with Native people that helped legitimize and elevate Catholic influence and institutions such as health care and social welfare in the U.S. to the level we see today,” Holscher said.

Indeed, Jesuit scholar Paul Prucha wrote in his book, “The Churches and the Indian Schools,” of the growing influence of the Catholic Church.

“The political weight of the Catholics in the nation (U.S) and their successful lobbying for their interests in the Indian school question gave them a more accepted role for their interests in national affairs,” he wrote. “It was no longer possible to think of management of Indian affairs without some consideration of Catholic views.”

Later, when Indian trust and treaty funds were depleted, Catholic mission schools devised a way to access federal funds under the 1934 Johnson O’Malley Act, which provided funding to states to subsidize education, medical attention and other services for Indigenous people. Although funding for education under the act was limited to public schools, Monsignor William Hughes, director of the Bureau of Indian Missions, was able to access funds by labeling services provided at the missions as “care” rather than education.

None of this history is mentioned in the film.

‘One of the biggest black eyes’

But there are hints of regret in the film.

In the second half of “Enduring Faith,” Father Joseph Daoust, ex-officio board member of the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, speaks to the early policies.

“The (original) policy of the school — and we really regret this — we were complicit in the government policy to ‘kill the Indian to save the man,’” he said. “The Jesuits had to follow U.S. policy or they couldn’t have had a school, so they did.”

The phrase, “kill the Indian, save the man,” was famously coined by Richard Pratt, an Army general and founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879. It is considered the model for the hundreds of Indian boarding schools that followed.

Sands, the head of the Black and Indian Mission Office and a citizen of the Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes, describes how his grandparents were taken from their homes to a mission school at the age of four.

“Every Native family in the U.S. and Canada has been impacted by this system,” he says in the film. “I would say this is one of the biggest black eyes the Catholic church has in relationship with Native people in North America.”

Sands notes that Native people are angry about the injustices and wrongdoing that were committed in the past and continue to be committed in the present day.

Sand’s answer for addressing Native anger? Forgiveness.

“The Catholic Church can help deal with that anger, to help people understand that we as Catholics forgive the wrongdoings committed against us,” he says. “To forgive the people who committed those wrongdoings is a message that can help Native people deal with all the things that happened in the past.”

The background music in the film lightens and the narrator describes the church’s efforts to canonize Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man who converted to Catholicism around 1904.

Finally, Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, then describes a partnership by the Knights, the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico, and the Southwest Indian Foundation to build a shrine in honor of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.

A statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be certified a Saint by the Catholic Church, at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, near Quebec City. (Photo by LovesMacs via Creative Commons)

Tekakwitha was a citizen of the Mohawk tribe and was the first Native to be canonized by the Catholic Church.

“When completed, the shrine will be a resource, a place of reconciliation and unity for Native Americans and all Catholics,” says Anderson.

The film touches on Pope Francis’s 2015 apology to Indigenous peoples for ‘grave sins’ of colonialism in which he asked for forgiveness. Critics say, however, the apology was short on specifics; it failed to address Indian residential schools and failed to include remedies or a path forward.

‘We need to hear the truth’

Holscher describes the film as an institutional Catholic bid to double down on the recognition of Native Catholics to the exclusion of addressing Catholic culpability in colonial dispossession and violence.

“Some Native people are very devout Catholics and their voices are important; their faithfulness is important,” she said. “But when that recognition happens to the exclusion of doing the hard work of addressing structural sin within the church, it’s not very effective.”

Christine Diindiisi McCleave, chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, says that without truth and justice, there can be no reconciliation or healing.

“In a transitional justice framework, one has to have a thorough accounting of what happened,” she said. “Most importantly, we need to hear the truth from the perspective of those who were harmed.”

Indian Country Today - bridge logo