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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

ODANAH, Wisconsin — It was the blue ceiling that got me.

Although St. Mary’s Catholic Church is tiny, its vaulted ceiling soars to an unexpected height. It’s an impossible robin’s egg blue or the hue of a blue sky that could never exist. Unexpectedly, it drove my heart into my throat, where it stayed for several minutes. That blue color obliterated journalistic objectivity, placing me back into a wordless, needy childhood.

I realized at last that the ceiling was the same color as the little blue Virgin Mary medal that lived between my mother’s breasts, fixed to her brassiere with a safety pin. That medal would gaze back at me when we laid down in bed together for afternoon naps, at bedtime or just to visit. Those were the times she told me the Sister School stories, her life at St. Mary’s Catholic Indian boarding school and her childhood on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation in Wisconsin.

The little church is all that remains now of the mission school buildings. 


Catholic icons and sense of place are forever intertwined in my psyche regardless of my efforts to connect to my Ojibwe language, culture and heritage. Although I follow traditional Ojibwe spirituality and haven’t been a practicing Catholic in many years, Catholicism continues to occupy a corner of my being.

That occupation of the soul, I realize, was part of Catholic missionaries’ plans for Indigenous peoples. Although they achieved their goals in many ways, I recently discovered that my own people engaged in remarkable acts of stealth resistance to an assimilationist agenda whose aim was to obliterate our world view.

During my recent visit to the old Bad River mission grounds and the Mother House of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, the order of nuns who taught at St. Mary’s, I gained unexpected insights into ways that our ancestors worked within a rigid system of oppression to preserve and pass along our precious gifts of culture and language.

For the first time, I also began to understand the barriers for Catholic leadership in facing the church’s role in forwarding colonial, assimilationist Native policies. 

Statues of a nun and Native children in a shrine outside of St. Mary's Church on the Bad River Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. St. Mary's Indian Boarding School was located on this site but has since been torn down.  (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)

Like many Catholic orders that operated Indian boarding and day schools, the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have embarked on a campaign to examine their organization’s role in the assimilation process that aimed to strip away Indigenous culture and language. While heartfelt and sincere, their efforts seemed vague and overly cautious, however. As Sister Eileen McKenzie, president of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, said during an interview with Indian Country Today, “We are in a big learning curve about our history at St. Mary’s.”

Over the past two or three years, the sisters have begun to realize there are issues over their past work with Native Americans, she said.

“We’ve been doing a lot of webinars and research around the issues and thinking about what this means of our complicity in federal and church policies that were unjust and genocidal,” McKenzie said.

Historic oppression

My family’s boarding school experience of brutality, repression and shame for being Native plays an ongoing role in mine as it does in the lives of many Native people. There is an ongoing effort in Indian Country, predating by decades the recent media focus on discoveries of graves at Canada’s Indian residential schools, of trying to gain attention of church and government leaders on their roles in assimilationist boarding school policies.

The fallout of historic boarding school trauma dwells with many of us every day. Therefore, it’s difficult to believe institutions that played such a primary role in creating this trauma view it as a part of a distant past.

“We are learning and walking tentatively to see if we can help move to a place of healing while reconciling with the truth,” McKenzie said. 

Students at the St. Mary's Indian Mission School on the Bad River reservation in Wisconsin circa 1930. (Photo courtesy Bad River Tribal Historical Preservation Office)

The sisters recently donated $250,000 toward the establishment of the Mashkiiziibii (Medicine River) Culture Revitalization and Youth Center in Bad River and have reached out to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition indicating support. They are also sharing their archives, but most of the work seems to be limited to webinars and Zoom conversations.

“We are looking at dismantling racism and learning how our church was complicit in colonialism,” McKenzie said, pausing briefly. “It seems like we’re not doing anything but we are learning; we want to be engaged and have a relationship with the Native community in order to ask what they need.”

She added, “I would say perhaps there’s a fear of acting too quickly.”

Sister Eileen McKenzie is president of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)

Clearly she, the sisters and the Catholic church are all struggling with how to proceed in addressing the public emergence and focus on the churches’ ugly Indian boarding school past.

Pope Francis’ apology to Indigenous peoples of Canada for the “deplorable abuses” they suffered at the country’s residential schools, run almost exclusively by Catholic orders, is focusing the world’s attention on the long-standing role that the church has played in forwarding and benefitting from colonial policies.

It was, after all, church and Vatican edicts such as the Doctrine of Discovery that are foundational to Catholicism and Christianity in the Americas. The doctrine is composed of papal bulls or orders handed down by Catholic popes authorizing agents of European monarchs to dominate Indigenous lands and people by any means necessary.

The Romanus Pontifex bull was handed down in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V authorizing European agents to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

Subsequent bulls supported the dehumanization of those living on lands in the Americas, according to the Upstander Project, and the dispossession, murder and forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples.

The doctrine has shaped the entirety of the White settler relationship with Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and continues to color an inequitable, paternal mindset towards them. These historic papal edicts are the genesis of U.S. federal Indian law in the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning with the Marshall Trilogy starting in 1823 with Johnson v. M’Intosh which adopted the doctrine as the origin of American property title. Indeed, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously drew on the doctrine in her 2005 decision in Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation

Pope Francis did not rescind the papal bulls underlying the Doctrine of Discovery in his apology, a point that was not lost on Indigenous peoples. To do so could be interpreted as a commitment to dismantle the institutional power structure of the church.

Regarding the pontiff’s omission, Gerald Antoine, who led a First Nations delegation to meet with the Pope in March, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, “In respect of the spirit of this journey for the requested pardon (from the church), it will require the full acknowledgement and the rescinding of the seed that resulted in the coordinated efforts by the state, the church and the police services…in implementing these destructive and vicious processes.”

If the Catholic Church is to truly atone, I realized, all they’ll have to change is everything. 

Facing the church

Exterior of St. Mary's Catholic Church on the Bad River Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)

Stepping into the vast Mother House with its scrubbed wooden surfaces, statues of saints and angels instantly transported me back to St. Patrick’s Catholic School where I attended class from 1st grade through part of 8th grade.

Reentering those unequivocal Catholic spaces evoked an unexpected visceral quality of how my childhood memories of my mother are so closely intertwined with church iconography. Being near her while hearing her poignant little girl memories of her harsh life at the Sister School were the times I felt closest to her, a recipient of her love, confidence and attention. 

Inexplicably, she raised me, her youngest child and only daughter, as a strict Catholic. My older brothers had little exposure to the church but after I was born, my mother fiercely embraced Catholicism, taking me to mass daily and enrolling me in a Catholic day school.

Fellow Native boarding school researchers have speculated that for her, immersing me in Catholicism was a way of providing me the best chance of surviving as a Native girl in the White man’s world.

Certainly her own experience taught her painfully that it was the White man’s Christianity that dominated society. After years of researching how we respond to childhood trauma and abuse, survival strategies of bonding with the most powerful person in the room, I see now that my mother had no other choice; the church and the Sister School were simply too powerful.

Jon Sweeney wrote in the Church Life Journal about Nicholas Black Elk’s conversion to Catholicism. Black Elk was a Lakota medicine person who famously converted to the faith in 1904. Asked by author John Neihardt what was the motivating factor for his conversion, especially considering the beauty and meaning of Lakota spirituality, Black Elk replied, “Because my children have to live in this world.”

Unbending resistance

The Mother House may be one of the most unlikely spaces to encounter a stunning example of Native resistance to U.S. assimilationist policies. But there it was, hidden in an old report languishing deep within the recesses of the sisters’ archives.

Although the sisters graciously allowed me open access to their archives, their holdings are rather thin, consisting mostly of a few scrapbooks and quarterly rosters of students who attended the school. Details about individual pupils were scant.

I was tickled, however, to find my grandmother’s name, Cecelia Moore, listed on a roster. She attended the school’s day program from 1911 until February 1916 when she abruptly left at age 13. In the roster’s preprinted column regarding her reason for leaving, St. Mary’s secretary wrote tersely, “for no good reason.” This was certainly in keeping with what I knew of my fiercely independent and outspoken Grandma Cele.

The resistance or what my mother would have described as dang Indian bullheadedness emerged in a remarkable collection of documents and reports created from 1935 to 1940 as part of a federal Works Progress Administration project coordinated by Sister Macaria Murphy, principal of St. Mary’s School. Entitled simply, “WPA Indian Research Project: Bad River Reservation, Odanah, Wisconsin,” the volumes-long report documents vast aspects of Ojibwe life in the region, the industrial year, health data, history of the tribe’s political structure, military records of local men and traditional Ojibwe cultural and spiritual ways.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the WPA during the toughest years of the country’s Great Depression as a means to gainfully employ citizens in order to build public infrastructure such as school buildings, hospitals, bridges, airfields, roads and sanitary lines. The WPA also sponsored projects in the arts employing tens of thousands of actors, musicians, writers and artists. 

Several Bad River citizens were employed to research and write reports on Ojibwe culture and spirituality; the tenor of the work, however, was clearly influenced by Sister Murphy’s point of view as a Catholic nun. Most of the essays on culture are framed by stereotypical ethnological studies of the day that emphasized that Native traditions were part of a rapidly dying primitive past that was giving way to the modern assimilated Native American.

I was disheartened by a listing in the project’s index, “Why does paganism still exist among the Chippewa?” The term Chippewa is an Anglicized version of the word Ojibwe.

Dan Morrison, a Bad River Ojibwe man, answered the question in a short essay that is included in the report.

“There are still a few pagans on the Bad River reservation,” he wrote. “Every person who possesses some intelligence realizes that the Indians knew nothing of true worship until it was brought to them by the different missionaries. We find that some Indians, irrespective of the development of their minds, do not have enough ambition to think for themselves; it is only natural that this class should follow along the lines of least resistance and while principles of Christianity have been expounded in their presence they still continue in their belief in pagan tradition as it is easier to follow.”

Later, I shared my archive findings with my cousin Delphine Hurd on the Bad River reservation. As a young mother, Delphine lost her leg after a tragic car accident with a drunk driver. Recently she lost her other leg to diabetes. She is gently bickering with her partner Albert when I arrive. “Here, hand me my prosthetic; I need to kick your ass!” she threatens. 

Seated around her kitchen table, I read Morrison’s words aloud to her and our friend Jan Smart. After a few moments of silence, Smart said, “Oh, he was probably midé.”

At this we all burst out laughing. She was referring to the Great Medicine Society, an Ojibwe spiritual fellowship that predates European contact by hundreds of years. Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries, the society continues today in many Ojibwe communities, kept alive and protected by people such as Morrison. 

Suddenly, Morrison’s dismissive essay emerged to us as an act of resistance. The WPA project was created in a time when it was a federal offense to be caught engaging in traditional Native spiritual practices.

A bit of additional research corroborates our suspicion that Morrison was conducting a form of covert rebellion. In 2013, Chantal Norrgard described the WPA project in “Tribal Studies in American Indian Nation Building.” She writes, “In contrast to the project’s official purpose, the writers saw it as a means to look back on the persistence and integrity of their community and to address political and economic issues they faced at the time.”

Norrgard quotes Morrison’s later writings.

“It is time that the thinking people of this country should wake up to the fact that little has been done in the way of preserving the background of the American Indian, notwithstanding the brilliant work that has been done to conserve the knowledge and work of mankind,” he wrote. “Today the American Indian stands out among American people not historically but as a curiosity.”

Bad River’s tribal historic preservation officer, Edith Leoso, confirmed our theory. “Many not-so-devout Christians were still doing Ojibwe ceremony but they did so secretly,” Leoso said.

But surely, I asked Leoso, in a small tightly knit community like Bad River everyone must have known about the activities of their neighbors.

Leoso believes that it was an open secret that people, especially elders, were keeping the Great Medicine Society alive. “To tell on someone at that time was to risk their lives,” she said. “Our people just don’t do that.”

The federal Code of Indian Offenses enacted in 1883, which later helped create the Courts of Indian Offenses, was designed to outlaw Native cultural practices such as dances and other activities celebrating Native spirituality. Although the code was amended in 1933 eliminating references to customary Native practices, it was not until 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that Native peoples could freely and legally practice their own religions.

“Elders were respected plus people really didn’t want that world view to be completely annihilated,” Leoso said.

Leoso also explained that the “Indian pageants” performed at St. Mary’s for the entertainment of donors and tourists were actually an opportunity for elders to pass on songs and teachings from the society.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the White public developed a taste for Indian pageants as entertainment. Think of the poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published in 1855.

Katrina Phillips, citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and assistant professor of American Indian history at Macalester College, describes the phenomenon as “salvage tourism,” a convergence of tourism and nostalgia for a history and Indian who never was.

Leoso said her grandmother told her of how the sisters and White audiences at St. Mary’s Indian pageants had no idea that the Ojibwe elders were in fact conducting ceremony right under their unsuspecting noses.

“Our ancestors risked their lives and freedom to pass along the songs and protocols of ceremony,” Leoso said.

Dark memories

Leoso attended St. Mary’s in the 1960s. She has dark memories of a stern environment with the sisters doling out swift, violent discipline for the smallest infraction.

“Every time you went to school, it was like walking on eggshells,” she said.

I asked her what she’d like to see from the church in terms of accountability.

“An apology is a good place to start,” she said. “An apology means humbling yourself.”

Leoso thinks that true accountability, however, is unlikely.

“Hiding behind this veil of righteousness isn’t going to fly anymore,” she said. “They need to make their records available to us.”

Leoso recalled her recent visit to the Mother House.

“I introduced myself to them in our Ojibwe language. I told them despite everything that was done by the church to me and other Ojibwe children to keep us from speaking this beautiful language was an utter failure.”

“That was part of my healing,” she said. 

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