By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Indigenous people received a humble apology from the Pope last week. History has shown how Catholic boarding schools had involvement in the abuse and death of many Indigenous children. Missionary work helped to erase Indigenous culture and religion in the United States.
Pope Francis addressed a gathered crowd of Indigenous people in Alberta, Canada, on July 25, begging their forgiveness and apologizing for the church’s role in “evil” actions inflicted on them. Francis specifically addressed church-run “residential schools,” which were boarding schools in Canada.
Residential schools actively participated in the cultural destruction, forced assimilation, abuse, and even deaths of many Indigenous children. They separated children from their parents and erased the children’s original languages.
Tragically, residential schools are just part of the erasure of Indigenous culture and religion in North America. In his video series Thinking about Religion and Violence, Dr. Jason Bivins, Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University, uncovers other erosions of American Indian life and culture—starting centuries before U.S. reservations or the Trail of Tears.
Spanish Catholic Missions
American Indians had a wealth of religious and cultural beliefs before their first encounters with Christianity. Those earliest encounters started in the early- to mid-1500s.
“Beginning in the early 16th century, Spanish Catholic colonialists and missionaries were establishing outposts in what would someday be the United States,” Dr. Bivins said. “By the mid-16th century, nearly 40 missions had been established in Florida, alone. Most of these missions were nominally established by priests for the work of conversion.”
According to Dr. Bivins, these missions were always accompanied by a strong military presence, and both worked in tandem. Spain took over the land that would become New Mexico, Arizona, and California, forcing the American Indians to do much of the work—and forcing conversion onto them. Soon, Indigenous people were forbidden from accessing their sacred sites, paying tribute to their gods, and participating in activities that were fundamental parts of their religions.
The removal, displacement, and suppression of religious activity that American Indians faced became inhumanly common, including several well-known tragedies—all of which were legal.
“The failure to honor treaties between the U.S. government and Native people, the seizure of Native lands beginning with President Jefferson, the brutal near-genocide of the Trail of Tears, and the government’s Indian Removal Act are all examples of the official, state-organized violence committed against Native Americans, in order to acquire land and expand political and economic power,” Dr. Bivins said.
New England Puritans believed that Native American Indians were so far beneath them that the Puritans could make them “partially human” by converting them to Protestantism. They also believed to do so would require them being segregated from other non-converted Indians, which became a clear antecedent to the reservation system.
“The economic, social, and agricultural isolation of these reservations were devastating for the Native peoples displaced onto them,” Dr. Bivins said. “Christian churches were an integral part of each reservation, along with their boarding schools. These schools were federally instituted and federally regulated.”
History has shown how poorly these schools turned out. The gleeful and guiltless mental, physical, and sexual abuse of Native students, their cultural genocide, and forced conversion have long since been established and investigated.
Thinking about Religion and Violence is now available to stream on Wondrium.