The Catholic Gene is pleased to celebrate the feast day of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha today, July 14, with this article about Native American Catholic roots by our new contributing author Trent Hale. 

Native Connections

I will always remember the horrifying mountain of papers that stood before me when I first naively took on the task of tracking down my familyʼs Native American ancestry. I had amassed a collection of old family documents, pictures, family trees, and random scribbles and notes that Iʼm sure my older relatives thought would be of use to me (they were not).

A simple glance at my maternal grandmotherʼs dark skin, hair, and eyes and her prominently high cheek bones would tip off even the dullest of observers of her Native ancestry. I had always been told by my grandmother and her sisters of our familyʼs Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors, but I wanted some more proof.

A simple glance at my maternal grandmotherʼs dark skin, hair, and eyes and her prominently high cheek bones would tip off even the dullest of observers of her Native ancestry. I had always been told by my grandmother and her sisters of our familyʼs Cherokee and Choctaw ancestors, but I wanted some more proof. So, there I sat, with a daunting pile of family documents and the wonders of the world-wide-web at my disposal, ready to find that empirical evidence I needed to prove our Native American ancestry. For generations far removed from the days of living on reservation property, the task of tracking down documentation of oneʼs aboriginal history can prove to be a most challenging task. I donʼt wish to bore you with all the specifics of my research, but I should say that I did find that evidence I was looking for. I matched several of my close ancestors to the governmental rolls and censuses taken of the “civilized tribes” (i.e. The Dawes Roll, the Old Settlers Roll, 1896 Census Applications).

The Native peoples were introduced to the Catholic Church by Franciscan Friars such as Blessed Juniperro Serra, apostle to California. (Photo by Ruben Pulido)

Furthermore, as a postulant of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (Conventual Franciscan Friars), I have another connection to my Native roots. Upon the Spanish colonizersʼ movement into what today is the South West United States, the Native peoples were introduced to the Catholic Church. The representatives of our Mother Church were the Little Brothers of Saint Francis…the Franciscan Friars. The friars journeyed with the wealth-seeking conquistadors of the Spanish Empire throughout present-day New Mexico in the hopes of bringing the Native peoples into the fold of the Christian Church. Of course this was not necessarily a time of peace and harmony. In an era in which there was a kind of “militant spirituality” in the Church, the friars came to the Pueblo people with the intentions of replacing their ancient spiritual beliefs and practices with that of the Catholic tradition.

Needless to say, the Pueblos had no intention of fully abandoning their ancient traditions, and the friars had no intention of allowing Catholicism to simply be an adjunct to so-called “pagan” practices. What this led to was an outbreak of brutality on the part of the Spaniards. Soldiers and friars alike violently imposed the Catholic faith on the Pueblo Nation. Tribal ceremonies were banned and “heathen practices” were severely punished. In 1675, the tribes of the Pueblo around present-day Santa Fe, NM region rose up in revolt. Approximately 2,000 natives took arms against the colonizers and slaughtered nearly half of the Catholic clergy in the region. This revolt prompted the Spaniards to flee south.

The Ysleta Mission in El Paso, TX is still run by the Conventual Friars who minister to the residents of the nearby Ysleta reservation. (Photograph by Donnie Raney of Raney Photography, El Paso. Used with permission.)

Today, the friars continue their missionary work amidst the Natives of New Mexico. While our relationship with the Pueblos has been rocky, a shift in missionary practice allowed for an opening of trust and dialogue. The revolt of 1675 was a sign that the original missionary practices would not suffice in the New World. The friars learned to incorporate Pueblo spirituality and culture into our Universal Church. This allowed for the Catholic Church as a whole to be enriched by the many gifts and insights that the Native Americans continue to provide.

So What?!

The reason I share this is because many times, after talking about my own research into my Native American ancestry, I am asked the question: “So what?” Maybe if youʼre reading this and you yourself are a lover of genealogy you have run into a similar question…or maybe itʼs just me. Although it may be simple in nature, sometimes “so what” has great depth to it. So what am I supposed to do with this connection I have made with the Native peoples of days past? Iʼve discovered my Cherokee and Choctaw ancestry and made the historical connection between the Pueblo people and the Franciscan Family of which I belong…so what? For me, discovering my genealogy is a way to preserve the past, enrich the present, and work towards the future in hope. Genealogy is not just a fun hobby or interesting research, but it is a way for us to accentuate that universality of our Catholic faith. Our faith is one that preserves the past, enriches the present, and works towards the future in hope. I therefore, would like to present these three aspects in context with my own ancestry and experience of Native Americans.

The work of the Franciscan friars has a long history within the Catholic Church. (Pictured here: Franciscan St. Francis Solano, born in the 16th century. This painting is located at Museo Nacional de Peru, Lima.)

Along with presenting these three areas of past, present, and future in the context of the Native American heritage, I offer an invitation: Those of us in the Church, of Native ancestry or otherwise, are called to be new missionaries to the Native peoples. We are invited to, unlike the friars of the 17th Century, bring the Native American tradition, heritage, and people to the “family table” of the Catholic Church. We do this by understanding our nationʼs Native American history (and for those of us who have Native American ancestry…knowing our tribal heritage), incorporating Native American spirituality and cultural understandings into the life of the Church, and by working toward a full recognition of the human dignity and rights of the Native people in our nation and in our Church.

Preserving the Past

Knowing that my own ancestors were forced to walk from the Appalachian Mountain Range to Oklahoma amidst the bitter cold, disease, and violence compels me to be responsible for preserving the true history of our tribe.

Today it seems as though the first thing that comes to oneʼs mind when thinking about Native Americans is casinos. It is a sad reality in this nation that authentic Native history, culture, and tradition has been, in so many cases, sold out for tourism. The slot machines, resorts, and buffets ease the Americanʼs conscience. Very rarely do Americans, while putting quarters into the slot machine, consider that the “democracy” to which they proudly belong is still burdened with the guilt of mass genocide that it carried out on the Native American peoples.

In considering my own Cherokee heritage, I find it truly regrettable that tourism has cheapened our tribal legacy. It is not uncommon to see, around Cherokee reservations, images of teepees and chieftains with large headdresses; this is regrettable because the Cherokee people did not live in teepees nor did their leaders wear long feathered headdresses. When we put a price tag on a culture or heritage, we devalue the human person that makes up said culture.

Of course, this act of putting a price on a people would not be uncommon to the American government. Most Americans are familiar with the horror that is the Trail of Tears. In this moment in history, the gold-hungry American government took the ancient land of our Cherokee tribe (which, in Native culture, is also considered to be a living part of the people) out from under our ancestorsʼ feet. Knowing that my own ancestors were forced to walk from the Appalachian Mountain Range to Oklahoma amidst the bitter cold, disease, and violence compels me to be responsible for preserving the true history of our tribe. I am compelled to never let my fellow Americans forget how we attempted to eradicate an entire race of people. I, and all Americans are also responsible to ensure that we donʼt continue the American legacy of genocide by allowing authentic Native culture to slip into the darkness of the past.

National Park Service map of the various routes of the Native peoples during the Trail of Tears.

When we take the time to actually learn about the true cultural history of a people, we start to see them as such–people. Very few realize that before the American democracy even came into being, the Cherokee people had an established democratic legislative body to govern the tribe. Very few also realize that we were able to develop one of the most efficient written syllabaries in history, or that we had a complex and rich spiritual understanding of the world around us. If each American, no matter the ethnic background, took time and effort to learn about the Native American heritage, America as a whole would realize that there is something valuable in the Native American people. If we preserve the true Native American identity (not the one portrayed by casinos or in pop culture), we preserve the humanity of an entire ethnicity. Taking care to preserve Native American history says to our Native American brothers and sisters that we find value in them and that we are dedicated to stop abuse of the Native American history to earn a quick buck.

The Cherokee people developed one of the most efficient written syllabaries in history. (Photo credit: Marek Nowocień)

Furthermore, as Catholics, for us to naively believe that the spiritual traditions of the Native American people have no value, would be a grave mistake. In order for us to be the Catholic missionaries of this new millennium we must also affirm and preserve the spiritual traditions and beliefs of the pre-colonial Native Americans. This too requires us to educate ourselves on what those beliefs and practices entail. With an understanding of authentic Native American culture, history, customs, and beliefs in our repertoire, we will have the foundation from which to accomplish the task of enriching the present and working towards the future in hope.

It is fitting that we take time to reflect on and education ourselves about the histories of a lost people. Preserving the past is the first and most important step to the task of welcoming our Native American brothers and sisters to the “Catholic table”.

Continue reading this article at New Missionaries: A Reflection on Native American Heritage in the Catholic Church (Part II).

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