October 19, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Systemic exploitation of the indigenous peoples in the United States began in the late 15th century and continues to this day.
That was the disheartening message brought by Sister Susan Gardner, OP, Director of the Native American Apostolate for the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, during a presentation on Indigenous Peoples Day, October 8, at the Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse.
The Congregation’s celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day included a morning Liturgy that recognized the cultures of Native Americans, efforts to bring justice to the indigenous peoples in the Americas, and the ministries of nearly 50 Adrian Dominican Sisters with various tribes of indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada. The Adrian Dominican Sisters join 55 cities and five states in celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day on the second Monday of October, in recognition of the exploitation that many of the European settlers inflicted on the native peoples.
In her presentation, Sister Susan focused on two practices that have exploited Native American people through the centuries: the Doctrine of Discovery and boarding schools for Native American children.
“When Columbus sailed west, he had the express understanding that he was to take possession of any lands he discovered that were not under the dominion of Christian leaders,” Sister Susan said in summarizing the intent of the Doctrine of Discovery. “Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered, claimed, exposed, and exploited. If the pagan inhabitants of the land would switch to Christianity, they might be saved, but if not, then they were enslaved or killed.”
The Doctrine of Discovery encompasses papal bulls, legal documents, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings that gave European Christians the right to take possession of the lands that had been inhabited for centuries by indigenous peoples. At the time that Columbus arrived in the Americas, Sister Susan said, an estimated 10 million to 100 million people inhabited that land. “They had been living their traditional lives,” she said. “They had been taking care of their land since time immemorial, but since they were non-Christian, the land was deemed null and void,” open to being possessed by European settlers.
The Doctrine of Discovery spells out the basic beliefs of the Christian European nations of Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Holland. “Europeans thought that God had directed them to bring civilized ways, education, and religion to the indigenous people, and to exercise paternalism and guardianship over them,” Sister Susan explained.
Although the Doctrine of Discovery was created more than 500 years ago, its effects are still felt today. The 1823 Supreme Court case, Johnson v. McIntosh, used the Doctrine of Discovery as precedent. “Justice John Marshall used the Doctrine of Discovery to say that the United States, as the successor to Great Britain, had an inherent authority over all the lands within our claimed boundaries,” Sister Susan said. “This decision allowed the government to ignore and invalidate any Native claims to property. To this day, courts continue to cite this legal precedent.”
As recently as 2005, the Doctrine of Discovery influenced a Supreme Court decision. In City of Sherill v Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Supreme Court ruled that the Oneida Nation did not regain its sovereignty over land that was restored to it. Through this court case, “that legacy of domination is reflected in the undermined sovereignty and assertion of powers over the Native Americans,” Sister Susan said. “We see this lived out in cases involving water rights, oil and mineral extraction on Native lands, and the impact of budget cuts on Native communities.”
Native Americans, along with their culture and language, have also been hurt by boarding schools – called residential schools in Canada – which were run by Protestants and Catholics. “The whole aim of the boarding school was to take the Indian out of the Indian.”
Native American children were taken from their families for nine months each year to live at the boarding schools. Use of their native language and contact with brothers and sisters at the same school were forbidden. Because of this forced separation, the boarding schools “destroyed family life,” Sister Susan said. “For nine months [the children] lived with no parents, so when they grew up they had no parenting skills.”
Sister Susan told harrowing stories she had heard while ministering at a healing program in Canada. For example, one woman recalled that, as a young girl, a Catholic Sister placed a bar of soap in her mouth and kept it there for several moments. She was also locked for most of the day in a janitor’s closet – both times because she had waved to one of her siblings at the school. She also recalled evenings when the girls in the school were lined up and the priest tapped selected girls on the back of the head. Those girls were taken to the priest’s room to be abused.
Sister Susan also spoke of the boarding schools’ practice of letting non-Native people choose any of the students to adopt – and that child was given to the couple. “The school would build a little casket the size of the child, fill it with rocks, seal it real well, and put a note on it,” warning the parents not to open the casket because the child had died of a contagious disease. The child might not ever be reunited with his or her family.
While Native Americans still face injustice, Sister Susan also pointed to ways in which the government and individual U.S. citizens are working to right some of the many injustices. Native Americans were given U.S. citizenship in 1942 and the right to vote in 1948, she said. The Indian Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1978, was repealed in 1990 and then again put in force in 1994.
Most recently, in 2008, Congress passed a bill designating the day after Thanksgiving as National Native American Day – though many see it as Black Friday, a day for Christmas shopping. “It’s a small step in the willingness to balance the misleading narrative of discovery and to recognize the true Native American history of thriving economies and a sophisticated system of government, which existed long before our ancestors came to this land,” Sister Susan said.
Sister Susan encouraged her listeners to take whatever steps they could to bring about justice and renewed respect for the Native Americans. “With God’s grace, we move forward with compassion and resolve in our hearts and take actions to stand in solidarity with our indigenous sisters and brothers and neighbors.”
She recommended that descendants of European immigrants “learn about the culture of the native people in the area in which you live and work and advocate for public policies and social conditions that respect the sovereignty and self-determination of Native Americans.”
Feature photo: Sisters and guests at Sister Susan Gardner’s presentation on Indigenous Peoples Day listen as Sister Esther Kennedy, OP, poses a question.
Presentation by Susan Gardner, OP, Director of the Native American Apostolate for the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan
October 8, 2018 - 1:30 p.m., Rose Room
November 29, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – In our time of ecological crisis, human beings are called to transform the way they view creation and to become more deeply connected to creation, one another, and themselves. This was the urgent message of a panel of speakers from the Center for Earth Ethics, who spoke at Weber Center November 27.
“The Vision: Sustained Well-Being of People and Planet,” was presented by Karenna Gore, Director of the Center for Earth Ethics; Geraldine Ann Patrick Encina, scholar-in-residence; and Mindahi Crescencio Bastida Muñoz, Director of the Center’s Original Caretakers Initiative. The talk was sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters and Siena Heights University.
The Center for Earth Ethics, located at Union Theological Seminary in New York, works toward a vision of “a world where value is measured according to the sustained well-being of all people and our planet.” Its mission is carried out through four programs: Eco-ministry; Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement; Original Caretakers, supporting the learning from Indigenous peoples; and Sustainability and Global Affairs.
Sister Sharon Weber, OP, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Siena Heights University, facilitated the evening. She introduced Sister Anele Heiges, OP, a member of the Center for Earth Ethic’s Board, who invited the panel to speak on the Adrian Dominican campus. Sister Anele noted that the Center was begun in 2015 – a year before the Congregation’s General Chapter, which has called for the Congregation to “sacrifice to mitigate significantly our impact on climate change and ecological degradation.”
“We’re kind of beginning together to carry forward on what we said,” Sister Anele said. “The question that we’re all asking is, ‘Can we come to understand true systemic change and can we renew the original thinking of Earth and universe to get to a whole new way of being?’ We have to get there.”
Karenna picked up on that theme in her talk. She spoke of “moments in history where humanity faces moral crises, and there are prophetic voices and … people willing to put their whole lives on the line to listen to the call to what is moral and right. We at Union now feel that we’re in such a time.”
Many Americans are coming to a “greater realization” of how to protect the planet, while at the same time, Karenna said, “we are on a trajectory of deregulating pollution, of going in the opposite direction.” She noted that the United States is the only nation not signed onto the 2015 Paris Accord, which calls the nations to work to keep their carbon emissions low.
She praised science for the advancement it has brought to fighting disease and revealing the mysteries of the world, while also questioning the frequent separation of science from the spiritual component of life. This is especially ironic, Karenna said, since the loudest voices against climate change are “indigenous spiritual leaders and Western scientists.” Both groups often work against the current environmental degradation “from the same reverent observation, in some cases, of what is in the natural law.”
Karenna also addressed the apparent divide between Christianity and reverence for creation. She noted a 1967 article by Lynn White, “The Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” in which he noted that the major psychic revolution in history was the victory of Christianity over paganism. That brought about a “desacralization of the natural world,” Karenna said. Critics of Christianity, however, often overlook “the beautiful traditions of connectedness to nature” found in the teaching of Jesus; other areas of Scripture, such as Genesis; and Christian writings today, including Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Sí.
Finally, Karenna noted the “economic development paradigm” that measures development from the perspective of monetary gain – and sees nature as property that can be used and even destroyed at the whim of those who believe they own it. But the world has to be valued in other ways as well, she said. In this time of the “sixth extinction,” with a great loss of biological diversity, she noted the significance not only of the larger mammals, such as elephants and whales, but of the many “tiny little bugs and species everywhere that are holding together this web of life” – and are very quickly going extinct.
Mindahi, a member of the Otomi-Toltec-Mexican original peoples, focused on the world’s need to reclaim the wisdom of the Indigenous cultures, many of whom are going extinct, just as animal species are. He noted that we in the 21st Century are not living better than our ancestors. This is especially true in large cities, where “the water we drink is not safe, the energy that we use is not clean, and the soil of the Earth is not green.”
“Actually, with science and technology, we are facing extinction,” Mindahi said. “What we need is reason. You need information. You need knowledge. But you need to know how to use that knowledge, so we need wisdom.” As original care-takers of Earth, he said, Indigenous peoples are “bringing this knowledge, this wisdom, for change in our world.”
Mindahi spoke of the role of Houses of Original Thinking to help people of today to recover wisdom and the ancient sense of connection to creation. Houses of Original Thinking offer places where people can gather to discuss the interconnection of humanity with the rest of creation and help in the transformation of human understanding of this connection.
“In Houses of Original Thinking, there’s a place for change,” Mindahi said. The harvest of these houses, he added, is for people to understand their connection to the place where they live or originated from. “In the place where you live, you need to know who were the people who lived there before,” he said. “We need to know the history of this place and the vocation of the place,” and not to use the land for a purpose for which it was not intended.
Geraldine reiterated the crisis of our times, describing it as a “civilization crisis, a planetary crisis, a global crisis, and a deep identity crisis,” especially for younger generations who do not live in the “original landscape and rooting place of [their] ancestors.” This crisis, she said, needs to be addressed from the psychological, emotional, bodily, family, and community point of view.
A scholar of archaeoastronomy and cultural astronomy, Geraldine spoke of her own experience of tracing, rebuilding, and remapping the landscapes she was studying. She recommended that people study the “ever-present” landscape of their place of origin, as well as changing factors, such as political and economic factors. “All of this ever-changing and ever-constant landscape can be analyzed to reintegrate your identity, to reintegrate not only yourself as a whole human being, but also as a member of your family and of your extended family and of the community as a whole,” she said.
This integration is as crucial to addressing the various crises of our times, Geraldine said. “As much as we can reintegrate ourselves and our stories and our collective identities and agencies and capacities, we’ll be able also to come together in a community that holds the wisdom and the knowledge and the way of life to respond to the challenges of our times.”
Feature photo: Sister Sharon Weber, OP, at podium, welcomes the audience to the Weber Center Auditorium. Listening are, from left, Karenna Gore and Sister Anele Heiges, OP.