By Their Fruits You Will Know Them: Reflections on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

My family is Kanienʼkehá:ka (Mohawk), one of the six tribes that form the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy that stretches primarily between the northeastern United States and Canada. Native Americans make up 1% of the population of American Catholics, so you may not have encountered many (or any) of us. Americans tend to think that Native people live primarily on reservations, and thus they’re tucked away out of sight. In reality, 60% of Native Americans live in cities and towns (myself included) and not on reservations. While comprising a tiny percentage of American Catholics, 20% of Native Americans are Catholic, including many whose Catholic ancestry dates back to the earliest missions in the Americas. The very first Catholics in this country were indigenous.

Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day where I live, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about indigenous people in the context of Catholicism. The conversation has begun to change, which is a welcome development, and I’ve seen many more Catholics willing to ask hard questions about the Church’s historical impact on Native people, as well as how we can engage more with this unique and diverse community. I’ve also seen extremely discouraging responses that denigrate an entire race of people. What are our responsibilities to Native Americans as fellow children of God, as followers of Christ?

“The first thing I heard was that they feel forgotten. And these are the first people to receive the Good News in the New World.”

Bishop James Wall of Gallup, NM

It is our responsibility to listen. The discovery this summer of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools in Canada has heightened the pain of Native families on both sides of the border, for whom this information was not a revelation, but rather a confirmation of what happened to their children. It is important to listen to their stories and memories, to take on their pain, no matter how uncomfortable it is to hear. The natural instinct is to shut it out, to deflect responsibility from ancestors or institutions that played a role in stomping on the inherent dignity of others. To say “that was a long time ago,” or “I didn’t personally harm you.” This internal and external flinching can look like avoiding reflection on the topic, or goes so far as using words as weapons against native people in a highly unwelcoming and misguided representation of the Catholic faith.

Nowhere do I find this discourse more nakedly aggressive than in the annual swirl around the celebration of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I would like to share a selection of statements I have read on Twitter today, some from professed devout Catholics and other Christians:

  • “We don’t celebrate achievements anymore. We celebrate victimhood. That’s why they get the holiday and Columbus loses it.”
  • “To celebrate, I’m going to build a casino out of old whiskey bottles.”
  • “I thought they got rid of the Columbus Day holiday so they could celebrate Juneteenth without having an additional day off, so Indigenous People’s Day is extra not-real.”
  • “I’m happy that this land was conquered. It is an immeasurably better place now than it would have been had Europeans never showed up. I’m proud of our history and grateful. I will never apologize for it. I will celebrate our heroes and laugh in your face when you cry about it.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of how you feel about the naming of federal and state holidays, this is not how God has called us to talk about each other. This is not “speaking truth.” Respectful dialogue is a dying art in this world, and we are each responsible for reversing that trend. This is critical not because we should be singing Kumbaya with each other and never disagreeing, but because this type of speech cuts at the very heart of Christianity. It makes a mockery of the greatest commandments to love God and to love our neighbors. It is insidious and endangers our souls. Are these truly the fruits of a Christ-centered life showing themselves to others?

First and foremost, everything has to be brought into the light. You can’t just sweep it under the rug and hope that time will heal it…We learned that with the sex abuse crisis too, that you can’t just say, ‘Ok well, get over it.’ That’s not the way of our Lord.

Bishop James Wall of Gallup, NM

Social media should not be used as a measuring stick for our society, but its influence pollutes the waters of our collective consciences, threatening the fibers of morality just as much as the latest political decision. Let’s start a movement to listen before we react, to love before we disparage. And, for the love of God, let’s think before we tweet.

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