The contributions of Native American Indian Catholicism to North American Catholicism

A wide variety of cultures have been shaping Catholicism in North America, and cannot be understood without them: Anglo-Saxons, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans. 

Gonzalo Meza-July 22, 2021-Reading time: 3 minutes
saint kateri

Photo: St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized. ©2021 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Catholicism in North America cannot be understood without taking into account all the cultures that have enriched it throughout history. Anglo-Saxons, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans have enriched the faith of this country with their own traditions and charisms. However, until a few decades ago, the history of Catholicism in North America was presented as fragmented visions: the Anglo-Saxon vision, the Hispanic vision, the African-American vision, etc.

It was a disjointed historiography, as if it were the history of different countries. Recently there have been initiatives not only to bring together the historical narrative of the faith in the U.S., but to present the contributions that each culture has to Catholicism. Among these recent efforts is the documentary, "An Enduring Faith: The Story of Native American Catholicism," produced by the Knights of Columbus, which since May 16 has been airing Sundays on some public television stations.  

There are about 4.5 million Native Americans, belonging to 574 tribes recognized by the U.S. federal government, including the Apache, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Comanche, Pueblo, Sioux and others. Most of them live in "reservations" (Indian reservations): territories that have their own jurisdiction and, although they are within a state of the American Union, they are autonomous. In the USA there are 326 territories with these characteristics, the largest being the Navajo Nation Reservation, located within the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many natives profess the Catholic faith. As of 2015, the Native Catholic population was estimated to be 708,000.

There are just over 100 parishes dedicated exclusively to serving these communities, most of them in California, New Mexico and Texas. In fact, within the American Conference of Catholic Bishops there is a Subcommittee on American Indian Affairs that has among its objectives to address the needs of such population and contribute to the healing of past wounds and historical conflicts: "We, as a diverse community in the Church, embrace this mission with all the saints who have gone before us, especially with St. Kateri Tekakwitha, through Catholic education, parish leadership and the Church's ministry of evangelization we develop mutual trust and cultural respect".

The documentary "An Enduring Faith" begins in the 16th century with the apparitions of St. Mary of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego at Tepeyac. It then explores the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha and Nicholas the Black Elk, whose life for the Evangelization of the Lakota peoples inspired other missionaries to bring the message of salvation to those communities; his cause for canonization is currently under review.

The film also speaks to the spiritual and cultural gifts of Native Americans and addresses the dramas in their history caused by the unjust policies of the British and U.S. governments. "We know there is a lot of negative history between Native peoples and those who came from Europe. But one of the positive things is that the Gospel also came and since its arrival it has been present among the people of the native peoples," says one of the interviewees. "When they ask me if I am an Indian Christian or an Indian Christian, I tell them that I don't care. The important thing is that I know that God is in my heart and that I am His child," says a Native American. The short film highlights the fundamental values of these cultures, including the sacredness of human life, respect for creation and restorative justice. The Native Americans were the first settlers of this territory, but their history since colonization has been full of tragedies, deceit and injustice. 

This documentary will undoubtedly contribute to a more complete and unified historiography of Catholicism in North America. A non-fragmented vision, which will contribute to highlight that the Catholic faith in the United States has been enriched before and now with the contributions of Anglo-Saxon, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American cultures.

It is the richness of our faith. As the American Conference of Catholic Bishops points out, "for those whom Christ has called, there is joy and wonder in encountering Christ in the individuals and families who form such a vast tapestry of culture, spirituality and grace. The preview of the documentary is available in English:

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