By Mara Adams
Even a cursory glance at headlines reveals how divided our country is on issues of race, gender, religion, economic class, power and culture. Too often, our hesitancy to discuss painful or controversial topics stems from a false dichotomy: we fear that critiquing any aspect of government, religion or education amounts to an absolute rejection of the entire institution. However, without critical thinking, we fail to learn from our past mistakes and deny ourselves the life in communion with others to which God has called us all. A model for reflecting on current divisiveness is the life of Black Elk and the Jesuit school at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
In 2018, the Vatican took up considering sainthood for Black Elk, a 19th-century Lakota medicine man who became a Catholic at age 40 and openly practiced his Lakota traditions along with his Catholicism. Black Elk lived during a time when many faith communities, including Catholicism, collaborated with the federal government in operating boarding schools aimed at “saving” Indigenous people by “civilizing” the children, which in reality meant eradicating their language, religious traditions, dress and other aspects of their cultural heritage.
Black Elk’s grandson, George Looks Twice, maintains that his grandfather was not a victim of cultural obliteration efforts, but that Black Elk had authentically combined both native and adopted religious traditions. However, Black Elk’s great-granddaughter, Charlotte Black Elk, is opposed to the canonization of Black Elk and doubts that he ever truly held Catholic beliefs; in her view, the Catholic Church was an oppressor that participated in the work of “cultural genocide.” The point is not for us to decide which of Black Elk’s heirs is “right” but to realize that the boarding school system points to the larger issue of colonization.
Black Elk did not feel the need to accept a dichotomized view of the world; he loved both the faith of his ancestors and the faith he freely chose later in life. “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes from within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
A theology of friendship and justice can guide our reflections on trauma and healing. The Lakota first encountered Catholicism in 1851 when they met Father Pierre Jean De Smet, a Jesuit priest who previously evangelized Indigenous peoples of the Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Father De Smet left such a favorable impression upon different Indigenous groups that when the U.S. government granted Episcopalians the exclusive right to evangelize the Brules and Oglalas in 1876, many chiefs successfully lobbied for the presence of Jesuits on the reservations. By 1887, the Jesuits established the Holy Rosary Mission and school at the Pine Ridge Reservation, the home of Black Elk.
The Jesuits adopted a number of practices that distinguished them from other Christian missionaries, such as learning the Lakota language and using it for preaching, prayer books and Scripture. This retention of language, including use of the Lakota word for God, had the effect of preserving aspects destroyed by cultural genocide. Boarding school experiences in the U.S. varied. For some, they were forms of victimization; for others, they provided autonomy, which gave rise to 20th century Indigenous movements for political self-determination.
The decision to establish a mission at Pine Ridge reflected the Jesuit belief in the humanity of the Lakota, an idea that is counter to the racism implicit in colonial ideology. The Jesuits challenged the prevailing view of Indigenous people as savages and noted that the Lakota tradition was superior in many ways to European-American culture.
When Christian missionaries baptized Native Americans, they gave them new Christian names, a practice that many theologians view as problematic because it suggests the need to dissociate with the “pagan” Indigenous past. The Jesuits practiced giving the Lakota Christian names at baptism but also accepted Lakota names given to them in formal ceremonies. It was not just the Lakota who were changed. Being a missionary led to a change in identity for Jesuits at Pine Ridge. Today, the Jesuit-run Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation offers classes in the Lakota language, and Lakota and Catholic traditions are part of the school’s spiritual formation program.
Healing requires authentic presence and friendship rooted in justice, reflected in the Second Vatican Council’s “Nostra Aetate,” which called upon Catholics to accept what is good and true in all religions, and to condemn any form of discrimination. Pope Paul VI writes that the task of promoting unity and love amongst all peoples requires a consideration of what draws all humanity together in fellowship. The pope reminds us that we cannot call God our Father if we refuse to see others as created in God’s image. Because of humanity’s brokenness, horrific events surround us, but Black Elk, Pine Ridge and “Nostra Aetate” offer insights and pathway through the darkest times.
(Mara Fitzgibbon Adams, PhD, is a theology professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. She co-chairs the Kokjohn Endowment and is director of Academic Service Learning.)