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Righting Old Wrongs
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Righting Old Wrongs

Throughout the hemisphere, from Argentina to Alaska, indigenous people still struggle with the effects of European conquest. Meanwhile churches and governments in the U.S. and Canada struggle to admit their part in the oppression that robbed people of their lands, language, culture, and life itself.

In preparation for the Millennial Year, Pope John Paul II called the Church to repentance for past and continuing violence in the name of religion. Santa Fe’s Archbishop Anthony Sheehan asked for forgiveness from the native people of New Mexico, saying it was “necessary to acknowledge in all sincerity the abuses committed due to the lack of love on the part of those persons who were unable to see the natives as their brothers and sisters, as children of the same Father.”

Similarly, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate admit that the Europeans who conquered the Western Hemisphere naïvely believed themselves superior to the indigenous peoples. While missionaries may have been sincere in wanting good for the native people, the Oblates clearly state that “many of the problems that beset native communities today—high unemployment, alcoholism, family breakdown, domestic violence, spiraling suicide rates, lack of healthy self-esteem—are not so much the result of personal failure as they are the result of centuries of systemic imperialism. Any people stripped of its traditions as well as of its pride falls victim to precisely these social ills.”

Those ills are enormous. Sociologists note that barely half of Native American teens finish high school. Forty-five percent of Native Americans are unemployed; on some reservations, unemployment runs as high as 90 percent. The Indian Health Service estimates that the Native American death rate from alcoholism is 770 percent higher than that of all other ethnic groups. One Native American teenager in six has attempted suicide.

In the midst of such troubles, native people in the United States remain virtually invisible. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up just over one percent of the population, about 4.1 million people. Nearly 60 percent of Native Americans live away from state or federal reservations, in cities and towns where support systems for cultural identity and education are scarce. When surveyed by the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Native American Catholics in 1999-2000, 42 percent of the 175 U.S. dioceses either did not know how many Native American Catholics were in their dioceses, or reported that no Native American Catholics lived there. The eight-county Diocese of Cleveland estimated only 5000 Native Americans among its nearly one million Catholics. To respond to these “invisible” Catholics, a report entitled Native American Catholics at the New Millennium (2003) urges the U.S. bishops to develop programs which meet the pastoral needs of Native Catholics and reflect their unique culture, thereby enriching the entire Church.

It’s difficult to live in Northern Ohio without being reminded of Native America. Local native history is sparse because, by the time Moses Cleaveland arrived in 1796, the Erie, Seneca, Shawnee and other tribes had ceded their lands to the U.S. government. But our lakes and counties remind us: Cuyahoga, Erie, Geauga. The Cleveland Indians’ mascot stirs ongoing controversy: does it honor a Penobscot player from the 1890s, or is Chief Wahoo an embarrassing racist caricature?

The Tolerance Resource Center’s mission is to help people “understand and appreciate issues of racial, cultural and religious diversity.” Artist and activist Charlene Teters came to campus in the spring of 2003 to prompt conversations about racism. As a Catholic college, Notre Dame must continue to grow in understanding the needs of our Native sisters and brothers, and contribute to action for pastoral care and social justice.

Sr. Eileen Quinlan is an associate professor of English and communication at Notre Dame College.