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 17, 2016, Standing Rock, North Dakota – Eight Dominican Sisters – including Adrian Dominican Sisters Kathleen Nolan, OP; Maurine Barzantni, OP; and Marilyn Winter, OP – stood in solidarity November 11 and 12 with activists opposed to the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on sacred land.
Rounding out the Dominican contingent during the weekend were Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters Kathy Long, OP, Evie Storto, OP, Julie Schwann, OP, and Peggy Ryan, OP, a well as Sister Ceile Lavan, OP, a Blauvelt Dominican.
Also participating in the two days of prayer and action were Native Americans from near and far; indigenous people from Canada and New Zealand; and environmental activists from around the world. Some 250 bands and nations were represented, Sister Maurine recalled.
In an interview at the Motherhouse after the weekend, the three Adrian Dominican Sisters recalled the highlights of their experience at Standing Rock. They participated in prayer and celebrations at of one of five camps that had been set up near Standing Rock. The camps have grown since they were first established in April to protest the construction of the pipeline on Native land. “Now there are five camps and thousands of people involved,” Sister Kathy said.
As a group, members of the Dominican contingent participated in a celebration of Native American veterans and in a training session for non-violent action on November 11. The next day, they took part in a women’s ceremony of the pipe and stood along the road in support of a caravan of people who were prepared to be involved in a nonviolent civil disobedience action that could result in arrest.
In between the formal events, the Dominican Sisters observed the action around them and took part in conversations and in the almost round-the-clock prayer in the camp. “The eight of us began and ended each day with a prayer, and we shared and reflected at night on what had happened – how we were affected during the day,” Sister Kathy said.
“One of the solid theses of the group is that you can only bring about change in community,” Sister Maurine said. “Change will come about if we work in community – and they certainly showed that in every aspect of their being together.”
“It was an experienced of the hope of the world,” Sister Kathy said. “When people come together and unite to make something better, there’s power in that. To me it was very clear that this was a modeling of what we aspire to be – a unified people coming together for the common good, and acting out of that.”
Sister Marilyn was especially impressed by the gratitude exhibited by the native people of Standing Rock. “They started the protective action, and they were really happy that people supported that,” she said.
The Sisters were impressed by the high principles put forth by the organizers in their ongoing, non-violent resistance to the building of the pipeline. The sign outside the meeting dome delineated such principles as respect for the local people, respect for the camp as a place of prayer and ceremony, prohibition on weapons or property damage, and the need for orientation before direct action.
Other Sisters and Associates participated in nonviolent protests against the pipeline, especially on November 15, the national day of action against the DAPL. Sister Mary Carr, OP, reported that the Chicago rally drew about 500 marchers who traversed Washington and State streets, chanting, “Water is Life.”
“It was about a 30-minute walk to the Army Corps of Engineers,” where members of the rally presented 5,000 letters, asking that the permits for the pipeline be revoked,” Sister Mary reported. In addition, she said, participants in the rally carried a 30-foot long puppet representing the oil pipeline and listened to speakers from the American Institute of Chicago.
Sister Susan Gardner, OP, participated in a rally in Traverse City, Michigan, in which participants lined both sides of a parkway commonly used by people driving to and from work.
“It was great, as we all gathered with our signs and welcomed each other with smiles,” Sister Susan wrote. “It was wonderful to see the young mothers bring their children, especially girls, and have them stand there with their signs, too.” She said that the rally participants received signs of support from both Native and non-Native passersby.
Feature photo: Members of the Dominican contingent at Standing Rock are, from left: Sisters Kathy Long, OP, Evie Storto, OP, Peggy Ryan, OP, Julie Schwab, OP, Ceile Lavan, OP, Maurine Barzantni, OP, Marilyn Winter, OP, and Kathleen Nolan, OP.