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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