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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.

Effects of the Doctrine of Discovery Today and the Boarding School Era

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


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October 11, 2018 Adrian, Michigan – Adrian Dominican Sisters and their special guests – Native Americans from the local area – celebrated unity and “oneness of heart” between indigenous peoples and the descendants of predominantly European immigrants on October 8 during a Liturgy marking Indigenous Peoples Day.

With this Liturgy, the Adrian Dominican Sisters and their guests joined 55 cities and five states that celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day rather than Columbus Day on the second Monday of October.

“Columbus Day represents the violent history of the colonization of the Western Hemisphere,” explained Sister Kathleen Nolan, OP, Director of the Adrian Dominican Congregation’s Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation and a member of the planning committee. It is more fitting, she said, to recognize the indigenous peoples “who were here first and persevered and continue to share so much of their knowledge, culture, and understanding of our relationship to Earth and land.”

The liturgy reflected a spirit of joy and unity. After a welcome by Sister Susan Gardner, OP, Director of the Native American Apostolate for the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, the names of six Adrian Dominican Sisters with Native blood and more than 50 Sisters and one Associate who have ministered with Native Americans in the United States and First Nations people in Canada were read.

- View a recording of the liturgy at the end of this article -

The liturgy also incorporated key elements of Native American spirituality. To the beat of Native American drums, Native guests and the Sisters who ministered with Native Americans and First Nations people processed into St. Catherine Chapel, following the cross carried by Sister Kathleen and the Eagle Staff – which can be carried only by combat veterans – carried by Art Robertson. Sister Mary Rae Waller, OP – a chaplain with the retired Sisters at the Dominican Life Center who has some Cherokee blood and who has ministered with Native Americans – prepared to smudge the Sisters and Native people in the procession. Similar to incense, smudging is a ritual that brings blessing and healing.


Left: Sister Mary Rae Waller, OP, prepares to smudge the assembly, an act of blessing and healing. Right: Sister Maurine Barzantni, OP, accepts the smudging from Sister Mary Rae Waller.

The readings focused on right relationships among people. The first reading, read by Sister Tarianne DeYonker, OP, was an excerpt from an 1805 address by Chief Red Jacket of the Seneca Nation, imploring the white settlers of New York to respect the Native religions.  

Noting the challenge of the readings for people to “live in right relationship” with one another, Sister Mary Rae said that people have been slow to learn that lesson but that there are signs that people are beginning to listen. She spoke of manifestations of “deeper communities of the spirit” among descendants of European immigrants and Native American people.

“This manifestation overcomes the historical, racial inaccuracy embedded deeply in the fabric of American legal life and implicitly imposed within spiritual formation and human potential,” Sister Mary Rae said. These inaccuracies and prejudices were enshrined in the Doctrine of Discovery, principles of law articulated in the late 15th century but still used as precedent today that gave Christian European settlers the “right” to conquer lands in the Americas held by non-Christian natives.

But Sister Mary Rae focused on the transformation of understanding of many Americans. Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel from John read during the liturgy – that “all might be one” – is being answered today in part by Sisters who have ministered with Native American peoples.

Sister Mary Rae noted the “open-hearted” ministry of the Sisters who walked with their Native brothers and sisters and who were accepted in turn. “Sisters have been adopted, invested in, become part of the tribal community in which they were,” she said. “Where this transition and this transformation takes place is in the heart. You don’t have to wear beads. You don’t have to wear feathers. It’s in the way you live and breathe.”

Noting the unity of all as brothers and sisters, Sister Mary Rae added, “Some of us have been gifted as members of this community to be able to minister in this time and in these places that have been pushed aside and neglected, to be a sign of hope.”

The Native American spirit continued to be manifested throughout the liturgy. During the prayer of consecration – and particularly when the bread and wine were transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus – the drums continued beating, adding a unique sense of reverence to the prayer.

At the close of the liturgy, Sister Susan and Sister Marilee Ewing, OP – members of the planning committee along with Sisters Kathleen and Mary Rae – were presented with Native blankets in appreciation for their efforts to bring the communities together in worship.

In turn, Father James Hug, SJ, presider, thanked the Native guests for enhancing the celebration of the Eucharist. “You have truly helped us pray today in a deeper and more reverent way, and we thank you,” he said.

As the assembly processed from St. Catherine Chapel to the sound of drums, the joy of the experience continued as Sisters and guests spontaneously began a joyful circle dance around the chapel.

Participants at an afternoon session by Sister Susan, however, were reminded that the people of the United States and Canada still have a long way to go in accepting their Native sisters and brothers. Sister Sue spoke on the effects of the Doctrine of Discovery and of the boarding schools in the United States and Canada that attempted to force Native children to conform to the mainstream culture.

Indigenous Peoples Day Mass

Sister Tarianne DeYonker, OP, proclaims the words that Seneca Tribe Chief Red Jacket delivered at a 19th century council to discern the value of choosing one faith over another.

Indigenous Peoples Day Mass

From left, Sisters Suzanne Schreiber, OP, Esther Kennedy, OP, and Mary Jane Lubinski, OP, participate in a spontaneous, joyful circle dance around St. Catherine Chapel at the close of the Liturgy.

Feature photo at top: Sister Kathleen Nolan, OP, and Art Robertson lead the procession out of St. Catherine Chapel at the end of the October 8 Indigenous Peoples Day Mass, followed by, from left, Sister Mary Rae Waller, OP; Father James Hug, SJ; and Sister Marilyn Winter, OP. Mr. Robertson carries the Eagle Staff, which can only be carried by a combat veteran.



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