Catholics–and Providentialism

It would be easy now to pile on the Catholic Church—especially its hierarchy. The Vatican’s recent “repudiation” of the Doctrine of Discovery has been followed by the Maryland Attorney General’s announcement of “staggering sexual abuse” by church officials in his state. The Associated Press reported that “More than 150 Catholic priests and others associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore sexually abused over 600 children and often escaped accountability.” The documented abuse occurred over a span of 80 years, and was accompanied by decades of coverups. More money was spent on treatment and rehabilitation of perpetrators than on that of victims. And the Attorney General said that similar studies were addressing abuse in other dioceses.Read Rich’s Post →

Boarding Schools and Religion

What do we make of it, the long and sickening stories of abuse of Indian children in boarding schools in Canada and our own country? How can men—mostly men, but some women too—have done these things to children?

My friends raised in California Catholic schools laugh now about a nun who liked to rap knuckles with a yardstick, but even that, the hitting of small children by a grown woman pledged to teach them, seems to reflect more on her perverse personality or the crazy institution that had aligned with it than it does on the children.

Sure, there were and are trouble-making children, kids who bring sad stories from sad homes to school with them every day, and work out their home problems by being nasty to other students or contentious with teacher nuns—or any teachers. And there are kids with “just mean” in them that we struggle to understand. But—as we often say—who and where is the adult?

These men—and some women—worked (work?) for the government and for churches. We hear about the Catholics, but other churches ran schools on and near reservations. In fact, in what my mentor, the historian Alvin Josephy, says is the largest breech of the separation of church and state in US history, President Grant set out to remove corrupt Indian agents, who supervised reservations, and “replace them with Christian missionaries, whom he deemed morally superior.” In his “Peace Policy” of 1868, he took administration of the reservations from the War Department and gave it to the churches.

The missionaries proved no more moral as a group than had the government officials they replaced. Or than decades of adult Boy Scout leaders have proven to be. On November 16, 2020, the National BSA disclosed in their bankruptcy filings that over 92,000 former Scouts had reported sexual abuse by members of the organization. Recent stories from the Southern Baptist Convention admit similar sins among their clergy.

Large groups of children in physical and/or social isolation attract do-gooders—and attract those, consciously or unconsciously intent on cruelty. Some, probably tied to their own violent pasts, or carrying mental problems of one sort and another, and others, in the worst cases, intentionally engaging in the school or church or youth group in order to groom children for their sexual pleasure.

What’s the lesson in this? One is that silence aids and abets, another that sins are reiterated in generations. Silence is more nuanced than one word. Silence is lack of sound, lack of voice, but it is also the willful and fear-induced snuffing out of voices and messages. It can also be banal, like the good German burghers who did not smell the crematoriums, like the child that I was who did not notice the lack of Indians from the nearby White Earth Reservation in my Minnesota school.
We talk now of generational PTSD. Generational misbehavior is the other side of PTSD, the perpetrating rather than suffering side of it—although they are undoubtedly side by side in the real world. The lessons are that violence can beget violence, and that sexual abuse can pass through generations.

The first step in resolution is to know the subject. And we should have known! Books and stories of these boarding school tragedies have been here all along. Years ago, the late Canadian Ojibwe writer, Richard Wagamese, told the Canadian boarding school story in the heart-wrenching novel, Indian Horse. They even made a well-received movie with the same title.

Walter Littlemoon was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1942, the same year I was born in nearby Minnesota. He was taken from his parents into a boarding school when he was five, and, after a life of suffering, told the story in a video, “The Thick Dark Fog.” He’d lived that fog of remembrance for almost 60 years when he began to unburden himself. When I showed the video trailer to college students six or eight years ago, they were outraged. (Google it; it’s still there.)

The “evidence” has been there for us to see and read for years. It took time—and graves found with “new” technology revealing Canada’s sins, to lay open these old sins. New technology sometimes excites us, and makes things more real. But the rising consciousness over the past 20 or 30 years of and by Native Americans—Wagamese and Littlemoon are of course part of this—is probably more critical.

And Deb Haaland, our first Native Secretary of the Interior, is rising to the occasion like a phoenix, appointing study groups, giving press conferences, and visiting the sites of child boarding school graves in America.

Bright lights are the best antidote to secret and nefarious deeds. Now we, the people, must make sure that they stay bright and focused. We need contrition, humility, and, when possible, reparations. We need justice for perpetrators. Counselling, mental health, and compassion yes, but we need the words from those still with us, the secret reports from churches and scout troops. Victims and descendants of victims need healing—and so do the perpetrators and the institutions which enabled them.

(Photo: Chemawa Indian School, 1887)

More on Missionaries–and on Catholic and Protestant “Ladders”

For whatever reason—maybe the wonderful cover photo—I have kept the Spring 1996 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly by my bed, and pick it up from time to time to look at the fine drawings and paintings of Father Nicolas Point, and to follow those first Jesuits on their 1840 journey to Flathead country in Montana—and their departure in admitted failure just ten years later.
Elizabeth White writes of their early contact and early successes, which she attributes to the similarities between Catholicism and traditional Indian culture: oral liturgy, sacred wine and pipe, sweat lodge and church. The mission’s ultimate failure had to do with deeper life views—the Indian belief that man is part of nature and the Christian/European stories of/beliefs in serpents and other evils lurking in nature. The notion that Christian powers could not be added to traditional powers of nature and native spirit but must supplant them was also puzzling  to the Indians. Finally, the reverends’ attempt to bring the Blackfeet into their fold was too much for the Flatheads, and these first European missionaries gave up and moved on.
Catholic Ladder

Last night I read for the first time the last essay in the issue, a piece on “Catholic Ladders” by Kris White and Janice St. Laurent. These Ladders were teaching tools, originally of wood with four sides which could be carved or painted with symbols of Christianity. Sun, moon, stars, angels, the story of creation, Adam and Eve, the years of Christ and the decades of human history, the temple of Solomon, the Ten Commandments, were represented symbolically and figuratively in visual shorthand for the words and stories of the Bible. Eventually, the Ladders were put on paper in increasingly large layouts with more ornate depictions of the sources and lessons of Christianity.

This, it seems to me, was a brilliant strategy. The visual mnemonics of the ladders were a short step from the knotted ropes (called Quipuin some texts) that many tribal people used to keep track of seasons, time, and significant events in tribal life. They could be shown to a crowd, touched and moved easily from meeting to meeting, village to village.
Spalding “Protestant” Ladder

There is a picture of the only known “Protestant Ladder,” which was designed by Henry Spalding and drawn by his wife, Eliza. It was two feet wide and stretched six feet, and was colorfully painted. The Spaldings were of course the first missionaries to the Nez Perce. The note on Eliza’s drawing and remembering that Old Joseph’s daughter, the one who married white trapper Joseph Gale, took the Christian name Eliza caused me to look for more about one of the first two white women to travel the Oregon Trail (the other being Narcissa Whitman).

Eliza was as committed to the mission movement as was her husband, and she proved to be a natural teacher.  Her school at Lapwai was, I read, “different than many of the other missionary schools in the west.  She did not require her pupils to bathe, dress in ‘white’ clothing, or cut their hair.  In addition, she taught in both English and the Nez Perce language.” How common sense and practical; no wonder she was more popular with the Nez Perce than was her preacher husband!
Eliza becomes a more interesting character when we learn that she had some doubts about her faith after the massacre of the Whitmans. But she did go on to teach and administer other schools in the Willamette Valley. It makes one a little sad that she died young, at 44. Maybe her impact on mission schools would have been greater and their worst abuses diminished had she had another 20or 30 years to work on it.
That is speculation of course. But one piece of information from that Oregon Historical Quarterly is not. While one Catholic Ladder in the text prominently features the beginnings of the Church, Eliza’s (and Henry’s) Protestant Ladder depicts the pope tumbling off into the fires of hell. Whatever difficulties the Catholic and Protestant missionaries had among the Indians did not keep them from feuding with each other!
NOTE: for info on the Spalding Protestant Ladder, go to:
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Browsing and Black Robes

Father Pierre-Jean De Smet
One of the great pleasures of being in a library (or a bookstore, where I spent a dozen wonderful years) is browsing. Your eyes scan shelves not with anything particular in mind, but with a lifetime of general interests and a number of current curiosities. A book—or journal or magazine—jumps at you with its shape, color, title, or the image on its cover. You pick it up and, almost unconsciously, look at front and back and open or don’t open and put it back or stick to it a bit longer—sometimes you keep reading. Interests and curiosities are strengthened and changed as you browse, and off you go again, maybe this time searching specifically for a title or subject matter. 
Add continuous reading of Josephy texts and you have my current life at the Josephy Library! This week it was the cover of the Spring 1996 Oregon Historical Quarterly with a photo of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet and a number of long haired Indian men, and the announcement of articles on “Catholic Missionizing in the West.” So I was soon reading about the Black Robes in Montana in 1841, about a Jesuit mission that lasted just a decade and collapsed amid cultural misunderstandings—the Indians quest to learn and incorporate Christian teachings; the Jesuits insistence on conversion and replacement of traditional beliefs and ritual—about  the missionaries, traders, and Indians who were part of the drama. And I was marveling at the illustrations of Father Nicolas Point.
Point and his art work, De Smet and his travels—he made 19 trips across the seas raising funds for his missions! The Iroquois Catholics, the relationships between Catholic and Protestant missions, President Grant’s effort to administer Indian agencies with missions; I have a bundle of new topics in my bucket of things to browse and learn.
I sometimes imagine grouping books and specific journals in the Library by Josephy interest areas: fur trade, Civil War, Mormons, treaties, transportation routes, expedition artists and art work, and the ideas of white superiority, Eurocentrism, discovery, nature, progress, etc. etc. etc. Alvin’s curiosities were many, and my browsing is now constrained and strengthened by a growing familiarity with them.
Maybe some of you out there—historians and poets, followers of Indian affairs and Western themes, have similar or related curiosities, and, in your browsing have found the book or article that brought clarity—or inspired further curiosities. Please tell us—and consider our new Library another shelf for your own browsing.  I’m happy to keep my eye out for the topics that occupy your mind, to do a little research by browsing on your behalf. And of course welcome everyone to come into the Library when you are in town and have the pleasure yourself.
notes: The OHQ is Vol. 97. No. 1; and a portfolio of Nicolas Point art work is available at
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