Throughout a recent meeting of Jesuits and Indigenous leaders from the US and Canada, prayers were frequently offered for all living things … the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged ones, the plants, trees, and in thanksgiving for the land, the elements and waters which sustain life. This reverence for and relationship with creation and creator is markedly different from a Western worldview which sees nature from a distance and often perceives the earth as something as to be subjugated, mined and polluted for private gain which in turn perpetuates a “throwaway” culture according to Pope Francis.
The meeting, held in Regina, Saskatchewan earlier this summer opened with a talking circle with Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Our Midwest group included representatives from South Dakota and the province: Rodney Bordeaux, chief operating officer for the St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota; Jesuit Frs. Joseph Daoust, Peter Klink, and James Kubicki; as well as myself; Norma Tibbitts, chairperson of the board of directors for Red Cloud Indian School; and Bill White, pastoral assistant at Christ the King Church on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Similar delegations came from the Pacific Northwest/Alaska and Canada.
Much of the earliest Jesuit work in the Americas was with Indigenous communities dating back to the 16th century, soon after the Society was founded. Jesuits were often the only force standing between Indigenous people and slavery as depicted in the film, The Mission.
Yet, we also realize in humility that our cooperation in the federal system of residential schools in both the US and Canada caused personal and cultural harm. The Canadian government led a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from 2008-2015, which included survivors and families affected by the schools as well as religious congregations and groups which sponsored them.
An excerpt of the Jesuit statement for the TRC reads, “I stand here on behalf of the Jesuits to say that we are truly, deep within our hearts, sorry for what we did to injure individuals, families and communities by participating in the Canadian Residential School system … It has been a struggle for the Jesuits to recognize that we became an active part of a system aimed at the assimilation of your traditional culture. It was not until it was much too late that we realized the harm that we had done.”
Father Sosa said that reconciliation is at the core of a Jesuit’s vocation—reconciliation with human beings, with the environment, and with God. Part of that reconciliation is to face our own historical complicity with violent and sinful social structures such the residential schools and slave-holding.
The Indigenous leaders’ meeting with Fr. General allowed representatives to share their work, their consolations, and challenges. Then Fr. General shared these reflections:
- Inequality is the monster in our world … it is untamed and growing both within and across nations.
- When democracies weaken, people are weakened.
- Preservation of cultures is the preservation of God. The face of God is diversity … consider the Trinity.
- Inculturation is the first step … We need to move from our own comfortable house to learn to live in the houses of others.
- How can we make history a memory and not a stone that paralyzes us?
- Reconciliation can be hurtful like a salt in a wound, but salt also purifies and heals. Reconciliation is our mission today and we work in a wounded world.
- This is a hopeful moment … 50 years is nothing in terms of implementing Vatican II … we are just beginning to see the first fruits …we are on our way to a church of the laity. The Gospel doesn’t talk about pastors and church buildings, but of people, relationships, and service.
- Trusting God is trusting people for it is people who carry out God’s work.
In addition to the theme of reconciliation, resilience was another key theme of the Indigenous leaders’ meeting. One participant observed that Indigenous communities have been here for thousands of years before the colonizers and they will survive after the current unsustainable colonizing culture has passed.
Grandfather, Great Spirit, once more behold me on Earth and lean to hear my feeble voice. You lived first, and you are older than all need, older than all prayer. All things belong to you—the two-legged, the four-legged, the wings of the air, and all green things that live.
You have set the powers of the four quarters of the Earth to cross each other. You have made me cross the good road and road of difficulties, and where they cross, the place is holy. Day in, day out, forevermore, you are the life of things.
Hey! Lean to hear my feeble voice.
At the center of the sacred hoop
With tears running, O Great Spirit, my Grandfather,
With running eyes I must say
The tree has never bloomed.
Here I stand, and the tree is withered.
Again, I recall the great vision you gave me.
It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives.
Nourish it then
That it may leaf
And fill with singing birds!
Hear me, that the people may once again
Find the good road
And the shielding tree.
~Nicholas Black Elk, Lakota holy man and Catholic catechist whose canonization cause opened Nov. 2, 2017
Socio-economic indicators place the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota among the very poorest counties in the nation. Life expectancy is lower than anyplace in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti.
However, in Regina, there was a strong consensus from the group to reframe this narrative and accentuate the hope, vitality, and resilience of communities. To learn more about this emerging apostolic horizon, visit the Red Cloud
(Pine Ridge) or St. Francis
(Rosebud) websites where Lakota people and Jesuits work collaboratively to form and promote Catholic and Lakota leaders and values.
Seeing and learning the inhumane and often genocidal history of North American colonial encounters with Indigenous communities is appropriately unsettling as we often have learned only the history told by the colonizers. For instance, we visited the site of former Regina Indian Industrial School which lost (by death) 20 percent of its students during its operational years of 1890-1910. Children were simply buried in unmarked graves without even telling families.
In his prepared remarks to Fr. General, Fr. Patrick Twohy, SJ, observed, “The road we are now on as Indigenous peoples and Jesuits is a road created and sustained by the profound and lasting friendships in a way we continually learn from one another and try to discern the road forward together. We also acknowledge that our past journey together has often been painful and difficult. The ongoing colonial invasion that continues to gravely wound Indigenous Peoples and their lands and waters must continue to be addressed not only by Indigenous Peoples but also by Jesuit universities, high schools, parishes, and in all spheres of public discourse, seeking understanding, compassion, and greater solidarity.”
|“It must be said that today we are more aware of the significance of the richness of the indigenous peoples, especially when, both politically and culturally, other forces tend to suppress them even more through globalization conceived as a "sphere," a globalization where everything becomes standardized. Today, our prophetic audacity, our consciousness, must be on the side of inculturation. And our image of globalization should not be the sphere, but the polyhedron. I like the geometric figure of the polyhedron, because it is one but has different faces. It expresses how unity is created while preserving the identities of the peoples, of the persons, of the cultures. That is the richness that today we have to give to the process of globalization, because otherwise it is homogenizing and destructive.” Pope Francis to the delegates of GC 36.