After Francis’ trip to Canada, reconciliation work still needed — not by Indigenous people


I’ve seen the headlines. Following the papal visit to Canada in July, most Catholic news outlets ran stories with headlines such as “The Pope’s Apology Was a Beginning. Now the Real Work Begins.” I heaved a sigh of heaviness, for we all know who will take on this task: it will once again be up to the survivors and their descendants to continue the work they have been doing for so long. “Real work” has become the trump card that signals the white work here is done.

As an Indigenous and white Catholic woman in the United States, I closely followed Pope Francis’ visit to Canada. I watched his apologies to First Nations, Inuit and Métis. I’ve watched the various strong reactions that many natives have expressed to seeing the pope wearing a war bonnet and I’ve watched the shots on Twitter coming from all sides. I watched everything. My big takeaway? White Catholics still don’t like natives having rights over the church.

As if reconciliation could ever work when it was centered on comfort and the norms of whiteness.

During this period of reaction, I observed that Aboriginal people who continued to insist on their own humanity – and the humanity of the children who died as a result of residential schools and church-run boarding schools – were ignored or say we were using the wrong words. by people who seek to deny the horrors of the residential school system. If we took umbrage with the terminology argument, we were told that we were not being charitable. Or maybe we didn’t love the pope enough. Both claims miss the very real concerns of Indigenous peoples about this important visit and apology.

I won’t link to the worst offenders here; they’re pretty easy to find online and I have no desire to give them more clicks and attention. But the overall backlash that prevailed in coverage of the intersection of Indigenous life and Catholicism was disheartening. I want to expect more from my fellow Catholics. At the very least, couldn’t their first instinct be to diminish, dehumanize, contain or alienate?

I’m Ponca from Oklahoma. I descend from a grandmother and great-grandparents who all lived through American Indian Boarding School System – specifically Carlisle, Haskell and Ponca. I am also of white origin and I present in white. I am a catholic cradle. I grew up in a city of Dallas, Texas, and now live in Minnesota after spending nearly a decade in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I say this because specificity is important if we are to have conversations in community. As a reader, you must know where I come from, both in terms of people and places. My personal story is also a story embedded in colonization. Such a multi-layered story is a truer story than the prevailing desire to tie a “dark page of history” with a bow. The dark page is not a page at all, but a thick, continuous book.

The reality of being Indigenous and Catholic is not as unusual as it sounds. We are an extremely diverse group and represent several hundred sovereign nations. But most of us get the message in various ways that we are not Catholic enough, that our Indigenous identity is an obstacle to true faith in Jesus, that we must prove our loyalty in ways never before asked of white Catholics . As the papal visit approaches, wrong information calling common indigenous cultural practices “pagan” has appeared in Catholic news, but the many traditions drawn from secular and pagan Roman practices are never questioned as to their validity in Catholicism.

Far more worrisome than non-Eurocentric cultural practices is the fact that Catholic churches were deeply involved in both the residential school system and other systems of family and national breakdown among Indigenous people in the United States and Canada. Boarding schools in Canada and boarding schools in the United States are intertwined systems with a common genesis. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, became the model for the Indian schools in the United States and inspired Canadian residential schools. The Catholic Church was deeply involved in both systems, as were other religious traditions.

Catholics in the United States must understand that our church is also involvednot just the church in Canada. Investigation into the horrors of the American boarding school system is just beginning. Every Aboriginal person you meet is somehow connected to this experience. The survivors are still alive. We can all hear you say you’re tired of hearing about this. Healing is a slow process, but adding to the wounds will only slow it down and harm the Body of Christ. Healing can be a lonely and varied endeavor, but reconciliation is a two-way street.

This papal visit was not a glorious trip. It was not meant to make us feel good about Catholicism. I believe the pope meant it was an act of contrition and reconciliation. But I deplore that the word “genocide” was only mentioned on the plane returning to Rome. The doctrine of discovery still holds in its bloody legitimacy. Thousands of indigenous objects are kept in the Vatican museums and archives. Desperately needed records of schools kept at the Vatican and by religious orders remain hidden.

White Catholics cannot refuse to learn of the wrongs that have been inflicted on the Indigenous community, even and especially if it makes them uncomfortable. Reconciliation for something that happened over such a long period of time, with costs and losses that are still undetermined, requires the involvement of all of us.


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