Indigenous peoples are filling in the gaps in our Catholic faith

Indigenous people attend Pope Francis' celebration of a Mass marking World Mission Day in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 20, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In 1987, St. John Paul II visited Turtle Island—or North America, as it is called outside Indian Country. In both Canada and the United States, he participated in welcoming ceremonies led by Native spiritual leaders, including “smudging,” a purification rite using the smoke of sage or sweetgrass. In this one prayerful act, St. John Paul II refuted one of the greatest lies in Turtle Island’s history: that to follow Christ, you cannot be Indian.

We are now only glimpsing the full theological implications of his act. One of the key principles of the growth of the church is the absorption of new philosophies, which in turn illuminate previously unseen aspects of the deposit of faith. This started with a contentious debate over the role of Greek philosophy. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” critics scoffed. Seen in the light of Christ, the church ultimately responded, everything.

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What has Turtle Island to do with Jerusalem?

This continued into the Middle Ages with the rediscovery of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas’s gift of scholasticism; a gift, incidentally, whose foundation was condemned as heresy three years after St. Thomas’s death. After some debate, we now recognize that this process is open-ended and all-encompassing. As long as human thought continues to change, we will always read it in the light of Christ and incorporate those insights into the theological tradition of the church. However, one of the richest philosophical traditions in human history has been ignored and even systematically persecuted: the broad family of indigenous philosophies.

Critics, whether of Aquinas or indigenous Catholics, often dismiss new philosophical sources as “paganism.” At best, even sympathetic observers see indigenous traditions as incomplete versions of “civilization.” At worst, non-Natives to this day confuse the nonsecular nature of indigenous philosophy with occultism.

Multidisciplinary scholarship continues to dispel these uninformed stereotypes. Recent popular works, like Braiding Sweetgrass and The Memory Code, describe rich oral traditions that encode sophisticated ways of relating to the world around us. The spiritual character of indigenous traditions is not the worship of idols but the enshrining of sustainable relationships with living creatures and whole ecosystems. Overall, indigenous philosophies are holistic webs of meaning encompassing all aspects of human existence, everything from the economy to family life, from history to art.

At worst, non-Natives to this day confuse the nonsecular nature of indigenous philosophy with occultism.

At the same time, we are becoming aware of how thin our own web is in places. We have known for decades that our focus on justification, inherited from the Reformation, does not encompass all aspects of human flourishing. We are only beginning to see how the holism of our hunter-gatherer legacy has been artificially constrained by modern systems. This is not a place to condemn those systems but to recognize the ways that our spirituality has been artificially truncated by them. We give thanks for land and food, but we have no way of acknowledging a spiritual relationship with them.

Indigenous peoples are filling in the gaps in our faith as Pope Francis continues the journey that St. John Paul II started. Working through the relationship between new philosophies and church doctrine is messy. Thankfully, indigenous Christians have already put in centuries of work sorting out these questions, exemplified in Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk’s spiritual classic, The Sacred Pipe. I believe in Christ, he stated without qualification, but all should know “the greatness and truth” of Lakota tradition “to help in bringing peace upon the earth...within men and between the whole of creation.”

Hearing Black Elk and others like him will complete the circle of the church’s theological mission. What has Turtle Island to do with Jerusalem? Soon we may be able to answer with the great answer of our Catholic tradition: “Everything.”

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