Catholic curricula and the invisibility of Native Americans

Native American protestors hold hands with parishioner Nathanial Hall, right, during a group prayer outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)Native American protestors hold hands with parishioner Nathanial Hall, right, during a group prayer outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

As social media went wild on Saturday, I wondered: What message had the Covington Catholic High School students been given about Native Americans before their encounter with Nathan Phillips?

More broadly, I wondered about the place of America’s indigenous peoples in secondary education. I teach at a Catholic university across the river from Covington, Ky. Last December I introduced undergraduates to Native America via an episode of MTV’s “Rebel Music” series, and a presentation of my dissertation research. I had spent several years on a mission to listen respectfully to what Native Americans were telling white, Christian America. The act of listening was uncomfortable at best, and a long, stinging rebuke at worst.

Advertisement

My students encountered Native American scholars and activists like Vine Deloria Jr. and Dennis Banks, learned of the American Indian Movement and met a comedy troupe called The 1491s. I explained what happened at Wounded Knee in 1890 and showed the infamous photos of dead Native Americans left frozen and contorted in the snow. I read a grim account of discovering the jawbone of a Native American toddler who had “not yet shed its milk teeth,” left in the aftermath of the 1865 Sand Creek massacre.

A handful in any classroom will know any Native American history at all, and others are surprised to find out what they “knew” was inaccurate.

Putting Native American peoples and their history before students elicits self-admitted ignorance. A handful in any classroom will know any Native American history at all, and others are surprised to find out what they “knew” was inaccurate. The students have not failed. We educators have failed them. In last semester’s course, I think part of the students’ sadness came with realizing that they understood almost nothing about something important.

My research revealed one statement repeated by almost every indigenous voice I encountered: “No one is listening to us!” Similarly, half a century ago, the Native American writer Vine Deloria Jr. titled a long essay “We Talk, You Listen.” Winona LaDuke offered a 2017 op-ed saying she is tired of being ignored and invisible to “you all,” the “we all” being white Americans. Too often, Native Americans are known to people only as stereotypes—mascots with feathers, frozen in time. We act as if they “vanished” when they are very alive and present.

Native Americans are known as stereotypes—mascots with feathers, frozen in time. We act as if they “vanished” when they are very alive and present.

It should not be my place to speak about what Native Americans are saying, when what they themselves are saying is so rarely attended to. But that is the point. I am an outsider to tribal communities, yet I seem to be among the few who have listened long enough to feel uneasy as a beneficiary of their loss.

And I am a Catholic educator. I am feeling deeply this week the failure of American education—public, private and religious—to teach young citizens-in-the-making the full, problematic history of their own nation. Our students are too rarely confronted with the inconceivable suffering of African slaves and the unconscionable attempted genocide of the peoples who populated the Americas. The invisibility of Native America in education tells our students that indigenous people do not matter.

The social doctrine of the Catholic Church, distilled from papal encyclicals that began responding to social injustices during the industrial revolution, calls for every human being to be treated with dignity. It teaches solidarity with our struggling neighbors, the need to see ourselves as one human family. This teaching is part of any Catholic education.

Last weekend’s incident in Washington is a call for a corrective in education. How much did the young men from Covington High know about indigenous people? Probably very little. But we must teach an honest American history, not merely one provided by history’s “winners.”

The absence of indigenous peoples demonstrates that their criticisms are correct. Our unexamined sense of superiority finds them unimportant.

We are guilty to the extent that we dismiss the unpleasant, condemning truth, and fail to turn from it. We are guilty to the extent that we choose to cling to a comfortable place of privilege while the wreckage of conquest lies, barely dusted over, around us. Educators, from administrators to classroom teachers, need to examine the absence of the American Indian in their American schools, and correct it.

And, mostly, we need to hear what the indigenous have to teach us.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Jones
4 months ago

Marlene, YES! Thank you.

William Healy
4 months ago

This author is a pathetic excuse for an educator and deserves whatever disdain she abhorrently invokes in her poor students with odious propaganda. Not everyone with fvcked up teeth is an Indian.

Liz Slaybaugh
4 months ago

agree 100% with the author

Jessica Pegis
4 months ago

You mean the history of Native Americans is not covered in U.S. history books?

k mallet
4 months ago

If U.S. history books do cover Native American history, it is rather scant.

William Healy
4 months ago

It's not that anyone has failed anyone, but that your White, Christian students have had enough of being lambasted for crimes they never committed. Your pretending that White Christians were the only people to ever have slaves is disgusting propaganda, not unlike that which spewed forth from the Catholic 'press' when a student committed a "Facecrime" (This is an actual crime in 1984).

If you want to help the Native Americans out, why not have Pope Francis donate some of his billions, or at least tear down his wicked wall at last and have them come stay with him? I'm sure the Natives won't mind barging in on the sodomite, drug-fueled orgy, as most sane people in the expect nothing less transpiring in ecclesial secret at this point.

But if that is impossible, Marlene, grow up and stop pressuring guilt on innocent students. Quit you job and volunteer with the Native Americans if it's that important. Lead by example.

Beth Egbers
4 months ago

Marlene, present both sides, like the North American Martyrs, the killing of Daniel Boone's teenage son, etc. Or what about the times both sides got along? Never hear anything about that. When you are listening to American Indians, what are they telling you? Things like the March for Life group of them said, that their lands were stolen and whites should go back to Europe? If so, what purpose do such statements serve?

Marlene Lang
3 months 2 weeks ago

Beth, The film "Hostiles" (2018) does an excellent job of showing exactly what you ask about. This venue was too short to include more. I hope to publish a longer, more complete work soon.

Tim O'Leary
4 months ago

Sadly, this message is at least as incomplete, romantic and naive as the old stories of the European immigrants. It errs just as much on the other side of the real history of the encounter between the European immigrants and the indigenous population. There was much nobility on both sides. There was also great moral deficiency on both sides and many of the tribes in North America were extremely violent to other tribes - conquering, enslaving, raping and pillaging other tribes was not uncommon. Chauvinism and supremacy of some tribes over others was also common. Think the Iroquois, the Sioux, the Apache, the Comanche, etc. And they were of course pagan idol worshipers, which is understandable since they hadn't yet received the Gospel.

The European immigrants came with considerable admixture of good and bad motives, selfish and generous ones. Like modern day immigrants, they came looking for a better life. They had similar tendencies of tribal superiority and a mix of good and bad people. Such is the interaction of peoples across the globe since humans appeared on earth. Millions of natives died of the unintended spread of diseases (much worse on the indigenous side, both also in the other direction (syphilis)) and the various conflicts, battles and wars (the immigrants sufferred less as they had much superior technology and societal organization). But, they brought a great gift - the good news of Jesus Christ. Millions have entered eternal life from the good news. Some rejected it and were lost. All Catholics should understand the value of the Gospel as well as respect the people they are called to share the Good News with, who are never all good or all bad.

The great problem today is the caricature of the indigenous tribes that robs them of their full humanity and nobility. Almost as bad is the false notion that the guilt of the ancestors (on either side) or the group must be borne by those around today. The young boys at Covington Catholic High School might have been rowdy but come out best of the 3 groups, according to the full video. They never uttered what the black supremacists said (that the natives had lost their land as a punishment from God for their idol worship). They remained in a defensive and restrained posture throughout, and were never aggressive. In response to taunting (insults and drums in the face), they turned the other cheek. Covington Catholic should be proud of how they are teaching them. Sad to say, their privileged progressive critiques have failed miserably in their encounter.

Richard Bell
4 months ago

The author asserts, "I seem to be among the few who have listened long enough." Well, I expected that the author would tell what she has heard, but I was disappointed. I find only hints of what she has heard in her vague references to "conquest" and its associated horrors, but we and all our schoolchildren also have heard such things many times.

Marlene Lang
3 months 2 weeks ago

Richard, This venue is limited in space. I have answered those questions and said much more in a 240-page work that I hope will be published soon.

J Cosgrove
4 months ago

The Great Courses aka The Teaching Company has some very good history courses on the United States. One is called "Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies" and another is called "The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy" . Don't buy these from the Great Courses unless they are on sale. You can get them from Audible for much less (doesn't come with any manual.) . There are several lectures on the interactions with the Indians in both but more in the pre 1776 course. Fun fact: When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they met two Indians who spoke English.

J Cosgrove
4 months ago

Interesting Fact2; The Spanish in the 1570's landed in what is now southern Virginia. They arranged for a chief's son to return with them to Spain and educated him. He became a Catholic and then he returned to his home under Jesuit tutelage but reverted to his old Indian culture and took several wives. The Jesuits humiliated him for these sins and were then killed by the tribe. These are the first Jesuit martyrs in North America not those in Quebec. The brother of this Spanish educated Indian was Powhatan who eventually became the chief of John Smith fame and father of Pocahontas.

J Cosgrove
4 months ago

Indigenous people in America formed thousands of isolated groups with little interaction. They had no means of transportation except walking (some had primitive water craft), there were no domesticated animals for work (only exception was the llama in parts of the Andes) and essentially led extremely primitive lives. They had not discovered the wheel. They also had almost no immunity to diseases from the rest of the world. To treat them as one is a meaningless exercise. By the way there are a couple tribes still existing today in essentially the same state as when Columbus arrived

Irene Baldwin
4 months ago

Years ago, I took a course in Indian Law which really shocked me. I felt, like your students, sad that I knew so little about something so important. The course showed in a really stark manner how we developed a system of separate laws for Native Americans and then routinely applied it unfavorably against them as we took their land and sacred places. I always thought that even if reality is unfair, our systems of law have at least striven for justice. But not so for Native Americans. Thank you for your essay, I hope what happened in DC can become a teaching moment for those students and for the rest of us.

Tim O'Leary
4 months ago

Irene - I never studied the indigenous legal system have due process, the right to a defender, the death penalty, just war criteria, etc.? Was infanticide a crime? Did they have euthanasia? Just wondering how comprehensive it was or how just it was. Then, it must have varied considerably among tribes. We seem to have very little hard records of these criminal justice systems.

Marlene Lang
3 months 2 weeks ago

No matter how much I learn, I feel like I will never catch up, because it is THAT important.

William Healy
4 months ago

This author is a pathetic excuse for an educator and deserves whatever disdain she abhorrently invokes in her poor students with odious propaganda. Not everyone with fvcked up teeth is an Indian.

Jose A
4 months ago

You want to learn about Native American History and their history with immigrants to America. Read https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B003F3PMMK&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_yLqsCbT0GZ919
"The Killing of Crazy Horse"
It is best book I have read about the settling of the American west.

Phillip Stone
4 months ago

Several prophets of Old Israel talked about the parents eating sour grapes and the children's teeth being thus set on edge.

People of the New Covenant were promised that this would not be so for them - those who did the evil were to be the only recipients of the blame if they were living in the Kingdom of God's effective will.

There is no blame and shame for the deeds of others in the Kingdom even though there is plenty of bad deeds of our own to sort out, repent and make restitution.
.
This does not seem to be part of the culture of the USA, so infected with the neomarxist doctrines of Gramsci and the Frankfurt School.

Lisa M
4 months ago

These kids still don't know their fate, but AmericaMag publishes an article on the importance of understanding American history and the plight of the Indigenous?

Terry Kane
4 months ago

One wonders why the National Cathedral locked out "gentle elder" Nathan Phillips and his Indian posse just this past weekend when the "indigenous people" activists tried to storm the church and interrupt the mass. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/nathan-phillips-rally-attempted-to-disrupt-mass-at-dcs-national-shrine-91038

William Healy
4 months ago

This author is a pathetic excuse for an educator and deserves whatever disdain she abhorrently invokes in her poor students with odious propaganda. Not everyone with fvcked up teeth is an Indian.

arthur mccaffrey
4 months ago

such a big story based on such a small factual base. There are enough conflicting reports about what actually occurred that it is shameful to allow this kind of propaganda in a magazine that claims to be professional and reputable. It seems that the PC crowd are just waiting to bash somebody--white men, white privilege, anybody who does not toe the line on hot topics like illegal immigration--and now Catholic HS students who are instantly branded as racist and insensitive. Do native Americans really want to be portrayed as "victims" all their lives? If so, they really don't need to lift a finger, because there will always be plenty of Marlene Langs around to create the victim mythology for them.

Irene Baldwin
4 months ago

My daughter's all-girl Catholic high school had an assembly where the incident was discussed along with something else that happened locally here last weekend (two white girls at a prep school were on video dancing around in blackface). Hopefully other Catholic high schools - and other high schools- are having this conversation.

Michael S
4 months ago

The author is absolutely right. Very few of us have any knowledge of what really happen with the occupation of the North American continent and the genocide of its native people. In the same manner, most of us choose to be ignorant of the imperialist activity of the U.S. government, with over 900 military instillations in at least 130 countries in the world.
"The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on: Nor all they Piety nor Wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it."

Dave Cornett
4 months ago

Why can't we avoid these ad hominem (personal) attacks. If you disagree with the author, fine; present your case. I think it was wrong to have this article at this time, not for its content, but because it feeds into the misrepresentation of what happened at the Lincoln Memorial that involved some Black Hebrew Israelites, some Native Americans and some Covington students. The Hebrew Israelites seemed to be insulting everyone. The Native Americans were playing drums and chanting, the Covington students were doing a raucous high school sport chant. The Native Americans wrongly, in my opinion, assumed the situation was going to escalate into violence. So they went to the students playing drums and chanting, thinking this would somehow diffuse the situation. If they truly wanted to diffuse the situation, the Native Americans should have chosen a medium of communication that the teens would have understood, English words. Even so, I saw no disrespect on the part of the students; they even seemed to make an effort to participate in the Native American chant in their own way. The Native American approached and got in the face of the one student in the video who clearly was confused and tried to respond in the best way he could. There was clearly a failure to communicate on all sides. I would have expected more from the adults, including the Covington chaperones, than from the teens who I think did very well considering the circumstance.

dbrock@cisdv.bc.ca
4 months ago

I had my own first-hand educational experience with indigenous people, chronicled in my book, Catholicity Ain't What It Used To Be: Lessons for the new evangelization from the life of a High School Religion teacher, WestBow Press. See chapter 6, Teaching Indians - I Just Lie! And I'm still learning.

Annette Magjuka
4 months ago

It will take humility on the part of white people to learn history that was not taught/glossed over. We have to seek out these stories, and if/when we do, we will have a fuller understanding of how systemic marginalization works and its long-term effects. It would be good to read some Native American history. It would be good to stop whitewashing history by having our kids re-enact tone deaf Thanksgiving stories. It is good that the University of Notre Dame is covering up its offensive Washington/Native American murals (this is happening as we speak). Jesuits had to face its unsavory history of selling slaves to keep a university running. There are horrific realities in our American past. Let's move forward with a deeper commitment to dignity and justice for ALL (LGBTQ people, too!). As for the Covington kids, they are kids. They need a caring adult to help them understand the context for how their actions are being interpreted. They need to understand the history of the phrase, "Make America Great Again," and its connection to the KKK. More education will help everyone.

Christi Dea
4 months ago

As I finish reading this article I can't help but notice that yet again, someone is assuming, and making a rather negative assumption at that, that the Covington social studies teacher is woefully failing his or her students. I didn't see any evidence that the writer consulted with Covington School, knows for a fact what their curriculum is or how it was taught, yet she assumes that these kids knew nothing of Native American Culture. Why is that? Is it because they did not move or make any aggressive gestures when confronted by a Native American? Is it because they were respectful, even when their personal space was purposefully invaded? Is it because one of the kids attempted to explain that we are all human beings after one Native American yelled at him calling him a European invader? The kid is a minor. Under age 18, but somehow he's personally responsible for the invasion of North America and told to go back to Europe? The boy with the drum in his face was amazing. He gestured to his classmate in a way that communicated, "Don't respond." If people want to hurl insults at kids I think it's a result of OUTSTANDING education that they have the ability to stand there and take it, to "turn the other cheek". I do not immediately jump to the conclusion their their teachers have woefully prepared them to meet with marginalized groups. Quite frankly, this article feels accusatory toward the Covington High School staff and students. I would personally feel very insulted if I was them and read this. I'm not sure this was the intent of the writer, but I have to say, it could definitely be the result.

James Schwarzwalder
4 months ago

For Professor Lang, I suggest that she consider how she would react if the next time she is at the local mall someone gets in her face like Mr. Phillips got in the student's face. The Diocese of Covington administration, the Jesuit High School administration, and Father James Martin all rushed to judgment before the complete facts were known. What type of example does this set for young people? Guilty until proven innocent? Will such knee jerk reactions foster vocations to the priesthood? If there is to be fact finding, check out Mr. Phillips background including the attempted storming of the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception by his group recently. Regarding curriculum, I defer to Dr. Lang.

J Cosgrove
4 months ago

Catholic curricula and the invisibility of Native Americans

Which Native Americans? There were thousands of different languages spoken prior to Columbus. Each one probably represented a different culture. There was little interaction between each. The author is descendant from just one of these thousand cultures. So in a history program, which ones get emphasized? Also there is almost no history as nearly all had no written language. There were often oral traditions but these are long since gone except for transcriptions by Europeans who learned their languages.

Vince Killoran
4 months ago

I don't disagree with the author but two quick points:

1. The Native American man at the center of last weekend's debacle could have spoken to the teenagers a bit before wading into their group and banging a drum. Many seemed baffled by what he was doing. I can see the reply already that "The oppressed are not responsible for educating us" but he had an important educational role to play with young people if he hopes to change hearts & minds.

2. Native Americans constitute 1.6% of the total U.S. population and tend to live in specific regions and states. Most Americans do not encounter a Native American in their daily life. How important is this in seeking justice and insight by other Americans?

Liz Slaybaugh
4 months ago

I believe that knowing the history of the land you live on is essential to understanding the past and where we all came from. Being ignorant of a culture that was so much a part of the founding of the US is a national shame and teaching about it truthfully should be required.

Vince Killoran
4 months ago

That sounds correct. Who could disagree w/your claim? (That wasn't the subject of my post.)

Vince Killoran
4 months ago

I don't disagree with the author but two quick points:

1. The Native American man at the center of last weekend's debacle could have spoken to the teenagers a bit before wading into their groups and banging a drum. Many seemed baffled by what he was doing. I can see the reply already that "The oppressed are not responsible for educating us" but he had an important educational role to play with young people if he hopes to change hearts & minds.

2. Native Americans constitute 1.6% of the total U.S. population and tend to live in specific regions and states. Most Americans do not encounter a Native American in their daily life. How important is this in seeking justice and insight by other Americans?

J Jones
4 months ago

Vince, education about *******the first American alumni********* of Catholic schools --------- Native Americans -----should be a primary and consistent history lesson for the students of one of the main American institutions which decimated their cultures and lives and religion.

There is a gut wrenching irony in all of this.

The Catholic schools Native children first encountered received stolen children (the ages of preschoolers through high school seniors), children whose families had been slaughtered and beaten and starved and humiliated and poisoned with Western diseases before their eyes. Those Catholic schools punished them for speaking their own language. Those Catholic schools sexually abused and beat them. Those Catholic schools forced those children to participate in a foreign religion while denying them their own religious words, rituals, songs, images, dances, foods.

Grandchildren and great grandchildren are THOSE children are today's Native adults.

Outrage at today's elite Catholic schools which are educating society's leaders with little awareness of the first American alumni of this educational system, as evidenced by the Covington Catholic students?

Makes total sense to me.

Phillip Stone
4 months ago

Total lack of perspective.

There is only one single human race, there are no races amongst all humans alive these days. Different ethnic groups develop whenever there is isolation for significant amounts of time but if all humans on earth were to die today except one tribe in the Highlands of New Guinea, NO human genes would be lost and given sufficient time, their descendants in Northern Europe would be blonde and blue eyed and in equatorial places various shades of brown and those in very cold climates would have flat noses in round faces.

Nobody objectively owns the land we live on.
Territoriality did not come with an off switch, affinity with kin and suspicion and caution of the other is wise and worked for survival on the average.

I cannot name a square metre patch of land outside of the continent of Antarctica which has not been wandered into or invaded since before the time of Jerico or Babel.

Obeying our destiny we have increased and multiplied and just about filled the face of the earth; according to some people, we have done it too much.

No culture is sacred and I venture to opine that the vast majority of cultures which lasted three generations or more are filled with evil of some sort emerging from the unchecked influence of the seven deadliest sins - pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.
It follows that most cultures should be suppressed, eliminated or allowed to wither on the vine.

The good news, embraced, cannot help but dramatically alter the way things are done amongst us and so will automatically and predictably be seen to be counter-cultural.

Edwin Hess
4 months ago

It seems that there were good and bad Indians living here when people, both good and bad, came from other countries. Why can’t we start with that fact and try to work together to make things better?
What I want to know is what portion of the American Indian population has mixed in with the general population in America? Do the majority of Indians still live on Reservations? If so, why, and is that a good thing in this day and age?
As regards the episode itself, the main lesson to be learned is that it is a good idea not to jump to conclusions. What now seems certain is that at that time the students were merely waiting for a bus to go home, and they did not start the confrontation nor did the resort to aggressive behavior as the others did. The only conclusion that I am now fairly sure about is that this is another case where people deliberately try to translate actions to suit their desires

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
3 months 4 weeks ago

Indigenous voices - they need to be fully restored, here, there and everywhere.

Advertisement

The latest from america

At the time of his death, U.S. Army Veteran Timothy Fowl left behind no known friends or family. But every student left school that day keeping Mr. Fowl’s memory alive.
A Honduran asylum seeker released from detention holds her son while waiting at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas, on May 19. (CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters)
Federal officials are releasing thousands of asylum seekers in Texas. A Catholic Charities facility is taking up the challenge of providing temporary food and shelter after grueling journeys.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 24, 2019
Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott in ‘Aladdin.’ (CNS photo/Disney)
There was a moment during “Aladdin” when I thought, “This would have made a terrific animated movie.”
John AndersonMay 24, 2019
Responses to 10 of the principal objections that are commonly raised against the Catholic Church's teaching on the ordination of women.
Avery DullesMay 24, 2019