‘We were the first ones’ — the faith of Native American Catholics 

A Pillar special report

The U.S. bishops’ conference approved in June a plan to draft a comprehensive vision statement on Native American and Alaskan Native Catholic ministry. 

The statement will be produced by the conference subcommittee on Native American affairs. 

While there are more than 700,000 Native American Catholics in the United States, their communities are mostly unfamiliar to other Catholics.

What do Native American Catholic communities really look like? And what do Native American Catholic leaders think “Native American ministry” should actually entail?

The Pillar wanted to find out. In a three-part series, The Pillar looks at the past, present, and future of Native American Catholics, and asks what they hope to see in a plan for Native American ministry. 

History, and historical wounds

The Catholic story among Native Americans is long, complicated, and difficult. It attests to a deep faith on the part of a people who are not often discussed — or even seen — in many parts of the U.S. Church. 

In 1798, the Diocese of Baltimore became the first Catholic diocese established in the United States. But the Catholic faith in what is now the U.S. is much older — hundreds of years older — than the Diocese of Baltimore.

Long before a nation spanning sea to shining sea was ever conceived, the Gospel was being proclaimed by missionaries to Native Americans in the areas that are now South Carolina, Florida, and New Mexico. 

The Diocese of Gallup claims the spot in the continental United States where native peoples and Christian European missionaries first made contact. In 1539, Franciscans led by Fray Marcos de Niza met the people of Zuni Pueblo where Gallup now sits. 

Gallup today is known as the “Indian Capital of the World.” Approximately half the town is Native American, and the diocese has the highest percentage of Native American Catholics in the country. 

Across the country, Florida boasts the first mission sites within the present bounds of the United States, beginning with St. Augustine in Florida in 1565. Over a century and a half later, St. Junípero Serra would traverse California ,founding that state’s famous missions.

Who were the parishioners at those first parish churches of America? Native Americans.

“One of the things that’s frustrating to me as a Native Catholic is how little people realize what an important part of Church history in the Americas Native people play,” said Patrick Mason, Supreme Secretary of the Knights of Columbus and a member of the Osage Nation. 

Mason is originally from Gallup and now lives on the East Coast. 

“Where I grew up, the Native peoples have been Catholic, some of them going on 400 years,” he said.

“This is a story of old and lasting faith.” 

But the story of that old and lasting faith includes wounds, and frustrations. The relationship between ministers of the Church and Native peoples has not always been an easygoing peace.

Today, the tension is perhaps best exemplified by revelations about the Church’s role in administering government-funded residential schools in the United States and Canada. 

In recent months, the presence of now-unmarked graves at some residential schools has been confirmed by radar detection methods. That confirmation has brought into public discussion the systemic and personal injustice of the residential school system, and the long-lasting effect on some Native American families.

Some leaders have called for a more explicit apology from Church authorities than has been given in the past, and the bishops of Canada issued an apology statement last month

Despite apologies, “there are Natives who are still hurting out there, who would like to be acknowledged,” Victoria Begay, a woman from the Navajo Nation, and a board member of the Southwest Indian Foundation, told The Pillar

“It’s very delicate these days because of what happened in Canada.”

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Chief Anthony Morales of the Gabrielino/Tongva Indian Tribe in Los Angeles, California told The Pillar that injustices and abuses committed against Native Americans are “something that we have known all along, passed to us by our elders, our ancestors, all of history,” said. 

“We just feel that, finally, it got attention… It’s nothing new to us,” he added. 

Morales mentioned abuses proliferated against native peoples in his home of California under the control of three countries — Spain, Mexico, and the United States.

But Morales also mentioned the unique place Native Americans have played in the Church’s history.

“The founding of Christianity here in America was because of us Native Americans. We were the first ones.”

Morales recognized the complexity of the history, and that it’s told with competing accounts in contemporary America.

“However you want to define it: ‘introduce,’ ‘forced upon,’ — we were the first ones,” he said. “Christianity, Catholicism, is today in the United States because of how it started, however bad that chapter in history was.”

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By the numbers

There are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes, and others groups which do not yet have federal recognition — a situation which can cause real difficulties for the people who live in them. 

A plan for “Native American ministry” will have to address the fact that native cultures and people in America are a broadly diverse group, with markedly different experiences and circumstances. 

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, who is of Wea descent, is one of few bishops with Native American ancestry. Conley said that diverse Native American cultures have taken up and expressed the Catholic faith in different ways.

“God reveals the truth to us, of course, in the fullness of the Catholic faith,” Conley said. “And that can be complementary to other expressions of culture.”

In common among many Native American communities today is pervasive poverty. Across America, reservations experience high levels of poverty, and many homes lack running water and other essentials. Communities, often isolated, find that healthy food is expensive, and that educational opportunities are often limited.

But — to the surprise of many Catholics — only 40% of Native Americans actually live on reservations. Many others have moved to cities. That move comes with its own set of complications for Native American people, and a completely different context for Native American ministry. 

Wherever Native Americans live, they find some Catholics surprised to discover that there are Native Americans who practice the Catholic faith. This is probably because fewer than one percent of American Catholics are Native Americans or Alaskan Natives.

Georgetown’s Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) estimates that in 2015, there were 708,230 Native American or Alaska Native Catholics, out of more than 80 million American Catholics overall.

In a 2019 report, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops identified that 101 parishes serve predominately Native American Catholics. Only seven U.S. dioceses report that Native Americans constitute more than 5% of their Catholic population; most report that Native Americans are less than 1% of their Catholic population.

But while Native Americans are a small percentage of the Catholic Church in America, the presence of the Catholic Church within Native American communities is significant. In 2019, nearly 20% of Native Americans were estimated to be Catholic. 

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A 2014 CARA study found that in some ways, Native American Catholic communities resemble most American Catholic parishes: about 60% of registered parishioners are women, Native American Catholics are as likely to be confirmed and have received their first communion as most other Catholics. Most Native American Catholics say their Catholic life mostly involves attending Mass, about a third are involved in ministries at their parish.

Native American Catholics are, like most Catholic communities, struggling with institutional disaffiliation among young people. They are among the least likely to register their children in Catholic schools, have high rates of non-marital cohabitation, high rates of suicide, and among the highest poverty rates in the country.

Those challenges all factor into parish life and ministry in Native American communities.

The U.S. bishops’ said in 2019 that “the vibrancy of Native American ministry hinges on the need for transformation, evangelization, and cultural competency.” The bishops called for the evangelization of Native young people and families as an important priority for the Church.

But how will that happen? What’s needed?

The USCCB said in 2019 that “The most important attitude in working with Native American communities is having an attitude of respect. The Holy Spirit has been working in Native American Communities since the beginning of time, and certainly before Columbus and other settlers arrived in this land.”

“Evangelization must be a two-way process. Missionary disciples need to be ready to find a deeper relationship with Christ by developing relationships with the people they encounter. An attitude of encounter is the first stage that leads to incorporation into the Church,” the USCCB added.

Respect comes from understanding the stories, and history, and perspectives of others.

In Part 2 of this series, The Pillar asks Native American Catholics to share their own Catholic stories. And in Part 3, The Pillar looks at what Native American Catholics can offer the entire American Church, and asks what “two-way process of evangelization” might look like.

Correction: This report initially said that contact was made between Fray Marcos de Niza and the people of the Acoma Pueblo. It has been corrected to the Zuni Pueblo. The Pillar regrets the error.

A guest post by
Joe Slama is a freelance reporter and a graduate student in Greek & Latin. He is based in Washington, D.C.