Indian reservation

Ending Native American Reservation Tragedy – Catholic Philly


Sacred art depicts Saint Kateri Tekakwitha among other Catholic saints. The feast of the first Native American saint is July 14.

“We have no hope; it will always be like that. – Lakota Sioux resident of the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. ***

There are 7 million American Indians in the United States, a quarter living and dying on reservations in conditions rivaling third world countries. Most are Christians, many are Catholics. They are the poorest American ethnic group.

Pine Ridge is a microcosm of the worst problems. Life expectancy is less than 44 years, 97% live below the poverty line, unemployment exceeds 80%. Most lack drinking water and sewage, 40% lack electricity, outbuildings are endemic. Diseases – diabetes and cancer – are 800% higher than the national average.

The state of education is among the worst in the country. Many schools are in need of repairs with asbestos in the floors and pipes, lead-based paint, and fire code violations. They lack basic supplies and fresh food.

The root cause of the economic situation is linked to land, most of which is held in trust by the federal government. They are the most regulated people on earth. Many only have the right to to occupy Earth. They don’t own their homes and have little incentive or money to repair them. How did it get so bad?

We have to go back to the “doctrine of discovery” that first appeared in Spain, then adopted by the British, and then made its way into the US Constitution and federal law since then. When the “New World” was discovered, the question was: who should take possession of these newly discovered lands?

Acting under the international laws of Western Christendom, Columbus was to “take possession” of the land for Spain. These “laws” took shape from two papal bulls (1452 and 1493). The intention was to recognize and defend any Spanish claims and to bring the people of the new country to Christianity at a time when Islam was spreading across Europe.

The controversial bull of 1452, Dum diversas was written before Columbus without any knowledge of a new world or of the existence of an indigenous people. Popes Nicholas and Alexander I did not intend for them to be mistreated or lose their lands. Pope Paul III in 1537 (in Sublime dues) clarified that “the Indians and all other peoples [discovered] must in no case be enslaved, deprived of their freedom or possession of their property, even if they are outside the faith of Jesus Christ. Catholic social teachings have since repeated this position.

Over time, the driving force behind this “doctrine” was money, which later emerged in US Indian law and in Supreme Court cases under Chief Justice John Marshall (1810, 1823 and 1835).

The General Allotment Act (1887) provided the means to take millions of acres of guaranteed reserves from Indians and marked the beginning of the misguided federal paternalism towards Indians that continues today. The Burke Act (1906) and the Reorganization Act (1934) and amendments to the Land Consolidation Act followed. Land that is not wholly owned by individuals has been placed in a “trust” system in which the government has final authority over land use.

A typical house on the Oglala Lakota Nation reserve. (Photo by Richard May)

The fragmented patchwork of land remaining with its restrictions is a major obstacle to housing and business development. The erosion of tribal powers to rule and manage their lands and resources continues.

The current legal framework is not only incompatible with the Constitution but also with basic human rights, which has adverse consequences for Indians and their ability to correct social and economic injustices. Towards self-sufficiency, tribes and their governments attempt to replenish their native lands through purchases, gifts and restitution of government-held land. Indian cultures and languages ​​are at stake when the land base is reduced.

“We have no hope. It will always be like this. “ No hope leads to despair, and desperation leads to many social problems such as suicide and rampant drug addiction. We must give them hope that things will improve.

The issue of poverty on reserves goes to the heart of Catholic social teachings, as it is found in the battlefields of religious and pro-life freedom. Responding to this social disparity is part of our Catholic identity and requires effective advocacy for social justice. Public awareness is crucial.

While credit should be given to organizations such as Catholic Home Missions, charitable donations are just a band-aid on the problem. A long-term solution requires major reforms at the federal level and begins with the presence of the church on Capitol Hill, supporting tribes and pro-Indian legislation. It must become a national priority with all Americans committed to solving it.

To that end, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Native American Indian Affairs is now actively meeting with Native American leaders to listen to their concerns. The recent document “Two Rivers: A Report on Catholic Native American Culture and Ministry” provides useful data and the first steps the church will now take.

Besides the church’s role in evangelism, this includes the need for education and lobbying Congress to reform Indian federal laws governing reservations. We encourage you to consult its content.

Let’s all get involved; and it begins with prayer.


Richard May is a writer based in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.