The historical and contemporary witness of Native American Catholics are the subject of a Knights of Columbus-produced documentary set for broadcast in upcoming weeks.
“It is impossible to fully understand what it means to be a Catholic in North America without a sincere appreciation for the Catholic tradition among so many native tribes,” the Knights of Columbus website said. “Few people realize that Indigenous communities throughout the continent were sincerely practicing their faith centuries before the founding of the United States.”
The Catholic fraternal organization characterized the documentary as offering “a missing piece to the greater story of Catholicism in America.” It combines the history of Native American Catholics and their continuing contributions, with commentary from present-day Native Americans and other Catholic leaders.
Among those who speak in the documentary is Deacon Andrew Orosco, who on his father’s side is descended from the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians of the Ipai clan of Kumeyaay. Their traditional lands are in what is now the San Diego area.
“Christ reveals himself through the beauty of each and every one of our cultures,” said Orosco, a Catholic deacon of the San Diego diocese. “We are vibrant. We are alive. We are still here. And our voices need to be heard.”
The documentary, “Enduring Faith: The Story of Native American Catholicism,” will air on ABC TV affiliates as part of a partnership with the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission. Broadcasts first began in some localities on May 16 and will generally air on Sundays.
A trailer and broadcast schedule are available at the Knights of Columbus website. It will air in Denver on KMGH this Saturday, May 29 at 11 a.m.
“The history and deeply ingrained traditions of Native American Catholics demonstrate how Christ reveals himself through the uniqueness of every culture,” Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly said May 13. “Our hope is that this film will inspire a greater appreciation of the faithful witness of Native American Catholics.”
Father Henry Sands, executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office, is another commentator for the documentary. Sands, a priest of the Detroit archdiocese, belongs to three tribes: Ojibway, Odawa, and Potawatomi. He is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of the Odawa Indians in Michigan. His organization, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, was founded in 1874 to serve Native American Catholics and to act as their advocate with the federal government.
“We know that there is a lot of negative history in the interaction between the native people and the peoples who came from Europe,” he said. “At the same time, one of the positive things that took place is that the gospel did come to the people of the Americas. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been thriving among native peoples since it was first brought here.”
The Knights of Columbus said they aim for the documentary to “inspire in viewers a deeper appreciation for the spiritual and cultural gifts of Native American Catholics, a greater awareness of the wrongs inflicted upon them by the unjust policies of the British and American governments, and a sense of hope at how Native American Catholics continue to live out their faith in fully enculturated ways today.”
The documentary covers history like the 1531 apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego, an Aztec native. The miraculous Marian image which appeared on his tilma portrays the Virgin Mary as an indigenous woman wearing native dress. The apparition and image led to the mass conversions of many Native American communities to Catholic Christianity.
Then there is the story of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born in 1656 in a Mohawk village in part of the Iroquois confederacy, the area that is now upstate New York and southern Canada. She converted to Catholicism at age 19 and sought to live a life of holiness and virtue, despite obstacles and opposition within her tribe. She died at age 24. She was canonized by Benedict XVI in 2012, the first Native American to be declared a saint.
Nicholas Black Elk, a convert to Catholic Christianity, was born sometime between 1858 and 1866. He was a prominent Lakota medicine man who was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 and wounded at the Wounded Knee Massacre. He joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which toured Europe, including a performance before Queen Victoria.
He became a catechist in 1907, chosen for his enthusiasm and his excellent memory for learning Scripture and Church teaching. His work brought over 400 people into the Catholic Church. He was one of the signatories of the cause of canonization for St. Kateri Tekakwitha. He died Aug. 19, 1950 in Pine Ridge, S.D.
“Our faith is deep. Our faith is long-standing. And that story needs to be told, if you’re going to tell the story of Catholicism in the Americas,” said Patrick Mason, Supreme Secretary of the Knights of Columbus and a member of the Osage Nation. “But more importantly, that faith needs to be shared, and people need to know that we are here, and we’re here to share our faith with you.”
Carl Anderson, past Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, discussed the need to learn from Native Americans. He said there is “a need for reconciliation with Native Americans” and this need is “often hidden from many Americans by the fact that so many native communities are isolated.”
“We need to get to know each other better,” he said.
The documentary is part of the Knights of Columbus’ Native Solidarity Initiative, announced in 2019. The initiative began as a partnership between the Catholic organization, the Diocese of Gallup, and the Gallup-based Southwest Indian Foundation to build a shrine to St. Kateri Tekakwitha in the southwest U.S.
The Knights of Columbus noted their outreach to native and indigenous communities in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Hawaii during the coronavirus epidemic. The organization is collaborating with the Black and Indian Mission Office and the native-run Life is Sacred nonprofit.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s fraternal organization, has over 2 million members in over 16,000 councils worldwide.