Margaret Witt of the Lakota Tribe delivers a reading at a Native American Mass in Northeast Portland’s St. Andrew Church in 2007. (Sentinel archives)
Margaret Witt of the Lakota Tribe delivers a reading at a Native American Mass in Northeast Portland’s St. Andrew Church in 2007. (Sentinel archives)

To be Native American and Catholic is to confront enduring wounds while you cling to what resonates as true about Jesus, said Margaret Witt, a member of the Lakota Tribe and a parishioner of St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. “There is a healing that needs to happen because of the past, but I also believe God wants us to seek peace and understanding, and I believe in the Eucharist.”

For the past 175 years, since the founding of what is now the Portland Archdiocese, Indigenous Catholics have lived with this paradox — practicing a faith that nourishes but that at times has depleted their communities of customs, culture and language.

Their story is interwoven with the work of courageous priests, plucky if imperfect prelates, white-centric paternalism, ill-crafted government policies and anti-Catholicism. It includes the pragmatic adoption of the faith by some, transformative conversions among others and an Indigenous-informed Catholic spirituality that has “a deep respect for the holy and the sacred,” said Jesuit Father Patrick Twohy, who has spent a half-century living with and serving Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

Here is a look, though far from complete, at the first Native American Catholics in the region and today.

Encountering a new faith

More than 60 tribes speaking some 18 different languages lived in Oregon’s diverse environmental region for thousands of years. Natural resources were abundant. But within just a few decades a federal statute and disease upended Native American life.

The first outbreak of malaria arrived in 1830. While white settlers typically suffered fever and aches, the mosquito-borne disease was lethal to Native peoples, who had no immunity to European contagions. Additional viruses such as chickenpox and measles came down the Oregon Trail, and by 1870, disease had reduced the Indigenous population on the Northwest coast by more than 80%.

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 had a similarly dramatic impact. It gave white settlers claim to 320-acre parcels of land in the Oregon Territory, which included the modern states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Wyoming. The effect was that between 1850 and 1855, settlers obtained 2.8 million acres of Native American land.

It was just before and during such devastation that Indigenous people first encountered Catholicism.

French Canadian trappers working for trading companies in Oregon in the 1800s were predominantly Catholic, and many of the men married or paired with Indigenous women, thereby transmitting the faith. Also hired for the fur trade were Iroquois Indians, native to the Northeast and educated by Jesuit missionaries. It wasn’t priests or nuns who first taught Catholic doctrine to Oregon tribes but these Iroquois, who shared what they’d learned from the “black robes.”

Making a peripheral contribution to the spread of Catholicism were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Neither Lewis nor Clark was Catholic. But there were Catholics on the expedition, including their interpreter, who was married to the party’s principal guide — Sacajawea.

David G. Lewis is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who teaches anthropology and Native studies at Oregon State University. He recounted how, in the early 1800s, the Nez Perce Indians spent several weeks with Lewis and Clark’s group in Oregon.

“During that time they talked about the Bible; they were very interested and wanted to know more,” said OSU’s Lewis, no relation to the famed explorer.

In the years that followed, three contingents of Nez Perce, Flathead and Iroquois Indians made perilous treks to St. Louis, where Clark then lived, seeking black robe missionaries for Oregon. Clark, who did not understand their language but seemed to comprehend the spiritual nature of the quest, introduced them to both Catholics and Protestants in the city.

Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis writes Dec. 31, 1831: “Some three months ago four Indians who live across the Rocky Mountains near the Columbia River arrived in St. Louis. After visiting General Clark who, in his celebrated travels, had visited their country and has been well treated by them, they came to see our church and appeared to be exceedingly well pleased with it.”

Historical reports written by missionaries recount a Catholic Iroquois named Ignace as an especially devout convert who was among a delegation to St. Louis. Ignace and his group, however, were attacked and killed by Sioux during their trip. One of Ignace’s sons successfully returned to St. Louis years later.

Eventually the request for missionaries was fulfilled, and in 1840, Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean De Smet headed for the Oregon region.

The Catholic Church now was set to become one of the most prominent early missionary forces in Oregon. Two years prior, Father Francis Blanchet — later appointed the first archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oregon City — and Father Modest Demers had arrived from Quebec. 

A Catholic Iroquois named Ignace is depicted in a sketch. Before what is now the Archdiocese of Portland was established, the Indian and his father, bearing the same name, attempted to obtain “black robes,” or Jesuits, to minister to Native Americans in Oregon Country. (Sentinel archives)

Missionary zeal

The French Canadian-born Father Blanchet was the first Catholic “to really start talking extensively to the tribes in Oregon,” according to Lewis. The priest learned Chinook jargon, a hybrid trade language, and developed “the Catholic ladder” as an effective catechesis tool. Begun as a carved stick and then transposed to paper, the ladder aimed to teach the history and beliefs of the church through pictures and symbols.

Though his relationship with Native individuals generally was amiable, Father Blanchet, like other white missionaries of the time, perceived the population as inferior, Lewis said. In one letter translated from French by an Oregon historian and transcribed by Lewis, Father Blanchet describes “the laziness which is characteristic of natives.”

Still, the priest had long, engaged conversations with Indigenous people and “didn’t try to push things upon them,” said Lewis.

Records in the Portland archdiocesan archives indicate there were roughly 6,000 Native American converts in 1847, the year after the archdiocese was founded. It’s difficult to say how accurate these figures are.

“Many were very resistant and others were opportunistic,” converting superficially as a way to maintain positive relationships, Lewis noted. “But many Native people absolutely did convert.”

Father Twohy, who’s ministered primarily in Washington but has connections with Natives in Oregon, recalled a Catholic elder who told him that “when the black robes came in the early times, many Native people listened to them.”

“The world was changing so fast and they knew the world they’d known was disappearing; they were interested in what to do in order to survive and thrive. And they found some things in the Catholic way that were familiar to them — the Creator, the Spirit and the person of Jesus.”

Jesus made sense to them, the elder told Father Twohy, “because of his profound teachings and his compassion and because his suffering was in many ways like their own.”

Good news and dispossession

In the first decades after the archdiocese was founded, the federal government relocated Oregon tribes to six regional reservations — Umatilla, Warm Springs, Coast, Grand Ronde, Klamath and Malheur. The intent was to obtain more land for white settlers and assimilate the Native people, and the government viewed missionaries as key partners in these aims. Reservations were allocated to different churches, with Catholics in the mix, and schools established as a central “civilizing” element. At various times the Catholic Church would oversee instruction at Umatilla, where a boarding school was opened by the Jesuits in 1890, and at Grand Ronde.

Church-run schools in the state initially received funds from the federal government, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs eventually opted to operate many of their own off-reservation boarding schools, with Chemawa Indian School in Salem the second such institution in the United States. The mission schools continued, however.

For nearly four decades, Father Adrien Croquet of Belgium oversaw St. Michael Church and boarding school at Grand Ronde. Known to some as the “Saint of Oregon,” he was assigned to the reservation in 1860 and celebrated by Native people. “He lived poorly, giving all his money and possessions to the people he served,” said Lewis.

The majority of missionaries no doubt earnestly wanted to share the good news with Native youths, but because a fundamental goal of the schools early on was assimilation, children in most cases were not permitted to speak their tribal languages, wear traditional clothing or, of course, practice Native spiritualities. In some instances, transgressors were beaten.

Michelle Jacob, a member of the Yakima Nation who was raised Catholic, is a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Oregon. She said it’s important to recognize that the church and state “worked hand in hand in a partnership of Indigenous dispossession.”

“We are not critiquing individuals as bad but saying to be mindful of the celebration of settler-colonialism,” said Jacob. “The settler-colonial logics are oppressive; the whole idea that we know what’s best for you more than you do — what language you should speak, how you should worship, who should be in charge of raising your children — is a part of that.”

The conquest of Native peoples goes against current church teaching about respect for other cultures and traditions, teachings articulated by Vatican II and affirmed by subsequent popes.

“If we really believe in these values, we need to bring this all out and talk about it,” said Jacob. “We need to think, given that’s the history, how do we move forward?”

‘A deliberate choice’

It takes intentionality and a great deal of faith to live as a Native American Catholic today, said Witt, a resident of Portland since the early 1980s. “Because it’s not a very easy time for us.”

History is being reexamined and new church-related atrocities are becoming more widely known — a painful if important process, Witt said. Meanwhile there are Native Americans who feel tremendous animosity toward the church and fellow Natives who embrace it.

“I’m struggling recently,” she admitted. “I’ve had to make a deliberate choice to be Catholic, that’s for sure.”

According to the 2020 census, there are approximately 129,100 Oregonians who identify as full or part American Indian and Alaska Native, comprising 3.1% of the state’s population. Nationwide, about 20% of Native Americans are Catholic, so there could be as many as 25,800 in Oregon. Yet like the 6,000 Native American converts claimed at the archdiocese’s inception, that estimate probably is too high, especially in a state known for low religiosity.

Near the Grand Ronde reservation, for example, St. Michael Parish draws only a handful of Native Americans to the Sunday Mass, said Father Mike Walker, pastor of St. Michael and St. James Parish in McMinnville.

Native youths are becoming less likely to embrace the Catholic faith, mirroring a larger trend in the church, said Father Twohy. Some of the reasons, though, are distinct to the population.

Since the 1960s, a major focus among tribes is reclaiming their own sacred lifeways — the traditional worldviews and spiritualities of Native people — and this appeals to the young. New looks at history and revelations about church-run boarding schools also affect their choices, Father Twohy said.

Although currently there are no publicly known instances of ongoing abuse at Catholic schools for Indigenous youths in Oregon, researchers across the country recently have brought to light what many American Indians long have shared within their communities: abuses and deaths of Native children at boarding schools from the 17th century to the 20th century. Some of the facilities were operated in partnership with Catholic entities.

Earlier this year, the bodies of more than 200 children were found buried on the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school. In some cases, children were reported missing from the facilities and were never found.

“When the young learn this history, they become sad and angry,” said Father Twohy. Even when there was no abuse, the schools “deprived the young of their sacred language and family teaching.”

“That has a very profound dislocated feeling that comes with it, and that pain has perdured until today,” he said. “I think it will be there a long time.”

Seeking community and culture

Indigenous Catholics, who include members of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes as well as Native Americans from other regions, are dispersed throughout the state.

Witt grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and always has been active in the church, serving as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and a lector. When she moved to Portland, she sought other Native American Catholics but it was difficult to find them.

Initially she befriended Indigenous Christians, who shared similar values and helped her stay connected to her Native American identity. “It also brought me closer to discerning that I’m a true Catholic,” said Witt. “I need the Eucharist.”

Through these Christian friends Witt finally met several Native American Catholics in Portland, and in 1991 they formed the City of Roses Kateri Circle, a small local chapter of the national Tekakwitha Conference. The following year a second chapter was formed at Umatilla.

The goals for the Tekakwitha Conference, the largest organization of Catholic Native people, are to reinforce Catholic identity and affirm pride in Native cultures and spiritual traditions, promote healing through forgiveness and reconciliation, empower Indigenous people as leaders in the church, and honor the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Mohawk woman who made great sacrifices for her faith. She is the first Native American saint.

The conference also sponsors annual national gatherings, and the Portland Archdiocese has for a number of years helped fund local attendance.

The Portland Kateri circle has been on a short hiatus, in part due to the pandemic. Witt and others intend to revive it soon. “It’s especially important right now given the most recent concerns for Native American Catholics,” said Witt, who hopes new people will join. 

Patricia Kelsaw and Pearl Skinner hold a banner for the Rose City Kateri Circle at St. Francis Church in 1993. (Sentinel archives)

From the early 1990s until around 2009, members of the City of Roses Kateri Circle organized several Portland Masses infused with Native American elements.

Vivian Korhonen, a member of the Blackfeet Nation from Montana, had a vision about starting the liturgies in 1980. A tenacious woman who went back to school at age 61 to get her GED, Korhonen wanted a liturgy that brought Native American Catholics together and helped heal the hurt people had experienced on Catholic-run schools in Oregon and elsewhere.

The Masses featured drumming and the Four Directions Prayer, which begins: “Great Spirit, come to us with the power of the North. Make us courageous to walk the sacred path with Kateri Tekakwitha. Give us strength and endurance to do all that we are called to do during our life, especially in times of trials and adversity.”

In a smoke blessing with sacred herbs, sage, cedar or sweet grass, Massgoers clasped eagle feathers — representing what’s considered the bravest, strongest and holiest bird in Native cultures — and fanned the smoke to send prayers upward.

Pear Skinner, who spent her earliest years on the Pine Ridge Reservation, recalls the Masses as “powerful, meaningful and beautiful.”

Nevertheless, members of the Kateri circle admit they’re unsure if these Masses will return. Original members of the group are getting older, and no one has stepped forward to organize them. Skinner said the Masses also depend on the support of a parish and a priest. Some parishes embraced the community; others “didn’t seem to want us Natives in their church,” said Skinner. At the last Mass celebrated in the archdiocese, the priest did not introduce members of the circle, the sermon didn’t pertain to Natives, and overall “it just didn’t go very well,” Skinner said.

Eileen Richey is part of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and a member of St. Anne Parish in Gresham. She’d like her fellow Catholics unfamiliar with Native people and Masses to recognize that the smoke, the drums, all the elements “are still Catholic and are part of the universal church.”

“Native Americans are also immensely spiritual,” she said. “Those who are Catholic really do love Jesus and love Mary and it shows in how they live their lives.”

“Native people’s understanding and appreciation of and cooperation with the spiritual world and their respect for the holy is in their DNA,” added Father Twohy.

Witt’s dream, though she knows it’s improbable, is a parish for Native American Catholics in the archdiocese. She recalled a recent visit to see family in South Dakota, where she attended a Mass with Native rituals. “The Catholic Mass is always wonderful, but with the part reflecting our culture — it is very special,” said Witt. 

‘The faith still matters’

Witt and other Native American Catholics in the archdiocese said recent actions of the U.S. bishops have been reassuring. Last spring, the bishops authorized development of a new formal statement and comprehensive vision for Native American and Alaskan Native ministry. The last such document was approved more than 40 years ago.

Much has changed in those intervening years, said Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, chair of the USCCB Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, during a presentation on the proposal. There are different understandings about racism, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized in 2012, and there are new approaches to aspects of social justice in Native communities.

In late November, Bishop Wall and Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, urged their fellow prelates to cooperate with requests from the federal government for an investigation on alleged abuses at tribal schools operated by church entities in the past.

The bishops wrote that some of the schools were set up by famous missionaries and saints, but “there are many accounts, publicly reported with evidence, that the experience for many at these schools was very bad if not disastrous.”

Father Twohy believes each Native American person who is Catholic at some point must come to terms with the church’s imperfect past. “It may take a lifetime, but somehow they must be able to sort it out gradually and realize that the messengers of the Catholic faith were and are terribly flawed, embarrassingly so at times, yet still know that Jesus is real to them and Mary and the prayers are real to them,” he said.

“It is complex. We are a church with flawed individuals and shameful behavior. But we have done so many good things in their communities, too.”

Father Twohy has witnessed young Native Catholics ask their elders how they can be Catholic, given ongoing revelations.

The priest observed the elders’ reply: “Even in the midst of a history that is shameful in some ways, it still matters to us — the goodness and the truth and the beauty of the faith still matters. And so, we hang on to it.”

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.