Department of Communications
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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Native American Catholics in the United StatesNative Americans were the first people to hear the word of God in the new world. Families that responded to the Gospel in the seventeenth century in what are now the states of Arizona, Florida, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, and Texas remain faithful Catholics nearly four hundred years later.
By the numbers
- Approximately 2.5 million people in the U.S. identify themselves as Native American or Alaska Native. An additional 1.6 million people claim some degree of Native ancestry.1
- Of this number, there are an estimated 680,000 Native American Catholics in the U. S.2
- At present, there are three Native American Catholic bishops in the U.S.
- According to a study of dioceses conducted by the Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Native American Catholics in the late 1990s (published in 2002), Native American Catholics at the Millennium, there were at the turn of the century 27 Native American priests, 8 Native seminarians, 74 Native deacons, 34 Native women religious, and 65 Native lay ecclesial ministers. No new data is available on these categories, although the numbers for Native deacons and Native ecclesial ministers is certainly much larger today.
- According to the same study, 35 per cent of Native people live on state or federal reservation or trust lands, 22 per cent live in cities, and 43 per cent live in suburban or rural areas.3
- According to the Millennium Report, 41 dioceses (23 per cent of dioceses) have and office or regularly provided ministerial services to Native American Catholics as a specific group.
Catholicism's spread to Native people across the United States resembles in many ways the settling of the country itself. From the earliest days French and Spanish missionaries who came to this world newly discovered by Europeans came as extensions of the colonizing powers. The approach was, in many cases, to force the Natives to accept the faith as part of the process of servitude. In some cases, more commonly with the French, a more voluntary approach to conversion was taken. In many Native American communities Catholicism became a way of life, but in others Catholicism waned with the fall of the colonizer's power.
As the United States was formed and western expansion began, more Native people became exposed to the Gospel from Catholic missionaries. The Church's organized outreach to Native people over the centuries is spotty. No truly organized national effort to evangelize Native peoples occurred until the late 19th century, although local dioceses and many religious communities made their own efforts to bring Native people to Christ.
In the 1870s and 1880s Native people were forcibly placed on reservations by the U.S. government. The "civilizing the Indian" policy required Indian boarding schools, which were entrusted in many cases to religious groups. Many Catholic schools were born in the reservations during this time. Government policy determined the curriculum of these schools (outside of religion) and their operating procedures, and required that anything "Indian" be forbidden in the boarding schools. Today Catholics schools in or near reservations are no longer controlled by the government and dedicate much of their efforts to support and preserve the native culture.
The national Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions was founded in 1874 in reaction to the unjust 1870 Peace Plan of President Ulysses Grant. Much of the early work of this office was supported by the money provided by St. Katherine Drexel and the community she started, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Both the Bureau and the Sisters continue their work for Native American people. Much of the financial support for these communities still comes from the annual collection to support the Black and Indian missions.
Native American Catholics have their own national organization, the Tekakwitha Conference. The Tekakwitha Conference sponsors local Native Catholic groups, known as "Kateri Circles," and hosts a national convention each year that attracts approximately 800 Native American Catholics.
At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops level a permanent Bishops' Subcommittee on Native American Catholics will be created soon, replacing the current ad hoc committee. This new sub-committee will be part of the also newly created Bishops' Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church.
In the Millennium Report, the bishops' on the ad hoc committee made the following five recommendations:
- That religious personnel be prepared to staff Native American ministries.
- That strategies be developed to recruit and prepare Native American men and women for ministry within their own communities.
- That efforts be made to locate and minister to Native American people living off of tribal lands.
- That processes and materials be developed to assist dioceses in their ministry to Native Catholics
- That diocesan structures that promote effective ministry to Native American Catholics be identified and shared with other dioceses.
- Numbers from the 2000 US Census.
- This estimate is based upon an historical average of Native communities that have historically been Catholic.
- Because Native American people who live off of reservations are difficult to identify clearly, unless they self identify, it is very difficult to determine where most Native American Catholics live.