Analyzing Primary Sources

This past week, I had chosen to focus on a unique primary source that provides an insightful reflection of the history of Catholicism and Native Americans through the voices of Catholic Indians in PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly episode on the sainthood of Kateri Tekakwitha.


Who created the primary source?

This primary source was created by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a television news-magazine program aired by PBS. The focus of the program, as alluded by its title, seems to be the relationship between ethics and religion. In the case of American Indians and the Catholic Church, this relationship could not have found a better platform as enriched with the subject. This program being broadcasted by PBS has special meaning to me being that I had grown up watching its various programs. What I enjoyed, and to do this day enjoy, about PBS is that it prides itself on airing educational content. In my opinion, this episode stays true to their message.


Where/when is it from?

This episode aired on 13 November 2015. The month in which it aired is significant in that November is Native American Heritage Month which was declared during George H. W. Bush’s presidency in 1990. Twenty-five years later, this episode represents the all too overdue recognition of the legitimacy of American Indian culture through looking at the past, learning from it, and moving forwards.



Although no primary source is without bias, PBS being a non-profit broadcasting service that relies on public support for the continuation of its programs leads me to believe that there exists somewhat of less of a bias to this source. If this program were funded by private funders, then there would be more of a possibility that they would have more influence in the content that is being aired and the way in which it is projected.

A major point of bias that I observed with this program is that those Indians that were Catholic, whether lay people or belonging to a religious profession, seemed to express the same sentiment: they acknowledged the history of their people with the Church, but they believed that the way to move forwards was through reconciliation. The only Indian that had reflected an opposing view was one that had rejected the Catholic faith completely. I find that it would have been more insightful to include Catholic Indians that had differing views regarding the Church, reflecting the fluidity of the faith.



This program’s main strengths lie in that the majority of the interviewees in this program were American Indian. History tends to be written from a Western perspective. Through the power of television, we are able to gain a first-hand account of the views of those that are at the other end of history.



I was most surprised by the fact the sainthood process for Kateri coincided with the establishment of the Catholic mission schools. I believe that this was a tactic by the Church to get possible converts and students to feel more at home with them – if the Church held up an American Indian to the status of a saint, than other Catholic Indians would have someone to look up to and feel that they were an integral part of the institution.


Asking Questions

          The focus of my research will encompass the effect that Catholic Indian mission schools have had on shaping how American Indians identify with being Catholic. This topic stems from a perception of Catholicism that I not only gained through the Ramonat Seminar but from personal experience as a Catholic as well. The concept of guilt in relation to the Catholic faith has always been of particular fascination to me, and I feel that the experience of Catholic Indians may encapsulate this idea. My goal is to try and articulate this presumed feeling through the analysis of mission schools and the Catholic indoctrination of their students through the following questions:


  • What role did Catholicism serve in assimilating Indians into American society?

          With the establishment of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions (BCIM) in 1874, the Catholic Church became the widespread agent for the United States government’s mission of “civilizing” the American Indian. With this relationship in mind, I will be relating the goals of the Church in this matter to those of the U.S. government, observing how both institutions may have either facilitated or impeded each others agenda.


  • How do American Indians fit into the universal nature of Catholicism?

          The very word “catholic” means “universal”, reflecting Catholicism’s image as an all-inclusive faith. Regarding this principle of the Church, I seek to find if American Indians felt that they belonged to this universal community of Catholics or if they viewed themselves as set apart from it. In particular, I am interested in discovering if students at mission schools were inspired to enter into religious vocations and if so, seeing whether they were met with support or discouragement to do so from their instructors.


  • To what extent do Catholic teachings and values coincide and clash with traditional Indian practices and beliefs?

          Another principle of Catholicism is that it is a fairly versatile religion – it allows, to a certain extent, for the incorporation of elements of local cultures into the framework of the Catholic faith. By observing how much of Indian traditions and beliefs have become entrenched in their Catholic identity, I will be able to determine if mission schools viewed certain native practices as being in line with Catholic teachings. If so, I will look to see not only if the Church used this as a vehicle for assimilation, but if American Indians utilized this feature of Catholicism as a cloak for the continuation of authentic Indian beliefs.


  • What is the status of Catholicism among American Indians who have gone through the mission school system?

          I anticipate that uncovering this question will compromise the bulk of my research. The mission schools may have had a doctrine that all students were meant to believe in, but how students perceived this doctrine and whether they incorporated this belief into the essence of their very being lies at the heart of my research focus. Catholic Indians, ranging from firm believers of the faith to outright rejectors of it and from those who view the identity as two separate and clashing ways of life to those who believe in a hybrid coexistence, represent the varying pathways of the mission school experience.


  • Under what message do present-day Catholic Indian schools operate?

          Approximately 150 years have passed since the establishment of Catholic Indian mission schools. Over this time, significant changes have taken place in the Church, particularly following Vatican II in the mid-1960s, and in the United States’ approach towards American Indians. Following these changes, my final question will seek the message of today’s mission schools and how their current students’ views of their Catholic Indian identity compare with those of the past. An important element that I hope for my research to emulate is the importance of connecting what I will have learned from the past to the history that is being made as I write this post.


          To answer these questions, I will be examining official statements and enacted policies of the Catholic Church, institutions that fall under the Holy See, such as the BCIM, and the U.S. government regarding the role of the mission school on the status of American Indians. By interpreting consumer publications produced by local mission schools, I hope to uncover the sentiments of school administrators and of their surrounding communities. Most importantly, acquiring the testimonies of American Indians who experienced mission schools first-hand will serve as the very essence of uncovering the answers to my overlying inquiry.