Catholics and Protestants related very differently to American Indians, as they initially encountered them. The Catholic way was coercion, of course, but, the Protestant way reflected the inevitable social manifestations of independence and freedom.
Columbus certainly viewed the South American Indians he encountered as at least potential subjects of the Spanish Crown and Catholic Church. The Protestants, however, viewed the Indians as independent people with whom agreements, pacts, and treaties were to be established. Both Catholic and Protestant had in mind the conversion of the Indians to Christianity, certainly. But, that was not part of the motive or reason the Protestants came to America. Furthermore, the Catholics saw the “natives” as a cheap (or, free) labor source. The protestants had no such servile disposition. The Protestants saw potentially independent Christians in the Indians, just as the “pilgrim” Protestants saw in themselves.
Kateri Tekakwitha, American
Indian saint, 1658-1880.
In Robert A. Williams, Jr.’s The American Indian in Western Legal Thought (Oxford, 1990), an interesting tabulation of canon law from 1096 through the 1820′s, from the early Catholic philosophy to the American Protestant frontier days. It is quite clear that conquering and colonizing non-European peoples was the Catholic intent from the beginning. The “mission” was to make the world Roman Catholic. Pope Boniface VIII, for example, in November, 1302, wrote in the papal bull Unam Sanctum that the Church wielded both the word and the steel:
Both then are in the power of the Church, the material sword and the spiritual. But the one is exercised for the church, the other by the church, the one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of kings and soldiers, though at the will and sufferance of the priest. On sword ought to be under the other and the temporal authority subject to the spiritual.
All earthy authority was to be under the control of the supreme authority, the Pope. Whence such authority to make war and to subjugate kingdoms and peoples derived from the words of Him who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) is a profound mystery in the theology of Romanism. But the regal sentiment of Boniface VIII did not originate with him, certainly. The bishop of Rome apparently always considered himself a kind of imperial replacement.
Though the early American Protestants were willing to evangelize the Indians, they did not do so with force of arms, nor had they any intent of subjugating a new labor force. (The fact is, the American Indians were already far too independent for such a limited, even sedentary existence. And, themselves never conceiving of empires, never trying to unite all the different Indian nations, they would never have, nor did they, ever cooperate with such a foreign idea.) The English pilgrims were far to sensitive to tyranny and loved freedom far too much to think of coercing their new hosts into their own Puritanism. Merciless as they were on themselves, the Pilgrims treated the Indians as foreign nations. The pilgrims invited Indians to share new customs, and a new faith, but, the Indians essentially pretty choosey. They generally preferred their own ways and their own lives. Those that did hang out with the English ended up adopting the new ways.
By the time the English colonies grew into a nation that asserted itself a place among other nations of the world, acquisition of land had become a critical concern. The Indians’ natural habitation was subject now to what seemed to Indians as a hostile take-over. A peaceful co-existence, which had worked in the beginning, was less and less a viable possibility. The cultural train wreck exploded. Williams notes the uncertainty and instability of Indian relations as the land expansion of the colonies (states) increased. Indians moved around a lot, it seemed to the Whites, and it was entirely unclear whether the Indian had control of the land or not, or whether the Indian even wanted control. In the Indian mind, there seemed to cognate comprehension of land ownership such as was so desperately dear to the Anglo heart.
During Andrew Jackson’s earlier years, and during his Presidency, the ambitious Anglos were buying and selling land they didn’t even own, or live on. They were speculating on Indian land that they assumed would be White land in the future–while the Indians were still living on it. Michael Paul Rogin’s Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (1975) has an entire chapter devoted to the land speculation craze, “Nature, Property, and Title,” p.75. “Ninety percent of the American population farmed the land in 1790,” (p.76), so that land acquisition was essential. Indians were now simply in the way. Their free presence could be tolerated no longer. They either had to adopt an entirely different culture, completely, or suffer the inevitable consequences: war and death. The people would adapt, or perish.
But this adverse circumstances was not the original design of the pilgrim fathers. It was a development. It wasn’t a purpose, but a demographic accident. It wasn’t a plan, but a collision.
The Catholics intended to take over and to control. In Pope Innocent IV‘s decretal commentary on his predecessor’s Quod Super His (1207)¹ clearly recognizes the natural-law rights of non-Christian peoples, but only as the papal Petrine mandate directed. The pope was responsible for all people, including infidels, though he might deny them their lawful authority. (See, Williams, p.14.)
So, we speak of two catastrophes for the American Indian, the one by Rome, the other by the Protestants; the one by intent, the other by accident and inevitability.
The Catholics made a Indian woman (Kateri Tekakwitha) into a saint in 1980. The first “Native American” (to use standard, inaccurate liberal term) to be sainted. I was the first American Indian to graduate from the supposedly Protestant Yale Divinity School (1979). Not beatified, but, I did get the degree, the Master of Divinity. Kateri died in 1680. I’m still alive here in 2011 (for which I thank God, and not the Church nor Yale, though the latter two entities have their special charm).
Before I graduated from Yale, I once had an occasion to ask an assistant admissions director whether or not my being Indian had anything to do with my admission. (I didn’t have a photograph on hand when I applied, so, having a knack for portraits, I quickly sketched my own, without beads, and mailed it in with the application.) The director, apparently so accustomed to foreign darkies appearing at Yale Divinity, looked me right in the eye and said, most assuredly and proudly, in the name of eternally liberal equality, “Not at all.”
I thought of Indians. Well, we’ve come a long way, baby!
I personally find the Bible the most fascinating thing I have ever known. Perhaps that is the good fortune of having inherited a preeminent regard for it from my Comanche mother, who intern inherited the same regard from her father and mother. Yes, I feel the crushing, ineffable pain of Indian history. Yet, I feel mesmerized by the old Hebrew story of it all–despite the fact that Indians are mentioned. The Bible nevertheless transcends every other take on world history, it seems to me. I’m grateful to know of it. The white man’s gift may finally pay off. I have no choice but to wait it out. That’s one thing Indians have learned to do fairly well: wait. We kept as much of our identity as we could. I’m not sure exactly what we’re waiting for now, though. The Happy Hunting Ground? The next per cap payment from the casino? Are we waiting to disappear, finally?
¹ This papal decretal is referenced more recently in an Oxford book review by Brett Bowden, of the 2005 Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law, by Anghie Antony. Unfortunately, we were not able to find the document itself online.