Indian Mission Photo Resources
Native American tribes of different regions of the United States vary widely in their cultures. The Catholic missionaries who ministered to them in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, were examples of an era in Church history when Catholic culture had a distinctive, unified tone throughout the world. Thus, in this collection of photographs from Marquette University’s online archives we can see typical images of traditional Catholicism, such as a priest and attendant altar boys in a Palm Sunday procession celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, but processing across a field of snow in the Alaskan wilderness instead of a chapel. He is the parish priest at a mission church in Alaska, and the altar boys are Inuit Alaskans. The same Catholic symbols and devotions resurface, in this collection, in environments from the forests of Maine, to the Alaskan tundras, to the Great Plains and the American Southwest. Observe, in images like that of the procession on horseback at the Catholic Sioux Congress in 1923, how the traditional Catholic custom of the Eucharistic procession merges with the Sioux’ horse-centered culture and the wide-open spaces of their surroundings.
On the one hand, these images provide abundant evidence of cultural adaptation, with photos like that of the convert “Wolf Chief”, dressed in traditional attire except for the prominent cross around his neck. On the other hand, particularly in the early issues of The Indian Sentinel, a magazine geared towards non-Native American Catholics and designed to raise Catholic awareness about the missions, we see an attitude of cultural superiority among mainstream Catholics towards Native American Catholics. In the issues of The Indian Sentinel, many early articles focus on the missions as bearers of truth to those in error, and even patronizingly affirm the equal spiritual status of Native Americans. In images from the collection on the Red Cloud Indian School, however, particularly those from the 1960s and 1970s, we begin to see priests using Native American items, like a pipe, in the liturgy. They also celebrate an outdoor Mass that seems to grant greater cultural status to Native American customs. The later issues of The Indian Sentinel also show a shift in emphasis from specifically Catholic culture, to an emphasis on Native American culture, with cover photos of secular activities like Native American men working on a fence, rather than images of priests or saints.
As you look through these images, consider the following questions:
-What kind of events seem to bring Native American believers together to be photographed? What seems to be the relation, in the photographs, of Native American parishioners to the priests and nuns who minister to them?
-What similarities and differences do you see between the Native American devotional practices of this time period and the devotional practices of other American Catholics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Are there similarities between Native American Catholic devotions and the spiritualities of other rural, frontier Catholics which might owe to their remoteness from cities and social centers?
-What changes in attitude do you see from the early photographs in this collection to the later ones? Do these simply reflect changing artistic tastes, or do they also represent a shift in how the Catholic Church in America viewed its mission among Native American believers? Do these images also reflect greater Native American participation in Catholicism over the years?
Images from Marquette University, collection on Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions:
-Two third-grade boys with their rosaries, c. 1910-1920.
-Young Lakota men in perhaps anachronistic ethnic costume and Jesuit father at the grave of Fr. Pierre-Jean de Smet, c. 1920-1925.
-Rustic-style chapel, Washington State, no date.
-View of San Jose mission, c. 1927-1940.
-“Wolf Chief”, converted 1929, no date.
-Palm Sunday procession, Alaska, 1956.
Marquette University Collection “Holy Rosary Mission- Red Cloud Indian School”, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. Interesting as they show the evolution of the style of Catholic missions:
-Father Jones, S.J., with children dressed to dance, c. 1950-1960.
-Father Steinmetz, S.J., praying with Native American pipe, 1975.