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God, Sitting Bull and the free market

13 April 2011

It was stated at one time that Sitting Bull, while hating the white Americans and disdaining to speak their language; was yet very fond of the French Canadians, that he talked French, and that he had been converted to Christianity by a French Jesuit, named Father De Smet. How true this may be is uncertain, but probably there is some foundation for it. The French Jesuits have always been noted for their wonderful success in winning the affections of the Indians, as well as for the transitory nature of their conversions, and it is very possible that Father De Smet may have not only baptized Sitting Bull at some time, but induced him and his braves to attend mass, as performed by himself in the wilderness.

Frederick A. Whittaker, A Complete Life Of General George A. Custer (1876)

Not exactly standard bling for a Sioux leader

I was looking for something completely unrelated when I ran across an article by North Dakota writer Mark Armstrong (Catholic Lane) on what appears to be a rather lively topic in some Catholic circles:

Was Chief Sitting Bull a Catholic convert? Did he convert William “Buffalo Bill” Cody? That was the scuttlebutt around Catholic circles this past week. From stories, to blogging, to Catholic radio shows, to postings from Facebook friends, I heard it multiple times.

Armstrong lays out the evidence (well worth reading on its own merits), coming to the conclusion that Sitting Bull — who was good friends with at least two Jesuit missionaries during his eventful life — probably was baptized by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet when the future Sioux leader was a teenager.  As an adult, Sitting Bull was not known to have practiced Catholicism, nor — being polygamous — would he have been admitted to the community of the faithful:

This continued to be the major stumbling block to Sitting Bull’s entry into the Catholic Church.  He would not give up his wives.  That Sitting Bull liked family life, there can be no question.  However, getting into the Church with two wives, that appeared to remain a “problem” throughout his life.

I stumbled across the Sitting Bull story while looking for something completely unrelated, but really shouldn’t be surprised. Taylor Marshall’s “The Canterbury Tales” (from which I got the photo of Sitting Bull wearing a crucifix), is more “pious” than historical in looking at the evidence of Sitting Bull’s Catholicism, but in the comments on his post, I noticed this:

The early Catholic missionaries were not there to ‘civilize’ them – that is, ‘Americanize’ or ‘Europeanize’ them. They were not there to change their culture, but to to bring them to Christ as much as possible within their cultural traditions….

This contrasted sharply with the efforts of the Protestant missionaries, who seemed to equate salvation with ‘Americanization.’ For example, Chief Moses (born Kwiltalahun – “The Sun Chief” -c. 1829–March 25, 1899) of the Sinkiuse-Columbia tribe in North Central Washington State was sent as a young boy by his father to Rev. Spaulding’s Lapawi Presbyterian school. At that school, he was beaten if he did not act ‘civilized’ enough. As a result, he turned totally against Christianity. He did have a good respect for the Catholic priests, but he could not overcome the bad taste in his life from Spaulding to accept Catholic baptism..

It’s a historical fact, whether it’s politically convenient or not, that the Roman Catholic missionaries were (and are) more tolerant of converts maintaining their cultural traditions than the Protestant missionaries have been. When researching Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, I ended up doing a pile of reading that ended up as a short footnote on the Council of Trent.

And, at least during the early conquest, before the Council of Trent standarized Roman Catholic practices in the 1570s, it was Church policy to “Catholicize” existing customs among newly Christian people.   We don’t think of it in terms of European Christianity, but somehow have integrated  Germanic customs like the decorated tree at mid-winter, and the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, into rituals meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  In Mexico and Peru, with the conquest coming just before the Council of Trent (and the general independence of the Church in the Americas), the process of integrating those practices into the larger community of believers was never completed.

It goes against what one reviewer called my “evil white man/good indigenous people attitude,” but there was no way I could, even if I wanted to, ignore, the tremendous success early missionaries in Mexico had in conversions among the indigenous peoples, and — their willingness to tolerate the survival of indigenous culture… although that often meant dressing the culture in the guise of European-style Catholicism.

Of course, there were “back-sliders” and heretics among the Aztecs and Mixtecs. Zapotecs, Mayans… Bishop Landa of the Yucatan, was notorious not only for the holocaust of Mayan books, but for his persecution of Mayan shamans for whom adherence to the new faith would have been more difficult than for those owing less allegiance to Chac or the Bacab… or who failed to dress them in the panoply of recognized European saints.

This is what ties Sitting Bull to Mexico.  His fame with us rests on his symbolism as one of the last great indigenous leaders to successfully (for a time) resist the destruction of his people.  But, Sitting Bull’s leadership did not come from recognition among the Sioux of his military acumen, but from his prestige as a shaman… a “medicine man” to use the slightly perjorative (and wildly inaccurate) U.S. English term.

This is not to take anything from Fr. DeSmet, who was in the tradition of those like Bartolomé de las Casas, Vasco de Quiroga, Pedro de Gante and Toribio de Benavente Motolinia — none of them saints of the Church, but all remembered among the indigenous people of Mexico (and other Americans) as those super-humans who recognized our common humanity.  He did, like the Mexican missionaries who saw baptism as the first step in guaranteeing the acceptance of the indigenous people as equal to the Europeans,  probably baptize everyone he could… probably including the 17 year old shaman’s apprentice.

Nor is this to lay doubts as to the sincerity of Sitting Bull’s religious beliefs.  It’s said he was a sincere enough Catholic to try to convert Buffalo Bill (who did convert to Catholicism on his deathbed).  The 13 April 1883 New York Times included a two sentence report  reading: “Milwaukee (April 12) — Bishop Marty, of Dakota, now in this city, says Sitting Bull will soon join the Roman Catholic Church.  There are now 2000 Indians in Dakota belonging to the Catholic Church”. Fine, but if Sitting Bull was baptized when he was 17, he’d already been a Catholic for the last 35 years.

We know his murder was a result of his interest in the Ghost Dance movement, a syncretic pan-indigenous religious revival that swept the American west in 1890.  Despite his reduced circumstances (partially brought on by his refusal to eschew his secondary wife) as a “reservation Indian”,  Sitting Bull was still a recognized leader among the remaining Sioux.  Attempting to arrest him (on no particular charges except maybe being a religious leader) he resisted, his family shot it out with the reservation police and he was sent… to the arms of Jesus?  To the Great Spirit? … 15 December 1890.

Sitting Bull’s religion — whether traditional Sioux beliefs, Catholicism, the Ghost Dance, a combination of them all, or something of his own — is, of course, an academic issue, and perhaps a footnote in someone else’s history of the Americas.  But, as I said, I’d run across this intriguing “footnote” while rummaging around another issue… specifically, Brother Steve DeWitt’s “God is not a capitalist” on his website, A Franciscan Abroad.

As the title indicates, DeWitt takes exception, as much on religious as economic grounds, with theologian Jay Richards’ attempts to find a theological justification for “free market” capitalism.  De Witt’s “abroad”,  Bolivia and Peru, like other Latin American nations, have been working out, arguing and sometimes fighting over their own syncretic versions of the varieties of economic “religions”, more and more finding that their own “indigenous” systems — even if in dressed in European style — work for them.

The “Mexican System”, which prevailed for most of the last century, owed a bit to Spanish anarchists, a bit to Karl Marx and a lot more to Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregon, and the Aztecs… as synthesized by Lazaro Cardenas.   In South America, the “bad lefties” (the “heretics” to “free-market capitalism” come indigenous (Evo Morales, most of the Zapatistas) or from Roman Catholic (Hugo Chavez, the son of catechists; Rafael Correa, a former lay brother; Fernando Lugo, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Miguel D’Escobar, all laicized priests) belief systems.  And, those Roman Catholics are form a syncretic American form of Catholicism, Liberation Theology.

Good luck to Jay Richards in his quest for to find the hand of God in the invisible hand of Capitalism… but, should he try spreading his faith abroad — unless like the Presbyterian preachers who beat Chief Moses,  he plans to impose it by brute force … he’s unlikely to succeed and more likely to make us “savages”, like Chief Moses and the Christians, reject any variation of the one true faith.  What might be accepted — in matters of faith (including economic faith) — is our right to work out our own version of what we’ll call “free market” capitalism, perhaps unrecognizable in the flesh, but one in the spirit.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 April 2011 7:32 am

    Good deal. To add to the fun mix, there is also a debated Mormon connection to Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail, and the Ghost Dance.

    Click to access Dialogue_V18N04_91.pdf

    • 13 April 2011 7:49 am

      Thanks for the plug, enjoyed your perspective. Father De Smet was born in Belgium, not sure if he would claim France as his own! And the great Bishop Martin Marty, was a Swiss-born Benedictine! Pax…I will be interested in reading further perspectives. Adios.

  2. 13 April 2011 7:40 am

    Nice post Richard. We are one in spirit!

  3. 13 April 2011 8:22 am

    Took me sometimes to read some the comments, any way I actually enjoyed the post. It proved to be pretty useful to me and I am inescapable to all the commenters right here! It’s all the time good when you can not only be informed, but also entertained!

  4. 13 April 2011 10:05 am

    Great post.
    A few years ago I did a retreat on the Pine Ridge reservation with a Sioux Franciscan sister and learned a bit about ministry with . It appears that there some religious leaders still participated in Sioux dances and didn’t see a problem with this. There were some problems earlier with Black Elk who was, I believe, a catechist on the reservation for a time but the reports of his interviews with John Neihardt made some of the Jesuits there a bit anxious.

  5. 13 April 2011 10:10 am

    Excellent post; thank you for keeping this blog. These are perspectives that most “real Americans” would never think about, much less understand. !Miles de gracias!

  6. Juanita Cortez permalink
    13 April 2011 11:39 am

    Quaint terms, reservations, townships and camps, no? My favorite is reductions. Inhumanity knows no bounds, geographic or otherwise.


  1. 26 June 1876 « The Mex Files

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