Today, Pope Francis landed in Canada to begin what he calls a “penitential pilgrimage,” to apologize for the Catholic Church’s abuse of Indigenous children. I think of my mother and my mother’s family in these times.
In my mother’s family, we have been practicing Christians in the Episcopal and Catholic Churches for four generations. When my grandparents decided to marry, Grandma Susan Standing Bull asked Grandpa Issac Iron Shell to convert to Catholicism (he and his father, Grandpa Arnold Iron Shell were Episcopalians) and he did. I think of this first act of love as the power of the women in my family.
All of the women in my family have been women of faith, regardless of the expression, it is a strength I draw from in my own hard times. Part of our story is the amount of sacrifice that each generation made for the successive one. As I’ve been diving into my family story recently, my brother reminded me that of the family land that we have, my Grandfather Isaac “gifted” 160 acres to the Catholic Church, upon which, they built two country churches.
He also agreed to become a Catechist for the church, meaning that he would witness and teach his relatives in Wososo Wakpa, Upper Cut Meat, Iron Shell Flats, about the church and “help” them in their conversion journeys. Effectively, he brokered the official winning of souls to Christ, while still keeping the secrets of our ceremonies hidden from the Indian agents and the Church officials. Of all the discipline it takes in this life to keep multiple secrets hidden for the protection of children in the face of the church and state, I admire my grandfather most in this respect.
The trade-off was the implicit understanding was that my mother, my aunts (and as many as our extended family as could be protected in this arrangement of land and souls) were not to be physically or sexually assaulted during their time at the St. Francis Mission boarding school. It didn’t protect them completely.
My mother shared few moments of her psychological abuse with me before she would get physically agitated and say, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore, OK?” But of the few moments she shared, in as dispassionate and dissociated as I’ve ever seen my mother, she recounted how, one day when her class was being overly rambunctious and disruptive, the nun marched them to the furnaces. There, another nun produced a sack full of kittens they showed to the children. And as soon as the children reached out to touch them, the nun threw them into the furnace where they heard the kitten screaming.
Horrified, I asked why they had done this. My mother took a deep breath and replied, “Because they could. And they wanted to show us what they could get away with. They wanted to show us that they could get away with murder so that we’d be afraid of them and do what they told us to do.”
When I turned 17 years-old, my friends at school were seemingly all hitching up with a church for confirmation. It surprised me because up until that point, our church attendance could best be described as “sporadic,” or perhaps more intentionally, “as needed.”
My Aunt Linda Quick Bear’s family were Episcopalians and my father loved his sisters so much that he—a man who hated the high church expressions so much because it reminded him of Catholicism—became an Episcopalian, and my mother and I were along for the ride. Mostly, it was a monthly family obligation whenever Fr. Leslie Campbell would come to Corn Creek and we’d all make a day of it, church in the morning, then the feed immediately after and if it was a holiday, an evening gathering for kids (usually a movie or singing).
As it became clearer to me that I should make a decision, I asked my mother. The Episcopal Church was still in a good enough shape where they could be discriminating in who they let into their ranks, but the Catholics would take anyone. I asked my best friend and she said it seemed easy enough to get confirmed.
So I sat next from my mother at dinner one night and said, “Mom, I don’t want to offend you. I was thinking about getting confirmed as a Catholic, just because that’s what you baptized me as. I know what the Catholics did to you, so I don’t want to do anything that might hurt you.”
Before I could finish, she put her crochet work down and said, “That’s mine. Don’t make it yours. The Catholics did what they did to me, they didn’t do it to you. You have to make up your own mind. Don’t make it yours.”
In the subsequent years whenever I’ve talked about my faith journey and speak on that part, other Christians are both confounded and amazed. Mostly, I hear about the grace that my mother extended to her abusers and how she had the spirit of the lord with her. Mostly, I think she didn’t want another angry son raging at the world.
When I think of that moment, I think of how she liberated me from the prison that the Church tried to put us into. She had protected me—like Grandpa Isaac had protected her—from the worst that the church had to offer. She and my father, had kept me safe from religious indoctrination. They allowed me to ask questions, to make up my own mind and, in my father’s case, taught me how to be an iconoclast so that the pressure of reverence held only as much power over me as I allowed it.
It is part of my story that I was baptized because of a promise my mother made to the God of Abraham. When I was born, I had a nuchal chord, meconium poisoning and it didn’t look good from the start. I spent weeks in an incubator in the hopes that whatever damage was done to my newborn brain would be minimal. And so it was, for the most part. But as I lie in the nursery at Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton, S.D., my mother promised the God of Abraham that if I survived unscathed, she would promise me to his Son’s cause.
And so it passed to be so.
I was baptized Alfred Terrance after her favorite uncle and St. Alfred the Great, my brother as my godfather, my cousin Gayla as my godmother and to hear my mother tell it, I was having none of it. “You tore the pages out of Fr. Gill’s prayer book and cried the whole time,” she’d giggle.
I resisted from the beginning. But I also know how to keep a promise.
In the years since I was confirmed as John Barnabas (after St. John the Baptist, on whose feast day I was born—and sadly, on whose feast day the recent Supreme Court decision regulating the lives of people with uteruses was released—and St. Barnabas, on whose feast day, my oldest sister died), I have received The Call to minister to god’s people on several occasions. The most hilarious—to me—was on the day of my mother’s funeral, the circumstances of which, were in line with my beloved mother’s dry wit.
The Catholic Church and I have a rich, complex, rewarding, abusive, forgiving, hurtful, loving relationship. We both stare at each other across the Lord’s table certain that the other will blink first. I stay as an observant and faithful servant of our Lord Christ to be the reminder to the institution of its constant errant nature, that in order to hold onto power, it will dehumanize Indigenous people and perpetrate unspeakable horrors upon us.
And I will stay and continue to be in communion with Christ because in the fray of our raging at each other, wherein the hurt on both sides continue to hurt the other, I listened to the message of Christ in the Gospels. It is with rare certainty that we can ever truly know what’s true and I am constantly filled with doubt.
But if we hold true to the Gospels, Christ understood and preached that not all great things get to stay forever, that sometimes, they need to be destroyed. And that we are blessed when we humble ourselves enough to admit when we’re wrong and to change our judgmental ways. Because the glory of god isn’t in works of art or buildings of stone; the glory of god is in how we uplift each other, atone for our sins by amending our behavior.
The Catholic Church defines sin as the acts that separate us from the God of Abraham, his Son Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (the Holy Trinity). The same church teaches us that because we are One in Christ, siblings in faith, that god is present in us and in each other. Therefore, any act that separates us from one another is a sin.
When we interpret laws to strip women and people with uteruses of their right to see to their own health needs, we have separated ourselves from one another. When we cage Black and Brown immigrant children at the border because we hold their parents in contempt for fleeing wars while giving a pass to white children refugees fleeing the same, we have separated ourselves from one another. When we allow the state to kill Black people without consequence every time, we have separated ourselves from one another. When we choose to alienate queer people by calling our transgender siblings less than who they are and stoking fear of them, we have separated ourselves from one another. When we believe the lies of an unloved man and commit heinous acts because it speaks to our innermost fear of being unloved, we have separated ourselves from one another.
And when we erase Indigenous people from the history of the world and think of us as an artifact of the past without feelings, fears, hopes, aspirations and dreams, we have separated ourselves from one another.
The Catholic Church has much to atone and apologize for in the coming years, decades, and centuries. And it will not look like it did in the past, it will change, it will break in some places and it will grow in others. But ultimately, if it doesn’t not demonstrate change and correct the mistakes of its past, it will be condemned to repeat them until it fades into the dusts of time.
I think of my Great-Grandfathers Arnold Allen Iron Shell, Jacob Standing Bull, my Grandparents Susan Agnes Standing Bull-Iron Shell and Isaac Francis Iron Shell, my parents Lorraine Iron Shell-Walking Bull and Ralph High Horse-Big Owl-Walking Bull, my brother Ralph James, myself, and one baptized nephew as the occupants of the Little Lodge.
In our family tradition, the story has been passed down to us that after the four days and four nights that our spirits travel onto the next world, we come upon a high ridge line. We climb that ridge line and beyond, as far as the eye can see, there are all our Indigenous ancestors there, living as they lived here in this life, all of one experience. It was told to us that when our times come, we descend from that ridge line into the camps where we are welcomed home by our ancestors.
When my time comes, I know I will find the Little Lodge of my Catholic ancestors who did all they could to ensure the survival of the next generation in the oppressive face of the U.S. government and the Catholic Church. There I will hear all their stories and learn more than I know. We will see all our relatives again, but in that Little Lodge, I will understand why this world was so awful to us and I will be reconciled to the love they had for us.
And for that, I will be grateful.