The Columns

Article by W&L's Harvey Markowitz Explores Lakota Sioux and Catholicism

— by on March 15th, 2012

In an article published in the winter issue of Great Plains Quarterly, an academic journal published by the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Harvey Markowitz, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington and Lee University, describes the way Lakota Sioux adapted to various elements of Catholic beliefs and practices from missionaries sent to convert them.

Titled “Converting the Rosebud: Sicangu Lakota Catholicism in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Markowitz’s paper explores the United States government’s policy of separating American Indians onto reservations following the Civil War. The reservations were not considered permanent, but would allow the tribes to be assimilated and therefore safe to integrate into the mainstream population. As part of this process, they were to forsake everything about their own culture, their social traditions, cultural understandings and religious practices.

“Both the government and missionaries of that time shared a philosophy which saw social history as working in stages of progress,” said Markowitz. “By their standards, the Lakota Sioux were savages, and this was an effort to move them through the stages from savagery to civilization. Of course, it had no effect on the policy that American Indians thought this was a terrible thing to do to them, because they were considered to be children who didn’t know what was best for them.”

In the paper, Markowitz gives an overview of the Lakota’s spirituality and practices, which had evolved over thousands of years. “I want to present the reader with a snapshot of the universe as understood by Lakotas and how both their society and religion reflected this understanding,” said Markowitz.”They had a well defined theology that emphasized the existence of a great mysterious power that they might not fully comprehend, but that they experienced.”

The St. Francis Mission and School was founded on the Rosebud Reservation in 1886 by priests and sisters who were exiles from Germany, where Catholicism was oppressed by Otto von Bismarck’s “Kulturkampf.” When they arrived on the reservation the missionaries didn’t speak the Lakota language and the Lakota didn’t speak English. So the missionaries translated the liturgy and the sacraments, the most important parts of Catholicism, by borrowing traditional Lakota words for spirits, gods and holy things.

“The irony is that, by doing this, instead of converting the Lakota into what they considered to be proper Catholics, the missionaries were working against their own purpose by inspiring the continuation of traditional Lakota belief,” said Markowitz.

“The Lakota thought that because the missionaries were using the same words that the words must mean the same thing. They weren’t theologians, so they had no reason to believe that the missionaries were using these words to express very different beliefs. Instead, they heard these words and creatively developed an understanding of Catholicism, its beliefs and rights, which was different from Orthodox Catholicism. So they amplified their own traditions by taking the new ingredients the missionaries gave them and selecting elements to put into their traditional web of meaning.

“Of course the missionaries disapproved of this process because they believed quite correctly that the Lakotas were converting Catholicism instead of converting to Catholicism. But in a way, it helped the Lakota transition from their traditional theology to one that still made sense to them. Later on, when they learned English they understood more about what the missionaries meant.”

Finally, the paper focuses on one particular example of Lakota creativity in 1890, when they refashioned selected aspects of the annual religious gathering of the Catholic Sioux Indian Congress, held to celebrate their Catholicism.

The missionaries left much of the planning for the event in the hands of the Lakota. “Before they knew it, they had a celebration held under a circular bower that was pretty much a replica of the bower the Lakota used for their traditional ceremony, the sun dance,” said Markowitz. “And since they were required to fly the American flag, they placed it where the sun dance pole used to be. They certainly performed the Catholic rites, but the parades by the missionaries replicated parades that used to precede the sun dance.”

Markowitz has been a member of faculty at Washington and Lee since 2003, first in the department of religion and then sociology-anthropology, environmental studies and history. He was appointed to his current position as assistant professor of anthropology in 2007. He holds a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago.