Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Franciscan Mission to the Navajos: Mission Method and Indigenous Religion, 1898-1940

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Franciscan Mission to the Navajos: Mission Method and Indigenous Religion, 1898-1940

Article excerpt

The first permanent mission to the Navajo1 people of New Mexico and Arizona began in 1898 when three Franciscan fathers journeyed to Arizona to found St. Michael's Mission. In response to the conditions that they encountered, they devised a mission method, an approach for evangelizing the Navajos, who at this point had little or no interest in Christianity. Their mission method was not simply a plan to convert people to Christianity but was a theological orientation that expressed the missionaries' outlook on the indigenous religion. This study will analyze the method the Franciscans used in the Navajo missions for the purpose of examining their attitudes concerning Navajo religion, their adaptation to the Navajo culture, and the problems that arose in evangelizing Navajo children and adults.

Following the submission of the Pueblo Indians to the Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate in 1598, Spanish Franciscans came into the New Mexico area, where they established a mission to the Pueblo people. Unlike the Navajos, the Pueblos lived in sedentary communities and were therefore easier to conquer and evangelize than the Navajos. The Navajos were never conquered by the Spanish, and were a nomadic tribe who often raided the Pueblos even after the Spanish arrived. After eighty-two years of Spanish rule, the Pueblos revolted in 1680 and threw the Spanish out of New Mexico for over ten years. The famous Pueblo Revolt was not simply a political coup against the Spanish, but was also a religious revolt directed against the Franciscan missionaries, who sought to eliminate the traditional Pueblo religion and replace it with Catholicism. One of the primary factors that caused the Pueblos to revolt was the forcible repression of the Pueblo religion in which the Franciscans enlisted the co-operation of the Spanish governor to have the sacred masks of the Pueblos confiscated and burned. According to Pueblo religion, the people who put on the sacred masks allowed the gods to enter their bodies and communicate through them. Though the Franciscans regained their foothold among the Pueblos twelve years after the Pueblo Revolt, the Pueblos still practiced many of their ancient rituals even until the middle of the twentieth century. After the Pueblo revolt, the Franciscans made a few attempts to evangelize the Navajos, but they did not have any success in establishing permanent missions to them until 1898.2

The Franciscan missionaries who arrived at the Navajo mission in 1898 had quite a challenge for many different reasons. At this time, there were about 20,000 Navajos living on the reservation, most of whom lived in small groups spread out over the reservation. Since many of the Navajos were semi-nomadic sheepherders, they were often difficult to locate. The Navajo reservation was over 16,000,000 acres in Northeastern Arizona and Northwestern New Mexico, and travel across this land was difficult and sometimes dangerous. The Navajos were an intensely religious people, and their complex religion had a pervasive influence on their lives. Their language was also very difficult for outsiders to learn. At the time the Franciscans arrived, there was no dictionary of the Navajo language and the Navajos did not write. Since the Franciscans wanted to compose a dictionary of the Navajo language, they had to devise a way of putting this language into the written word. Several of the early Franciscan missionaries to the Navajos were among the very few white men to master this difficult language, and this set the stage for their missionary endeavors.

Language

The key aspect of winning the Navajos' trust was to learn the Navajo language, and the Franciscans' fluency impressed the Navajos. Actually, the Franciscans were not at all unique among Catholic missionaries in this respect, and Catholic missionaries had written many of the dictionaries of the Native American languages. The missionaries also received encouragement from William Ketcham, the Director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions from 1901 to 1921, to learn the indigenous languages. …

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