For the injustices against the native peoples and the land God provided,“Lord, have mercy.”
For the brave missionaries that ministered to them. “Thanks be to God.”
The native peoples are often forgotten in the story of the “discovery” of America. Our heroes tend to be the settlers who came on ships, built towns and cities, explored the land and gave us what we have today. But it came at a price.
If you ever visit New York harbor by way of the Staten Island Ferry look at the shores now crowded by the buildings and piers of today. Native peoples once fished, hunted and traded in large numbers here. The water was fresher then, fish and shellfish plentiful, the air cleaner, the earth less damaged by human activity.
The National Museum of the American Indian , located in the old customs house across from Battery Park near the ferry, is a good place to remember the role of the native peoples in the story of America. They traded with the Europeans; they were their guides into an unknown land; they provided many of the foods that fed growing populations in Europe and America. They respected the land more than those who came after them.
A young Indian woman, Kateri Tekakwitha and a Jesuit priest, Isaac Jogues, are figures to remember in the customs house. They represent the clash of civilizations that occurred when Europeans and native peoples met. Across the street from the customs house is the statue of Christopher Columbus.
Europeans brought disease. Smallpox disfigured and partially blinded Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Mohawk woman who lived along the Mohawk River past Albany, NY. The native peoples had no immunity to small pox and other diseases. Three out of ten died from it. By some estimates 5 million native people lived in North America when the first Europeans arrived. Within a hundred years there were only 500,000. Besides disease, the major cause of their diminishment, the native peoples also suffered from wars and greed.
At the museum, besides Kateri Tekakwitha remember Father Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit missionary who, while attempting to advance peace-keeping efforts with the Mohawks at Ossernonon (Auriesville) was killed by a war party on October 18, 1646. Previously, in 1642 Jogues had been captured by this same tribe. He escaped in 1643, fled here to New Amsterdam (New York City) and then was put on a ship for France by a kindly Dutch minister.
The French missionaries came to the New World out of the turmoils of the Old World expecting a new Pentecost among the native peoples here, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, disease and political maneuvering made the native peoples suspicious of foreigners and the seed of the gospel fell on hard ground.
Letters back to France from the early Jesuits–marvelously preserved in “The Jesuit Relations”–often express the missionaries’ disappointment over their scarce harvest, but it didn’t stop them. They were well grounded in the mystery of the Cross.
“My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it. My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.” St. John de Brebéuf
The Indian woman and the priest persevered. We forget how difficult it is when civilizations clash– like now. We remember the Christian missionaries: Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Priests and their compassions on October 19th..
Here’s a video on the Jesuit Martyrs at Auriesville: