· Vatican City ·

Strengthening the spirit of the Navajo

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On the coronavirus situation of Native Americans

19 June 2020

Interview with the Bishop of Gallup


On the United States reservation of the Navajo Nation it is a critical moment due to Covid-19. According to data published on 17 June by the Health Department of the Navajo Nation, there are 6747 infections and 322 deaths out of over 173 thousand inhabitants. This territory of the southwestern United States located between Arizona, Utah and New Mexico has the highest rate of infection per inhabitant in the US. A plague that affects a poor population and one of the most vulnerable in the country due to the lack of infrastructure and minimal health services, often without running water and electricity, weakened by social and environmental problems. Washington has allocated new resources to cope with the emergency in native and indigenous communities. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops praised the decision, expressing the hope that aid will arrive quickly and that tribal leaders will be involved. In this interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Bishop James Sean Wall, President of the usccb  Subcommittee on Native American Affairs captures the situation.

Bishop Wall, how is Covid-19 impacting the Navajo Nation?

The Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States. It also has one of the highest infection rates. This is due to the low quality of health care, poor diet, and many Navajo have underlying medical conditions such as diabetes.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has recently implored lawmakers and government officials to protect native and indigenous communities. What has been done? What should be done?

In October of last year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsored a gathering of experts on Native American poverty in the United States at the University of Notre Dame. In that meeting, the experts developed an action plan to end poverty especially on Native American reservations. In addition to the private sector, they also recommended several steps to involve the U.S. Federal Government. The plan includes increase in funding of Native Community Development Financial Institutions. These institutions develop ways to insure investments and loans on reservations. Loans and investments are particularly problematic because land cannot be used as collateral because the Federal Government has title to the land. The Anti-Poverty Summit also found sufficient evidence to call for the Federal Government to live up to its full treaty responsibilities and to develop a voucher system to fund Catholic schools on reservations.

Beyond the emergency, these populations have some difficulties in everyday life. What are their needs?

There are three major needs. From my perspective, the most important need is spiritual. Most Native Americans have a deep spiritual awareness. The Catholic Church has a long history among the Native American peoples, as we were the first to evangelize the indigenous peoples. We try to respond to the spiritual need of the people in a pastoral manner. At the heart of this response is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The other need is the need for employment. The Navajo reservation has approximately 86 per cent unemployment even before the Covid-19 crisis. The last need is to come up to the level of basic and adequate education. By all measures, public education on reservations does not come close to the standards of education in the rest of the nation. Catholic schools are one way Native Americans can lift themselves out of poverty, but due to financial restraints, Catholic schools can only help a small fraction of the population.

According to Pope Francis there is not just one kind of pandemic. We have to think about many other ones that afflict humanity: hunger, war, uneducated children. How is the US Church  facing this situation and protecting minorities?

The Catholic Church in the United States is always a voice for the voiceless. Since 1874 when the Bureau of Indian Missions was established, the Catholic Church has worked to develop ways to enhance [her response to] the spiritual needs as well as the charitable needs of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. One of the most important parts of answering these needs is to listen first to the Native American Catholic leadership themselves. It is not a “top down approach”, rather it is one of cooperation. The leadership have an important role in developing paths forward both for faith as well as economic development.

What does the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs that you preside do? How does it fulfil its Christian mission?

The Subcommittee on Native American Affairs has five major goals. The Subcommittee is working on proper ways for integration of the Native cultures within the Sacred Liturgy. We are also working on the reconciliation of the “boarding school period” with Native American communities. This was a time when children were forcibly removed by the federal government and placed into boarding schools, some of which were Catholic institutions. We are working on ways to make Native American ministry more visible in the Catholic Church. We are working on ways to enhance Native vocations and to work with seminaries to educate future priests on Native American cultures. Lastly, inspired by the devastation of the pandemic, we are working to increase our knowledge of the Native American health services in order to add our voice to reform medical care.

The Diocese of Gallup, which you lead, is in the middle of the Navajo Nation. How does the local Church promote integration and dialogue between cultures in everyday life?

We try to be faithful to the command Our Lord gave to the Church prior to His ascension to the right hand of the Father, which is to make disciples baptize, teach and know Christ is with us until the end of the age. This is the heart of the missionary Church: to know Christ came not for a few, but for all people.

In this area there are some Native American Catholic schools. What role do they play in building the present and the future of Native Americans?

We have a long history of Catholic education among the Native American people. Saint Katharine Drexel founded a religious community that ministered to two underserved portions of the American population — African Americans and Native American peoples. Saint Katharine and her sisters saw their outreach to the people as a charitable response of the Gospel. Pope Francis urges us to go out to the peripheries, and efforts to evangelize and catechize through Catholic education is the way we continue the work of Saint Katharine and respond to the invitation of our Holy Father. Catholic Schools are vital for the elimination of poverty and for the faith presence in Native American communities. The Subcommittee on Native American Affairs works very closely with organizations of Catholic Schools on reservations to maintain their vitality, cultural sensitivity and continued academic success.

Giordano Contu