On Tuesday, May 2, the Jesuit-run St. Francis Mission announced it will return more than 500 acres to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. The land is within the boundaries of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and has been held by the St. Francis mission since the 1880s.
“It’s now time to give back to the tribe all of those pieces of land that were given to the church (by the federal government) for church purposes,” said Rev. John Hatcher, president of St. Francis Mission, in a YouTube video. “We will never again put churches on those little parcels of land.”
The Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of priests founded in the 16th century to do missionary work. Since 1886, the Jesuits have lived among the Sicangu Lakota of the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Generally, the history between the Jesuits and Native peoples of the Americas is one that is marred with colonial onslaughts on indigenous lands, culture and life ways. The Jesuits seek to change this course and, evidently, make amends with Native peoples.
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“It’s meaningful that we not continue to hold land that rightly belongs to Lakota people,” said Rev. Hatcher. “I think it’s an important gesture on our part, that says we’re out of the property business, and we’re out of a colonial approach to the work of mission.”
Russel Eagle Bear, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, says the process of Jesuits returning land to the tribe has been in the works for the last five years. “It is a significant return of land,” Eagle Bear told ICMN. “Over the years, tribes have lost millions of acres due to government acts, so anytime we increase our land base that’s a plus for us.”
The St. Francis mission will be returning a handful of unused parcels, totaling roughly 525 acres, while maintaining land where the Mission has active operations.
“When Catholics came to our reservations, it was to educate our youth,” said Eagle Bear. “Certain lands were allocated and were used, and they always maintained that land over the years, and now, they’re returning some of the land that they’re not using any more.”
The Jesuits continue to maintain active churches on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, in addition to the Rosebud Reservation. Yet it is significant to note how dramatically their participation in those communities has changed.
In A History of Jesuits and Native People, Rev. Raymond A. Bucko of Creighton University writes on the changing landscape between the Jesuits and Native American tribes. “We were not always correct when thinking out what was best for Native people and indeed we learned that what is best is not the decision of outsiders but that our role is to work together and modestly share our resources as they are requested in service to Native people,” Rev. Bucko wrote.
What is more of the Jesuits and their apparent repentance, is that Native Americans are not the only group they seek to make amends with. In a message at Georgetown University to the African American community, the Jesuits recently apologized for owning and trading slaves. “We have greatly sinned… and we are profoundly sorry,” said Rev. Tim Kesicki, in a heartfelt testimony on April 18.
Rev. Kesicki added, “St. Ignacious Loyola mandates that Each Jesuit pray for the examination of his conscience, so that he might feel interior knowledge of his sins, feel the disorder of his actions, and then hating these, pray for the grace to correct himself.”
Only time will tell the greater extent of Jesuit repentance for their participation with colonial assaults against African Americans and Native Americans alike.
“We’ve got to hand it to the Catholic organization for doing this,” said Eagle Bear. “It’s a big thing, just the idea of returning land. We’ll see if some of the (other churches) will follow suit.”