Steven Newcomb

A 1993 Open Letter to Pope John Paul II

This letter was originally published in Indian Country Today on August 11, 1993.

Editors Note: The signatories to this letter hope to present it to Pope John Paul II during his time in Denver this week.

His Holiness, Pope John Paul II,

In a special message to American Indians in Santa Domingo on October 13, 1992, you observed that it is impossible to forget “the enormous sufferings” of the Indian peoples during the “conquest and colonization” of Americas. You also pledged that the church will work to defend Indian rights. We applaud your statement, for it was the important step toward healing and the restoration of Native spiritual traditions.

Five hundred years ago, your predecessor, Pope Alexander VI, issued the now famous Inter Caetera bull. That papal decree expressed the pope’s desire that “barbarous nations,” those “discovered,” be “subjugated” and reduced to the Catholic faith and Christian religion. He said that in this way, the “Christian empire” would be propagated. The Inter Caetera bull was in direct line with an earlier bull issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, which called upon the king, “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans, whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ.” Pope Nicholas also directed Alfonso to take away and convert the non-Christians’ possessions and property,” and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

Now in 1993, the “International Year of the World’s Indigenous People,” as declared by the United Nations, our spiritual elders tell us that it is time for the Age of Subjugation to end. During that age, the traditional nations and peoples of the Western Hemisphere have endured what historian David Stannard has referred to as the worst holocaust in the history of humanity. For many of us it still continues. It is now time to acknowledge that the papal documents mentioned above directly contributed to our suffering, misery, and to the genocide committed against us.

We therefore call upon you, with all respect that you deserve as the head of the Vatican City State and as the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church, to formally revoke—in a bilateral ceremony with our spiritual elders and representatives—the Inter Caetera bull of May 4, 1493. By doing so, you will thereby demonstrate your solidarity with indigenous nations and peoples throughout the world.

The revocation will not only show your love and affection, but also your willingness to honor and respect our inherit rights to liberty, justice and peace. Your action will also show that the Catholic Church supports and defends the territorial ownership and integrity of our nations and our desire to be free of all forms of subjugation. You will thereby align yourself with our efforts to revitalize and to restore our own spiritual way of life, in keeping with the natural laws given to each of our respective nations by the Creator.

Also, because they are vitally necessary to our healing and spiritual restoration, we respectfully offer the following points:

1) For generations now, the Church has taught our people that our own ceremonial traditions are “heathen” and “pagan.” Many of us have been taught to fear, ridicule and even deny our own family members who follow traditional ceremonial practices. Your revocation of the papal bull will begin to remove this legacy of fear and judgment from the hearts and minds of our people.

2) Scores of our nations perished. Many of our languages have been completely destroyed. In parochial boarding schools the Church forbade our children from speaking their own language, often inflicting allusive punishments on those children “caught” doing one of the most natural things of all: speaking their own mother tongue. It is now time for one Vatican to support the restoration of the Native languages that the Church worked so hard to destroy, before it is too late and those languages vanish.

3) It is time for the Vatican to support the healing of the deep and lasting emotional and spiritual scars that it had inflicted on our nations and peoples. We call upon the Church to provide practical support for “unresolved historical grief” work.

4) Does the Vatican hold the human remains of indigenous people in its archives? Does it possess many of our sacred objects? We call upon the Vatican to return all such skeletal remains to our communities, so that they may be given proper traditional burials. We also call upon the Vatican to immediately return any of our sacred objects that it has in its possession.

5) We call upon the Catholic Church to open the Vatican archives to us so that our scholars may study what those records reveal about our past.

6) The Church is now holding portions of our lands which nation-state governments “gave” to the Church. It is now time to restore those lands to their rightful indigenous owners.

7) The revocation will support the restoration of our sacred lands which at present are being unjustly and unlawfully occupied, lands such as the Black Hills of the Lakota and their allied nations, Newe Segobia of the Western Shoshone Nation, and Mount Graham of the Apache Nation, to name just a few.

8) History also reveals that the Church persecuted women of Earth-centered spiritual traditions through the Inquisition and other repressive campaigns in Europe as well as in the Western Hemisphere. Untold women and children suffered and died from this unspeakable mistreatment. The revocation will enable the Church to deal honestly, candidly and openly with these shadows of its history. Such disclosure is a difficult yet necessary step toward the healing that now needs to occur for the sake of all beings.

We hereby invite you and your official representatives to meet with us for n international summit of indigenous nations, so that we may discuss these and other issues face-to-face, heart-to-heart and mind-to-mind. For the sake of our healing, the healing of Mother Earth and the benefit of the future generations, we ask you not to turn your heart away from us.

In conclusion, we are writing you this letter because you have demonstrated to the world community that you are a person of great vision. We invite you to walk with us on the Sacred Path toward the healing of historical guilt, grief and shame. With the ceremonial revocation we will honor the indigenous principle: “Respect the Earth as Mother, and have a Sacred Regard for All Living Things.”

All Our Relations,

Birgil Kills Straight

Steven T. Newcomb

Maria Braveheart Jordan

Marcola, Ore.

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