Mass of Healing in Remembrance of the Miami Tribe

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One of the beautiful blessings of our diocese is the rich tapestry of culture, spirituality and grace within our Church. We are a diverse community here and throughout the United States, indeed, throughout the world. There is joy and wonder in encountering Christ in the people and families of different races, cultures and languages. And here in our diocese, the first communities of faith included our Native American brothers and sisters of the Potawatomi and Miami tribes. As I have tried to find the roots of the Catholic faith of the Miami peoples who settled in this Fort Wayne side of the diocese, I discovered that some were probably Catholic when they arrived here from Wisconsin in the 1700s. The Miami peoples had learned of Christ and the Gospel from Jesuit missionaries back in the 1600s. In fact, I learned that Father Jacques Marquette had Miami guides for his voyage down the Mississippi River. The Miamis listened eagerly to the teachings of the missionaries. The French priests respected the language and culture of the Miamis. They were edified by their great respect for the land and rivers, forests and plains. They wrote about their gentleness and friendliness. At the same time, many of the Miamis were attracted by the missionaries’ proclamation of the Good News of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ. They even asked the missionaries to set up a large cross in their village. This is how evangelization should take place. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case in history.

In 1537, Pope Paul Ill proclaimed the dignity and rights of the native peoples of the Americas by insisting that they not be deprived of their freedom or the possession of their property. Not all Catholics followed this teaching of the Church, nor did other Christians live up to their Christian responsibilities. Many, as we know, exploited the native peoples. We must ask forgiveness, our recent Popes have said, for the offenses and crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America. At the same time, we should also give thanks for the good missionaries, the many bishops, priests and laity who preached the Gospel with courage and meekness, respectfully and pacifically; who left behind them impressive works of human promotion and of love, often standing alongside the native peoples or accompanying them even to the point of martyrdom. Francis has said the following: “Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new. Let us say YES to the encounter between peoples and cultures.” At this Mass, we say “NO” to what happened to the Miami peoples here in Fort Wayne 175 years ago. We say “YES” to the encounter between peoples and cultures that takes place with mutual respect, justice and love.

Twenty-five years ago, my predecessor, Bishop John D’Arcy, celebrated a Mass here in our cathedral marking the 150th anniversary of the Miami tribe from Fort Wayne and the Wabash River Valley. I am very grateful to Dani Tippmann for writing to me that this year marks the 175th anniversary of the forced removal of many of the Miami peoples from this area. It is important that we remember this tragic event and that our Miami Catholics and all of us gather for this Mass of Healing and Remembrance. Though it may be hard to imagine the pain of the Native Americans forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland, from friends and neighbors, and from their homes, perhaps this quote from a witness in Fort Wayne at that time can help us:

“Well I remember the sober saddened faces, the profusion of tears, as I saw them hug to their bosoms a little handful of earth which they had gathered from the graves of their dead kindred. As the canal boat that bore them to the Ohio River loosed her moorings, many a bystander was moved to tears at the evidences of grief he saw before him.”

Several hundred Miami were allowed to stay, mostly leaders who owned private property and their relatives, who would have a place to live after the reservation land was gone. But those several hundred who were not exempt from removal had to board canal boats and journeyed into exile to Kansas and eventually Oklahoma. Sadly, many citizens of Indiana supported the Indian Removal Act passed by Congress in 1830 and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson. What happened to the Miamis here on the Fort Wayne side of the diocese also happened to the Potawatomis on the South Bend side of the diocese. In both places, priests opposed the forced removal of the Native Americans. Father Julian Benoit, the builder of this Cathedral and buried right below us, cared deeply for the Miami members of his flock, advocated for them and accompanied those expelled to the Kansas territory. He stayed two weeks there and then returned to Fort Wayne. He helped the Miamis who were still here to buy land. He was their agent since Indiana law didn’t allow the Miamis to buy land directly. Father Benoit had a close relationship with local members of the tribe, including Chief Jean Baptiste de Richardville and his son-in-law, Chief Francis LaFontaine, famous Catholic Miami leaders.

I have a personal devotion to Father Benjamin Petit, who is buried below the log chapel at Notre Dame. This young priest was beloved by the Potawatomi people he served in the South Bend area. Father Petit loved them as well and accompanied them when they were expelled and journeyed on what is famously called “The Trail of Death.” Forty-two Potawatomis died on the Trail and their 28-year-old priest, Father Benjamin Petit, got very sick and died on his way back to Indiana.

We should never forget these heroic priests and we should never forget the Native Americans who called the land of our diocese their home. The first Catholics of our diocese were French immigrants and Miami and Potawatomi peoples. The French were here for trade and not to colonize native American land. Intermarriage among the French male traders and Native American women became common. There was a relatively harmonious relationship between the French and native Americans, though there was harm from diseases carried by the French against which the Native Americans did not have immunity. The defeat of the French and their Indian allies by the British and their colonial allies in the Seven-Years’ War led to the Treaty of Paris in 1763. All lands east of the Mississippi became part of the British Empire and eventually of the United States after the Revolutionary War. I don’t have time to talk about the years of bloody conflict between the Americans and the native peoples in the westward expansion of the U.S. in the 1790s. Two years ago, I visited the site near Toledo of the Battle of Fallen Timbers in which General Anthony Wayne defeated the Miami in 1794 after which he destroyed several Miami villages and corn fields and then came here to the main village of the Miami peoples which was named Kekionga. He built a fort here and the city’s name is now Fort Wayne. General Wayne demanded that the Miami’s cede this village to him and his troops as part of a treaty to end the war. The tribal leaders agreed, trusting in the promise that the rest of the territory would remain Indian land, hence the name ‘Indiana.’ Of course, that did not happen since in a later treaty the Native Americans lost all Indiana.

We remember the battles, the violence, the injustices and the betrayals of the past. We pray for healing, peace, reconciliation and justice. As Catholics and as Christians, we view things with eyes of faith, not politics. We repent for the sins of the past and we pray and work for justice and peace today. We give thanks for the blessings of our faith, the faith we share whether we are descended from the Miamis, French, Germans, Irish, whether our ancestors were European, Native American, African, Latin American or Asian. We are all children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. And with those who are not Christian, we are brothers and sisters in the human family. We are all called to respect one another and our diverse cultures, the gifts of our cultures, recognizing that all cultures are purified by the Gospel, the Gospel that proclaims the God-given dignity of every human person, the truth about marriage that we heard in today’s Gospel and the love lived and proclaimed by Jesus, including His command to love our enemies, a command too little practiced 175 years ago and too little practiced today. The Gospel of Jesus is at home in every people, including the Miami culture. “The Gospel enriches, uplifts and purifies every culture,” St. John Paul II taught. And the culture of the Miami peoples enriches the Church.

We are called to be agents of healing and peace in a divided and conflict-ridden world. Today we stand in love and solidarity with our Miami brothers and sisters as together we mourn the removal of their ancestors 175 years ago. Together, we are the Body of Christ strengthened by the Holy Eucharist, like our ancestors in the faith, to live the Gospel we profess. May Our Blessed Mother, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, pray for all of us and especially our brothers and sisters of Miami blood and heritage!