An Open Letter to the Vatican:
Pope Fails Indigenous Peoples on Important Fronts
April 2005 (copyright)
(The writer was the Project Director of the indigenous peoples' delegation
to the Vatican in the Year 2000.)
Pope John Paul II's recent death has stirred a kind of global frenzy for
an individual unparalleled in modern times. As millions have mourned and
gathered to pay tribute to him, some have chosen to step back and reflect
upon the meaning of the third longest papal tenure in history.
The pope's longevity is indeed intimately tied to his legacy for many have
never known another pontiff. Even many who abhor his extreme conservatism
inevitably saw him as a great patriarch, a Reaganesque type figure who
would ultimately "bring home the bacon." He will certainly be remembered
as a man who took bold stands on an array of social justice and human
rights issues. His role in bringing down the communist system across
Europe will undoubtedly endure for a long time to come. In his later
years, he spoke out heartily against the pitfalls of capitalism. And
his stance against the war in Iraq highlighted his abhorrence to violence and war.
While most praise John Paul, some simply view his legacy as a polarizing
one filled with contradictions. For indigenous peoples, the role of the
Roman Catholic Church in terms of tokenism and cultural demise has always
been very real. The pope's legacy of support and justice for indigenous
peoples was highly controversial in certain important areas.
The pope seemed to be less than genuine in his practical support for the
poor. In Latin America, he censored and silenced numerous theologians and
scholars for their advocacy of liberation theology, which called for
political, social and economic reforms and freedom for the poor and
oppressed. This was most painfully realized in Brazil in the 1980s. His
dogmatic approach to the issue was largely rationalized because the
movement basically sounded "Marxist," and thus inclined toward "atheism."
Some view the papacy's establishment of tangible programs in aiding the
poor to be largely symbolic, but rather gestures that consolidated the
power and prestige of the church.
While the pope was clearly an inspiration to millions, half of the world's
population, including many indigenous peoples, continues to live in
poverty today. What have been the practical consequences of his legacy on
them, and the 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty? Other than
heads of State, most people of other faiths and beliefs simply do not know
or care to know the pope. The pontiff is really the symbolic leader of the
Western Christian world. And the Western Christian world usually gets what
it wants when it comes to overly excessive and biased media coverage.
One issue kept densely veiled is the Catholic Church's means of upholding
the converted. This was exemplified during the pope's final visit to Mexico
in 2002. Though seeped in contradiction, John Paul's trip was hailed as
nothing less than spectacular. Some two million Mexicans attended the
various events staged during his three-day visit. The pope was in Mexico
City to canonize and beatify, and even received a kiss on his ring from
Mexican president Vicente Fox, breaking a 140 year taboo revealing in part
"the clandestine relationship between Mexican leaders and the church"
(AP, August 2, 2002).
Underlying the visit was church's concern about "Protestant gains" in
Mexico, and reinforcing its appeal to the Indian people to counter the
threat. One of the ways of doing this was to canonize the first Indian
saint in the Americas, Juan Diego. Diego is purported to have seen the
Virgin Mary in 1531, and the pope called him "a catalyst in the conversion
of millions of Indians to Christianity" (AP, August 1, 2002). Paradoxi-
cally, there is no hard evidence proving the historical existence of
Diego. In other words, Juan Diego probably never existed.
It did not seem to daunt the pope that the church was the root cause of
the cultural genocide against the Mexica and Maya in the conversion
process to begin with. However, the continued bleaching of the Indian soul
and deeply embedded racism of the church was most prominently revealed
when church officials changed the official church portrait of Diego,
painted in the 1500s, from "dark skin" to "pale." This act appeared to be
totally unnecessary as the pope obviously appeared to be enjoying himself
while admiring and "blessing" the numerous Indian dancers and performers
throughout his stay!
Encouragingly, the pope did specifically call for greater sensitivity
and support for Mexico's indigenous peoples. While the spectacle ensued,
however, some Mexicans were offended regarding the beatification of two
Zapotec Indians. The two men were informants working for the colonial
church to stamp out Indian religious culture and non-Christian ceremonies
and practices. In 1700, they reported to authorities about an Indian
ceremony being performed. Enraged because they felt betrayed, Zapotec
villagers then executed the two.
The church is obviously well informed about the event. In accounts made
public they reported that fellow villagers "dragged them, hung them and
finally decapitated them, cut open their sides to pull out their hearts
and gave them to the dogs" (AP, August 1, 2002). To put such a gruesome
account into proper perspective, we must remember that this type of
butchery was all too common among the conquistadors. The Spaniards had
been committing similar atrocities in Mexico since their arrival in 1520,
but obviously on a much larger scale. Yet, in the Year 2002, the church
decided to beatify the "martyrs," even though they were traitors to their
own culture and people, and despite those who the church knew would be
offended, including descendants of the Zapotecs.
While the pope often spoke great words of kindness and certainly appeared
to be well intentioned, the actions of the Catholic Church, couched in
the spectacle of religious deception, are often deplorable. If the pope
and church were truly sensitive and respected the rights and needs of
indigenous peoples, they would not have beatified these two men, nor
canonized Diego. However, the UNDERLYING MISSION of the visit took
precedence over everything else. The church's fear of losing "its converts," albeit to another Christian sect, reveals its deep-seated
past of religious intolerance and spiritual greed.
Perhaps the most important indigenous rights issue presented to the
Vatican and Pope John Paul concerned the revocation of the 1493 papal
bull Inter Caetera. This was the decree handed to Columbus on his second
voyage to the Americas. It established Christian dominion and called for
the subjugation of non-Christian peoples and seizure of their lands.
Consequently, tens of millions of indigenous peoples around the world
were exterminated in the colonial process.
The Vatican is historically very familiar with the issue. The Carib Indian
people publically rejected the "papal donation" early on. According to A.
Garcia, the Indian people who had been taken to Cartagena commented, "The
Pope must have been mad when he did so, for he was giving what was not
his." Writing in 1519, Martin Fernandez de Enciso explained in his Suma de
Geografia how the indigenous peoples of the province of "Cenu" reacted to
the reading of the requerimiento based on the papal bull:
They answered me that regarding what it said about there being only one God who governed heaven
and earth and who was lord of all, that seemed fine to them, but in so far as what it said about
the pope being lord of the universe in God's place, and that he donated the land to the king of Castilla, they said the pope must
have been drunk when he did that because he gave what was not his to give, and that the king who asked for and took the grant must
have been crazy because he asked for what belonged to others, and that he should go there to take it so they could hang his head
from a stick as they had hung other heads . . . belonging to their
enemies . . . and they said that they were lords of their land and
did not need another lord.
In the latter half of the 20th century, a modern movement calling for the
revocation of Inter Caetera arose. In 1972, a telegram was sent to the
Vatican by American Indian Movement activists during the Trail of Broken
Treaties caravan that occupied Washington, D.C. They had asked the pope to
annul the 1493 decree. In a letter to Pope John Paul in 1993, the Indigenous
Law Institute based in the United States formally requested the revocation
of Inter Caetera. And an annual papal bulls burning event commenced in
Honolulu, Hawai'i in 1997 calling international attention to the issue.
In October 2000, an indigenous peoples' delegation went to Italy pressing
for the revocation of Inter Caetera. They had a formal request for an
audience with the pope endorsed by the Bishop of Honolulu. The nine
delegates sought to take the Catholic Church up on their amends during
their Jubilee Year. In 1998, the pope had called Christianity's 2,000th
anniversary a year of mercy, seeking forgiveness, atonement and wanting
the church to enter the new millennium with a "clear conscience."
The audience was turned down. Instead, a blanket apology had been issued
earlier in the year by the Vatican for past crimes against various groups,
including indigenous peoples. Ironically, the pope's apology was to "God,"
and not to the descendants of the victims of the atrocities committed to
which the church needed to take responsibility for. "The pope failed us,"
said Eric Po'ohina, a Kanaka Maoli delegate from Hawai'i and member of
the indigenous rights' organization Kosmos Indigena. "We traveled half
way around the world in the Aloha spirit only to be given a token gesture
of welcome." Remarked Carib/Boricua Indian decendant Tony Castana,
"Although the pope could not bear to meet with us, he was a good man.
We will continue to educate the public on the meaning of this document
and advocate for its repeal."
The Vatican has yet to directly address or come to terms with the greatest
holocaust of the modern era, the American Holocaust. As vicar of Christ,
the pope failed to make amends with indigenous peoples on this most
critical of issues. He missed a "golden opportunity" to do so. The
pope's stand on a number of other important indigenous issues was also not straightforward and minimal in outcome.