A 1993 Open Letter to Pope John Paul II

Steven Newcomb, et al

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.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




theseeker's picture
forgive my ignorance and memory but what was the response to this letter?
andre's picture
I like to say I am spiritual not religious. Religion always puts you in with a group that at one point in time has done terrible things. For this church, the record is clear. Coming off the heels of over $1 billion in payouts for molestation cases. I cannot see much good that has come out of the doctrine. There are many other abuses. I admire those who seeks discovery and apology from those that have a history of abuse.
editors's picture
Thank you for the comment! Here is the response from Steven Newcomb: "No, we never did receive a response. The letter was sent to the Vatican by the United Nations Centre for Human Rights but we never received an official response."
rainbow's picture
Will the current Pope apologize for genocide? Probably not! Why? Because Bible verses advocate genocide against pagan/heathen natives. "You must drive all the natives of the land before you. If you do not drive the natives of the country before you then those who remain will become disgusting to your eyes and a thorn in your side. They will harass you in the land where you live, and I will deal with you as I meant to deal with them." Num. 33:51 Lord hath said..."I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." Psalm 2 KJV
gsevalikova's picture
Why can't anyone who is a Christian or at least is familiar with the new Testament bring themselves to repudiate the Catholic Church and those other sects for the horrible things they did-and still do ? And yes, there is no clear response to the request to revoke that Inter Caetera, certainly no commitment to DEACTIVATE that clause-so it is still active until revoked formally, right ? Columbus was afraid to confront Mongol troops guarding Silk Road checkpoints in the 1400's, but by 1492, there was both a civil war between Kublai Khan's descendants for power, and the Yuan Dynasty had been overthrown. but Columbus wasn't aware of those events then, and simply went forward based on Marco Polo's journals. He actually would have encountered Turks if he went by the land route. Considering the inroads that Europe AND the old colonial powers are making into this continent once again-(thank you George W. for helping them destroy this nation's economy while you were at it)- please take note of overseas events, and even foreign soldiers permanently housed here,mostly Europeans BTW.
rainbow's picture
In the 4th comment a Bible verse is presented: "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his Anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us." Saint Augustine wrote that the Bible verse: "Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us" means "let us do our endeavour, that the Christian religion does not bind us, nor be imposed upon us." An official United Nations document about the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Eleventh Session states: Robert Williams, Professor of Native American Studies, University of Arizona, who spoke on yesterday's panel on the Discovery Doctrine, said that [outrage] over the Doctrine explained the repeated and compelling calls for the General Assembly to renounce such documents, and to make it clear that they could not be used by States to claim indigenous lands, territories or natural resources. In respect to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a growing number of Christian leaders are beginning to protest against these rights, because they believe that they stand in the way of their efforts to impose the Christian religion on indigenous peoples. One Christian leader wrote: "Indigenous peoples' territorial, demonic nature spirits are being supported, entrenched and empowered by the occult New Age political world leaders, through the esoteric United Nations organization." Are the United Nations' "political world leaders" the "kings of the earth" mentioned in Psalm 2 KJV?