Our Gratitude To The Indians
Published: November 27, 2003
As we bow before our Thanksgiving table, our prayer will be incomplete if we do not express our gratitude to the Indians, the first people to come to these lands. Many of the foods on that table will be their gifts to us—and to the world: potatoes, beans, corn, pumpkins, papayas, pecans and, yes, the turkey itself, all domesticated thousands of years before the Pilgrims came. They also taught us the medicinal value of countless plants, contributed thousands of words to our English vocabulary and, most important, enriched our faith with religious devotions and theological insights.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, on Dec. 12, the church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On a hill outside Mexico City in 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a humble Indian peasant named Juan Diego. The message he took to the bishop in obedience to her instructions led millions to embrace Christianity and now animates the faith throughout the Americas. In long overdue recognition of this, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego in 2002.
Similarly, according to tradition, two Taino Indians, Juan and Rodrigo de Hoyos, and a black slave boy named Juan Moreno witnessed the appearance of the Blessed Virgin in Nipe Bay on the northwestern tip of Cuba around 1610. Thus began the devotion to Our Lady of Charity so important to the Cuban people. That the Blessed Virgin entrusted her message to simple, conquered indigenous men and a slave encourages a look at other indigenous religious ideas. Vatican Council II urged us to become familiar with the cultural and religious traditions of non-Christians, “discovering in them the seeds of the Word.” They are easy to find.
When U.S. Hispanics talk about religion, wrote the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, they speak not only about Catholicism but also “about the idea that the world is holy, which is one of the oldest truths of the Amerindian world.” Holy Cross Father Daniel G. Groody, who did his doctoral thesis in theology on the spirituality of Mexican farmworkers in California’s Coachella Valley, found that pre-Columbian religion flows through their veins, encouraging them to contemplate. “They know they are in the presence of the holy,” he wrote. Clearly, the spirit and belief of indigenous people permeates the religiosity of many inhabitants of the Americas. Research for the fifth centenary showed many convergences between indigenous religion and Christianity.
As the air we breathe becomes more polluted, our rivers and oceans more contaminated, the ozone layer thinner, the earth more littered with chemical and nuclear waste, we need to acknowledge the damage we have done in just 500 years and, out of respect for the way indigenous people cared for the earth for 12,000 years, dedicate ourselves to restore its air, water, ecosystems and ozone. Our survival depends on it. Moreover, in these cruel and combative times, the communitarian worldview of indigenous peoples can help us create a more humane society. The indigenous concept that the fruits of the earth belong not to the few but to all its creatures can reinforce the struggle against worsening inequality and hunger.
Our reflection on a feast day that celebrates the harvest might fittingly conclude with a prayer of the indigenous people of Hawaii: “May the earth continue to live. May the heavens above continue to live. May the rains continue to dampen the land. May the wet forests continue to grow. Then the flowers shall bloom, and we the people shall live again.”