The Politics of Religion, Recognition, and Accommodation

Fr. EndresHistorical accounts of missionaries in the United States have undergone much scrutiny of late. Did they impose their wills on the native inhabitants of a given region? Were they inclined to racist remarks or worse? Or, from the flip side, were they exemplary evangelizers of the brand that Pope Francis has been calling for? This 2014 address by Fr. David Endres, Assistant Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at the Athenaeum, to the American Catholic Historical Association in Washington, D.C., attempts the best historical portrayal of one particular missionary of faith.

The Politics of Religion, Recognition, and Accommodation:
Father Bonaventure Oblasser, OFM, and the Making of the Tohono O’odham Reservation, 1911-1939

Historians have ably documented the encounter between Catholic missionaries and Native Americans in the U.S. Southwest. Early attempts at analyzing the missionary experience – called the “missionary myth” – idealized the encounter, portraying selfless missionary priests as forces for civilization, bringing Christian faith to lazy, uneducated, but docile indigenous peoples.  By the 1960s, historians reversed their assessment of missionary-native relations, advancing the so-called “genocide myth”that emphasized missionary violence and exploitation of Indian labor and land. Many contemporary historians recognize the deficiencies of both narratives.

The encounter between an early twentieth-century Franciscan missionary, Bonaventure Oblasser, OFM (1885-1967), and Arizona’s Tohono O’odham tribe stands as a needed corrective to establish a via media. This study attempts to situate Father Oblasser’s missionary work in its proper context: acknowledging the paternalism, racism, and cultural destruction found in the missionary encounter, yet also recognizing the genuine desire of missionaries – in this case, Oblasser – to better the lives of those they were sent to civilize and Christianize. This study will highlight one important intervention: Oblasser’s participation in the committee that fought for tribal recognition and establishment of the tribe’s principal reservation in 1916-1917.

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