Grandma Agnes Baker Pilgrim, 91, was about to fly to Amsterdam and then on to Africa with her International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, so I knew the oldest living Takelma Indian was about to be feted, celebrated, loved, respected, and honored as she and her compatriots continued their journey of blessings around the world. I also knew Grandma Aggie had recently done some blessings in Australia, and got to fly business class and stay in a fancy villa. So I teased her about it. “Not a bad gig for a girl from the res.”
She didn’t laugh. Something was up.
“So, Grandma,” I asked, “What do you really want?”
“Equality and justice, which I’ve never had.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you were an indigenous person, you would understand.”
The disgust in her normally gentle voice hit hard, reminding me of the terrible gulf between our core experiences of the world. She was a girl from the res. Her grandparents survived genocide in what is now my backyard. She grew up under apartheid on a reservation that continued to shrink until, for a time, our Congress abolished her homeland altogether. As a child, she couldn’t speak her own language, practice her own religion, or go to the bathroom with white folk. In her career, she worked in the criminal justice system and witnessed firsthand two separate and grossly unequal systems for whites and Indians. She saw Indian kids trafficked out of their own homes by government officials. Such words—genocide, apartheid, and human trafficking—are not hyperbole but updated language for our nation’s actions. The reason these words are so muted today is only because those policies were so successful that the day we celebrate Native Americans is called Thanksgiving.
Grandma went on, “The ‘Trails of Tears’ that we have all experienced in the United States started with the Papal Bull of 1493. Some of the tribes were completely wiped out and are gone forever. It’s not right. It’s sickening. None of us asked for that. We wrote to Pope John and never got a reply. So we were over there in front of the Sistine Chapel—all the thirteen grandmothers—and they were going to put us in jail! This is why I would like to speak with the new pope. I want to sit with him and refresh his mind and tell him that he has the same opportunity to look it up and make it right. All over the world people want justice served. This is five hundred years overdue.”
After we spoke, while the 13 Grandmothers were giving their blessings in Africa, Pope Francis went to Bolivia, where he profoundly apologized for the role the Catholic Church played in the genocide there. So Francis is clearly a pope who is ready and willing to heal the wounds of the past. And yet it is unlikely that we will ever see the papal spotlight and apology here. Why? As Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote in 1835 in Democracy in America:
The Spaniards were unable to exterminate the Indian race by those unparalleled atrocities which brand them with indelible shame, nor did they succeed even in wholly depriving it of its rights; but the Americans of the United States have accomplished this twofold purpose with singular felicity; tranquilly, legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood, and without violating a singular great principal of morality in the eyes of the world. It is impossible to destroy men with more respect for the laws of humanity.
So what should we do?
Grandma said that what she would really like is for us to “stop being in denial and teach the truth.” Ideally, that would mean replacing Columbus Day with First Nations Day, but she accepts that this is very unlikely. What could be done in the time that Grandma has left is to create a national First Nations Day—perhaps on May fourth—the day the infamous papal bull was signed, and hopefully the day she will see it rescinded.
Indigenous Grandmas Say: “Repeal This Papal Bull!”
With the Papal Bull of 1493, Pope Alexander VI drew the roadmap to all the Trails of Tears when he gave the New World to Spain and sanctified a process that would take more than 12 million indigenous lives in the area of the United States alone—deaths caused not just by germs but by guns and deliberate starvation.
“… by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found …
“… Furthermore, under penalty of excommunication … Let no one therefore, infringe, or with rash boldness contravene, this our recommendation … be it known to him that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul.”
- Pope Alexander VI, The Fourth of May 1493
What you can do
If You Have a Minute…
Watch a clock tick. Think about 7.8 billion minutes (15,000 years) of people living in what is now your home. Consider how your time will promote peace.
If You Have an Hour…
Contact your local politicians and news organizations to help Grandma Aggie meet Pope Francis when he addresses Congress on September 24. Spread the word about First Nations Day.
If You Have a Month…
Research the promises broken and the blood that was shed in what is now your home. Feel whatever you feel and let it go, recognizing that all those involved are long gone. Work in peace toward First Nations Day.
If You Have 10, 50, or a Hundred Dollars…
Donate to help Grandma Aggie fly to Washington, DC, on September 24 to talk to Pope Francis. Let’s send her First Class! grandmotherscouncil.org