This is the beginning of a new section to the Grand Rapids People’s History Project, where we will examine public and visible examples of how the narrative of Grand Rapids history perpetuates the values and perspectives of the dominant culture and local ruling class.
We will follow the model used by radical historian James Loewen, in his insightful book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. Loewen takes us on an enlightening tour of the US and examines historical markers in big cities and small towns to see what lens history is communicated. We will do the same thing, by looking at markers, statues and other public and visible manifestations of how the ruling class narrative is perpetuated.
In the first example, we look at one of the statues that have been erected over the last decade of people referred to as “Community Legends.” This project has been spearheaded by local robber baron Peter Seechia. This project plans to erect 25 statues in total and currently has completed six – Lucius Lyons, Chief Noonday, Bishop Baraga, Jay Van Andel, Helen Claytor and Lyman Parks.
White Lies Matter
We begin with an investigation of the statue in front of the Grand Rapids Cathedral, dedicated to Bishop Baraga. The Community Legends project has this short narrative on Baraga:
Bishop Baraga brought Catholicism to Grand Rapids when Michigan’s second largest city was barely a village. Baraga is known as the “Snowshoe Priest” for his trappings across Michigan’s wilderness. He is mostly associated with missionary work in the Upper Peninsula, but his second mission in the New World was established in 1833 in a cornfield west of the Grand River near present day Saint Mary’s Catholic Church.
Baraga, according to some sources, founded a mission in what would become Grand Rapids, but his real legacy is the work he did in the northern part of Michigan and the UP.
Much of the news coverage of the statue ceremony states that Baraga did a great deal of missionary work amongst the Ojibway. The statue of Baraga has several bronze tablets around its perimeter, with one of them stating that Baraga created an Ojibway-English dictionary, “that is still in use today.”
While Baraga comes across in the media and church accounts as a saintly man, there is something that is glaringly missing from what function the bishop played in the colonization of the Great Lakes region.
What has come to be the acceptable norm in the US is that those who do missionary work are highly respectable individuals. However, the fundamental nature of missionary work is to not only convert people to your beliefs, but to automatically denounce the existing spiritual traditions of those you mean to convert.
More importantly, Baraga’s interaction with the Ojibway people also paved the way for genocidal policies that Europeans have implemented over the past 150 years in this area.
Those policies include the outright killing of Native people, stealing Native lands, forced relocation and taking Native children from their communities to put them in boarding schools, something the Catholic Church did in Michigan. The history of these boarding schools included denying Native children to speak their language, dress in traditional clothing, subjected to Christian teaching and also physical and sexual abuse, as is well documented in Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools.
Native American scholar George Tinker, author of the book Missionary Conquest: The Gospels and Native American Genocide, refers to Christian missionaries to Native Nations as “partners in genocide.”
Tinker goes on to describe the significance of White missionaries this way:
Told from an Indian perspective, the story is far less entertaining and much less endearing. Pain and devastation become dominant elements as Indian anger erupts to the surface. Indeed, today the white missionary, both in the historical memory of Indian people and in the contemporary experience, has become a frequent target of scorn in most segments of the Indian world. Many implicitly recognize some connection between Indian suffering and the missionary presence, even as they struggle to make sense not only of past wrongs, but also of the pain of contemporary Indian experience. The pain experienced by Indians today is readily apparent in too many statistics that put Indians on the top or bottom of lists. For instance, Indian people suffer the lowest per capita income of any ethnic group in the US, the highest teenage suicide rate, a 60% unemployment rate, and a scandalously low longevity that remains below sixty years for both men and women.
Not surprising, such commentary did not accompany the unveiling of the Baraga statue in the summer of 2012. The lack of this kind of critical voice or perspective reflects how deeply ingrained the dominant culture, a culture of conquest and settler colonialism, is in this country and this community.
The celebration of the unveiling of the statue of Bishop Baraga not only legitimizes what was been done to Native communities, it normalizes and sanitizes the history of genocide in the Americas.