How Should We View Missionary Work?

The Vatican announced earlier this month that Bishop Frederic Baraga, best known for his missionary work among the Anishinaabeg in the early-to-mid-1800′s, is venerable. Unless you’re a Catholic, you probably don’t know what it means to be officially “venerable.” Not being Catholic myself, I had to look it up. It means that that the Pope has approved a proclamation that the person in question lived a life “heroic in virtue,” with those virtues being faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. It’s a big deal because it’s the first step in the process of sainthood.

I was interested in the proclamation because I recently learned of Bishop Baraga’s work in creating the first Ojibwe dictionary back in 1853. You can read the text of his dictionary here. If you’re interested in learning the Ojibwe language, though, you’re likely to find the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary to be a more practical resource; this modern online dictionary is based on today’s language, and it has audio clips of Ojibwe speakers pronouncing the written words. Nonetheless, over the years Baraga’s work has served as an invaluable resource for scholars and those seeking to preserve and revitalize the Ojibwe language.

Personally, I am often a little uneasy about honoring people like Bishop Baraga: uninvited people from outside of Native cultures who are credited for their work “helping” American Indians. It’s not that I doubt Baraga had a passion for Native languages, and if modern-day accounts from Baraga proponents are to be believed, he used his training as a lawyer to fight for Indian rights. But the work of missionaries like Baraga was ultimately to convert Indians to a European religion and lifestyle.

Check out the below paragraph from Webzine Slovenia (Baraga is of interest to the site because he was from Slovenia originally). It’s intended to praise Baraga’s work, but it raises some concerns for me.

Baraga fought for the Indians’ rights, seeking to preserve them from what was destructive in the white man’s encroaching ‘civilization’ (numerous epidemics, the ravages of alcohol, the poaching on native hunting grounds). He promoted an agriculturally based economy, which would replace traditional sources of livelihood, buying land on the Indian’s behalf, and encouraging them to organize themselves into firmly knit communities. He used his legal skills to persuade governments to honor treaty agreements and sought to broaden the Indians’ economic base by teaching them trades. This effort to establish and sustain the Indians’ independence and self-esteem he reinforced by stressing the use of the vernacular in the ceremonies of the Latin Church. In this too, he was breaking ground.

I find the tone of the above paragraph, with its assertion that Baraga “established” and “sustained” “the Indians’ independence and self-esteem” patronozing. Obviously Baraga has no control over how people today describe his work, but isn’t missionary work a bit patronizing inherently? Missionaries believe that they have spiritual and cultural answers their “beneficiaries” lack. How did the people at the time feel about Baraga’s efforts to change their economy to an agriculturally based one? Did they welcome it as a necessary step in adapting to the changing times? Or did they regret losing their traditional way of life? Or both?

Bishop Baraga converted hundreds of Indians to Catholicism. Was their conversion personally fulfilling? What effect did their conversion have on their communities?

Ultimately, the people who can best answer those kinds of questions are long gone. Any modern attempt to answer them will be filtered through nearly two centuries of history and reflect the biases of our current historical locus. Those best qualified today to reflect on Baraga’s legacy are the Ojibwe people and members of other nations Baraga interacted with.

I’d be curious to hear from our readers: have you been affected by Baraga’s influence or by the influence of others like him? If so, what are your feelings about it?

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