A ‘Message of Hope’
An interview with Father Maurice Henry Sands about the experience and needs of Native American Catholics today
Father Maurice Henry Sands is unique among U.S. priests. To his knowledge, he is the only Native American priest in active ministry who grew up on a reservation. A member of various Michigan tribes, he was raised on Walpole Island (Bkejwanong First Nation), which is located on the border between Michigan and Ontario and is home to Ojibwe, Ottawa and Potawatomi peoples.
Before discerning a vocation to the priesthood, Father Sands worked in accounting and finance in Ann Arbor and Toronto. He joined the Knights of Columbus in 1995, and he was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit a decade later, at age 49.
In 2013, Father Sands became associate director of Native American affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For the past four years, he has served as executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office, which consists of three organizations that have historically served the pastoral needs of African American and Native American Catholics.
He recently spoke with Columbia about his personal background and about the broader experience of Native Americans within the Catholic Church.
COLUMBIA: What was your experience like growing up on Walpole Island?
FATHER SANDS: I come from a very large family that was really close. We were together all the time for family gatherings.
Walpole Island is a naturally beautiful place. Most of the land is undeveloped, so we spent a lot of time outside in the woods, swimming, fishing, boating, bicycling and playing sports. The families had an adequate standard of living, unlike a lot of reservations, mostly because people were able to find jobs just off the reservation. When I was growing up, some people, including my father’s parents, still lived an indigenous lifestyle, farming, fishing and hunting.
In our interactions with the people in the towns next to the reservation, we did experience a lot of racism and prejudice.
I went to school off the reservation from the third grade through the end of high school; native students didn’t participate much in the life of the school except for sports. To the people in the towns we were different, and many of them did not like us and were afraid of us. They considered us to be inferior. They expressed this very readily, and sadly, that was a regular part of my life while I lived on the reserve.
COLUMBIA: How did you and your family integrate your Christian faith and your Native American identity?
FATHER SANDS: It has never been difficult for me to be a Native American Christian. I am both. Living as a faithful disciple of Christ has always been important to me, and my native identity has also been important to me.
Missionaries first brought the Gospel to the ancestors of both of my parents in the 1700s. Until recent times, more than 90 percent of Native Americans have had some kind of Christian affiliation.
My father was Anglican and my mother was Catholic. They were both very strong in their faith, providing a great witness and solid formation.
When I was growing up, I learned the history of our peoples from my grandparents and other relatives. I learned our traditional Ojibwe dances and how to drum and sing. That was very much a part of my life. I never saw my native heritage and my Christian faith as incompatible or contradictory.
I consider it to be a great blessing and honor and privilege to be a priest — and I am very proud to have my own particular native background.
COLUMBIA: How has the Church’s relationship with the native peoples of the Americas changed over time, and what developments would you like to see?
FATHER SANDS: The Church began with the mission of evangelizing the peoples who were here. After that was accomplished, efforts were made to offer pastoral care to the native peoples and to provide them the opportunity to live a Catholic life. Many generous and courageous men and women have served Native American Catholic communities throughout the history of the Catholic Church in the United States and Canada.
However, the effectiveness of those efforts has been mixed for a lot of different reasons. Some times and places have been better than others. The Church hasn’t had a consistent plan for serving native peoples, nor a consistently strong interest in providing the proper personnel and resources.
Today, I observe a lot of benign indifference and lack of awareness of native peoples. We are almost invisible in a lot of ways. In 1994, the USCCB commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to do a study on cultural diversity in the U.S. Church. Many bishops were surprised to learn how many Native American Catholics were in their dioceses.
I would like Catholics to know more about us, about our history and our cultures, and about the great injustices that we have suffered — as well as the great injustices and poverty and brokenness that we continue to experience today.
You know, a lot of American Catholics are aware of the needs of people in other parts of the world. I recently had lunch with a priest who works for a missionary organization, and he told me that he knows of 500 U.S. parishes that are dedicated to helping people in Haiti. People want to help. So, an important first step is for American Catholics to learn more about Native Americans and our current circumstances.
COLUMBIA: What are some of the most pressing concerns and needs of Native American Catholics today?
FATHER SANDS: Many native people live in poverty and don’t have proper housing, electricity, telephones or running water. Unemployment rates are very high. The quality of health care for most Native Americans is very poor. Most Native American children on reservations and in urban centers attend public schools that are inadequately staffed and resourced.
A lot of Native American Catholics don’t have access to the sacraments. They don’t go to Mass because they don’t have a priest who is specifically assigned to serve in their community. I hope that Native American Catholics can be acknowledged and be welcomed to participate more fully in the life of the U.S. Catholic Church.
I also hope that the Church can help to bring about restoration and healing through increased efforts to address our spiritual and material needs, as well as the many injustices that we have experienced and continue to experience today.
COLUMBIA: How can the Knights of Columbus and others play a role in addressing those needs?
FATHER SANDS: Through charitable outreach, there are ways that Knights can help to alleviate the difficulties and burdens that are a part of the everyday life of many Native American Catholics.
More than anything, I believe that Native Americans need hope, and the Gospel has that message of hope. The Knights of Columbus can help with the delivery of the Gospel and its message of hope through charitable projects and the support of missions and parishes and schools that serve Native American Catholics.
At the same time, such efforts can provide opportunities for welcoming Native Americans into the broader Church and also for evangelization.
The sharing of our diverse cultures and traditions with one another enriches the Church. We Native Americans bring to the rest of the Church the value of respect — respect for God, for life, for one another, for elders, for nature and tradition — as well as a rich and profound understanding of the importance of family life.
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