The Native Order
When the Europeans first discovered America, some of the first immigrants of the area were missionaries who came to spread the word of God to the native inhabitants. While the Catholic priests and missionaries were more prominent in the southern part of the United States and into Mexico, missionaries were active among the natives on the Northern plains. Their efforts included not only converting the Native Americans to Christianity, but also establishing monasteries for the men and women. On this day in 1889, the New York Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register reported on Josephine Crowfeather as the first full-blood Sioux to enter the Benedictine Novitiate.
The idea of Native American sisters working among their people was one held by many, but it was Father Francis Craft who put these ideas into practice. Craft began his missionary work at Rosebud in 1883 and later moved to Standing Rock in 1885. He found during his work that many young Native women had already joined Catholic sisterhoods and several young men were studying for priesthood. Craft helped encourage three women to take their vows. Among them was Josephine Crowfeather.
Josephine was regarded as sacred in her tribe because of her Indian name’s reference to the White Buffalo Woman, a sacred symbol in Indian mythology. Her desire to become a sister only seemed fitting and she asked Craft’s help in joining a sisterhood. Josephine and five other young Indian women attended the St. Francis Xavier Academy in Minnesota to study the faith. Crowfeather, however, did not stay long and accompanied Craft to Zell where she entered the Benedictine Novitiate.
Craft expected that Josephine would produce a religious effect among her tribe, and he had plans for her to help with a mission at Fort Berthold. She and Craft, however, ran into problems. Craft met much resistance in forming an all-native clergy and felt Josephine was being persecuted. “If the missionaries remain mostly at home, and teach school, and expect Indian families to come to them, they will fail. Missionaries must do their work in the Indian homes and families. … If they cannot or will not, they must provide a native clergy who can and will. … If we cannot at once have native clergy, we can have native catechists. … The only thing in the way of this is the vile and unCatholic race prejudice that has hitherto been the cause of nearly all (and perhaps all) our mission troubles and failure.”
The native sisters did face difficulties in the Benedictine sisterhoods, especially as feuds rose between the Swiss and American sisters. This feud and lack of respect led Craft to take the native sisters to Fort Berthold to begin their own clergy. Still, problems arose. According to Josephine, “I don’t know if we will be allowed to go on. Everyone seems to want to stop us because we are Indians. I hope God will help us.” Meanwhile Josephine grew ill and on May 2, 1893, she died.
Josephine’s death was a major blow to the order, and Craft tried to carry on, but the mission was already crumbling. Things quickly deteriorated and Craft renounced his affiliation with the Catholic Church. Many of the sisters left the sisterhood and either married or joined another sisterhood. Craft and his remaining sisters left for Cuba to help nurses in the Spanish-American War.
Following the war, only two sisters remained in Craft’s order, both left him shortly and married, ending Craft’s dream of having Indian sisters work among their own people in the Dakotas.
By Tessa Sandstrom
Sister Mary Ewens, “The Native Order: A Brief and Strange History.” Scattered Steeples Expanded: A Tribute to the Church in North Dakota. Ed. Fr. William Sherman, Fr. Leo Stelten, Jerome Lamb, Jerry Ruff. University of Mary Press: Bismarck, 2006: 42-61.