The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 566-567
[Access article in PDF]
Father Francis M. Craft: Missionary to the Sioux. By Thomas W. Foley. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2002. Pp. xvii, 197; 2 maps; 17 photos. $45.00 cloth.)
Following the Civil War, the United States government undertook a massive reform of its Indian policy, replacing the antebellum practice of segregating Indian and white populations with that of "civilizing and Christianizing," or assimilating, native peoples. To aid in these efforts, the federal Indian Bureau successfully petitioned leaders of mainline denominations, including the Catholic Church, to enlist missionaries to educate Indians in manners and customs of Christian citizenship.
One of the most controversial figures to emerge during this period was Father Francis M. Craft. A convert to Catholicism, Craft entered the clergy in 1883, as a diocesan priest after a short-lived career as a Jesuit novice. ("Craft was especially unsuited," Thomas Foley observes, "for the structured environment of a disciplined order like the Society of Jesus.") Almost immediately following his ordination, the priest was sent to the Rosebud Reservation to begin missionizing its Lakota inhabitants. Craft's unorthodox approach to his work, including utilizing native customs as stepping stones to assimilating and converting Indians, [End Page 566] soon embroiled him in clashes with the local agent that culminated with his expulsion from Rosebud.
Throughout the next two decades Father Craft was in and out of hot water, both with the government and with church authorities, who considered his eccentricities and outspokenness sparks threatening to detonate the powder keg of Catholic-government relations. Thus, for example, after Craft was severely injured during the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, many Catholic officials sought to disassociate themselves from him and the newspaper interviews he gave from his hospital bed in which he blamed government ineptitude and corruption for the tragedy.
Following his recovery, Craft focused his efforts on founding an Indian order of nuns. When the congregation came under attack from church and government officials, the priest received the War Department's permission for the sisters to serve in Cuba as nurses during the Spanish-American War. This effort, however, ended in disaster when one of the nuns died of tuberculosis, a Vatican representative expelled the order from the island, and federal authorities annulled its nursing contracts. Craft's dream of establishing a Native American religious congregation also collapsed with the fiasco.
In composing his narrative, Foley has wisely chosen to allow Father Craft ample opportunity to speak for himself, quoting liberally from his journals and letters. What is unfortunately lacking in this otherwise admirable biography are Indian perspectives on its events and themes. Consider, for example, Foley's use of Craft's altercation with a Lakota headman to illustrate the priest's truculence. The author writes that the headman had "fraudulently" claimed that an orphaned girl's aunt was her mother to keep her from being sent off to boarding school. Now, according to Lakota kinship norms, a child's mother and mother's sister are both designated as a child's ina generally translated "mother." Rather than trying to perpetrate a fraud, the headman may merely have been behaving in accord with traditional kinship values.
Despite its wants of a Lakota voice, Foley's biography of the irascible and irrepressible Craft is well worth the read.
Washington and Lee University