Thomas Merton on the Genocide of Indigenous Peoples

Thomas Merton’s book on Ishi: A Meditation begins with the following stark words:

Burial of the dead, 84 men and 64 women and children, at the massacre of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Photo from Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine on Flickr.

Genocide is a new word.  Perhaps the word is new because technology has now got into the game of destroying whole races at once.  The destruction of races is not new—just easier.

Ishi was the last survivor of the Mill Creek (Yahi) Indians who were hunted in California for fifty years and Merton is responding to a recent study by Theodora Kroeber, Ishi In Two Worlds: A biography of the last wild Indian in North America published in 1964.  He celebrates

…the courage, the resourcefulness, and the sheer nobility of these few stone age men struggling to preserve their life, their autonomy and their identity as a people.

29th August 1911: Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, emerged from the wilderness. Video by HistoryPod.

He compares the “hidden life” of this tribe, now reduced to twenty people who learned to live “invisible and as unknown” for twelve years undetected until only Ishi remained with his sister and sick mother.  When they died, Ishi surrendered to the white race on August 29, 1911.  Fortunately, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley took him in and treated him well for the remaining four and a half years of his life. 

Merton did not hesitate to relate the Ishi story to the goings-on in the Vietnam War in his day.  He compares the Vietnam War to the Indian wars of a hundred years ago. 

Viet Nam seems to have become an extension of our old western frontier, complete with enemies of another ‘inferior’ race….What a pity that so many innocent people have to pay with their lives for our obsessive fantasies.

PFC Capezza shown setting a fire during the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children, and babies, were killed. Photo by Ronald Haberle. Wikimedia Commons.

[Consider] the spectacle of our own country with its incomparable technological power, its unequalled material strength, and its psychic turmoil, its moral confusion and its profound heritage of guilt which neither the righteous declarations of Cardinals nor the moral indifference of ‘realists’ can do anything to change!  Every bomb we drop on a defenseless Asian village, every Asian child we disfigure or destroy with fire, only adds to the moral strength of those we wish to destroy for our own profit.

In an essay on “The Sacred City,” no doubt a response to Harvey Cox’s “The Secular City” which was in vogue in Merton’s day, Merton speaks of the new archaeological findings taking place in the Oaxaca Valley and concludes that “three things” stand out in comparison to our urban world today:

The indifference to technological progress, the lack of history, and the almost total neglect of the arts of war. 

Panorama of Monte Albán from South Platform Monte Albán is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Photo by 16:9clue on Flickr.

This provides an “entirely different conception of man and of life” which can be characterized as

…a network of living interrelationships….In plain and colloquial terms it is a difference between a peaceful, timeless life lived in the stability of a continually renewed present, and a dynamic, aggressive life aimed at the future.*

Thus we see in Merton’s book on Ishi that he is not romanticizing the indigenous history but is drawing valuable lessons from it for our own time and for our own examination of consciences.

* Thomas Merton, Ishi Means Man (Greensboro, N.C.: Unicorn Press, 1968), pp. 25f, 28, 32, 30, 63. 

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: The Creation Spirituality Journey of Thomas Merton, pp. 198f.

Banner Image: “Marching: About 10,000 people marched from Queen’s Park to Nathan Philips Square, Toronto, demanding action on the 215 children found in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School in B.C.” Thus far 1505 children’s bodies have been found at seven schools. Between Canada and the U.S., 497 schools remain to be searched. Photo by Michael_Swan on Flickr.

Do you see parallels between what we are learning about indigenous suffering in the unveiling of boarding school casualties today and the warnings from Merton?

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart

Matthew Fox’s comprehensive translation of Meister Eckhart’s sermons is a meeting of true prophets across centuries, resulting in a spirituality for the new millennium. The holiness of creation, the divine life in each person and the divine power of our creativity, our call to do justice and practice compassion–these are among Eckhart’s themes, brilliantly interpreted and explained for today’s reader.
“The most important book on mysticism in 500 years.”  — Madonna Kolbenschlag, author of Kissing Sleeping Beauty Goodbye.  


Join Matthew Fox for a thought-provoking 7-week course: Answer the Call for an Uncommon Life Through the Mystical Teachings of St. Hildegard, Tuesdays, 6/15 to 7/27. While the course has begun, registration remains open, with recordings of past classes available. Learn more HERE.

Join us for a Virtual Teach-in with Isa Gucciardi and Matthew Fox, hosted by Rev. Cameron Trimble.
August 13-14, 2021 (Fri-Sat)
Shamanism in Buddhism and Christianity
Session 1: Friday, August 13 at 4pm-6pm PT
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6 thoughts on “Thomas Merton on the Genocide of Indigenous Peoples”

  1. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    A more pertinent question to ask today, of those institutions responsible for the genocide of the indigenous peoples of Canada, mainly the Canadian Government and the Catholic Church… is together are they willing to participate in the reconciliation and healing of all indigenous peoples? Will they choose to stand accountable for the great harm these institutions that they lead today, inflicted on others in the past? Will they choose to not only offer an apology, but also choose to take concrete merciful action to relieve their continued suffering? Will they offer more than just pious rituals and ceremonies, but rather respond with a much more substantial means of doing whatever is necessary to alleviate the pain of their shared past history? Will Pope Francis humbly bow down and come to Canada… to wash the feet of those whom were trampled underneath the abusive power of the Catholic Church, seeking forgiveness of the great wrongs done? Will the political leaders follow through on promises campaigned upon during their election speeches?Will Pope Francis walk the talk of what he preaches? The world is watching, waiting, praying, hoping that perhaps in this decisive moment that the Holy Spirit of God’s love and mercy will graciously reign, tempered with justice within the hearts, minds and souls of those whom are being called upon to make these decisions. Their response holds the potential possibility of much needed healing and reconciliation for all involved.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, you are so right in your assessment of things. And I too pray, “hoping that perhaps in this decisive moment that the Holy Spirit of God’s love and mercy will graciously reign, tempered with justice within the hearts, minds and souls of those whom are being called upon to make these decisions.” Thank you!

  2. Avatar

    Professor Kroeber, the anthropologist who took Ishi in, and his wife Theodora who wrote Ishi’s biography, were the parents of Ursula K. Le Guin. She was one of the first women to write science fiction and raise it above the “machines and rocket ships” it had previously been. Her writing explored the people (of many races and universes) and their interactions, as well as how these people respected–or not–the resources of their worlds. I think her experiences growing up in Ishi’s presence influenced her greatly. She was also a poet, wrote fantasy for children and adults, an essayist and a teacher. The same themes run through these writings as well. I highly recommend her writing.

    1. Avatar

      I didn’t know that Elaine. Thank you for this history. No wonder, Ms. Le Guin became such an amazing writer! I totally understand the distress people are feeling about the further discoveries of graves of native children in Canada. They add little however to what many people, including native people, already knew went on when little children were torn from their parents for cultural “re-education.” It does seem to be letting more people know about it, and that’s good. I just want to add one thing. I seem to remember reading a couple decades ago in my Green Bible an apology from a Canadian group (seems like it was from the Canadian government tho perhaps it wasn’t) to the country’s native people. I remember it as an honest and moving apology. Of course that is not enough, but I have yet to read any apology from the U.S. government for its own atrocities toward native people. Perhaps there has been. I’m just feeling that this is one of those don’t cast stones moments for people in the U.S.

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