Thomas W. Foley found the journal of the Catholic priest Father Francis M. Craft, a missionary to the Sioux and other American Indians, in a shoebox in his aunt’s home in Chicago. His aunt had been a friend of Fr. Craft’s, and Foley became interested in Craft’s life and his ministry. He began researching Fr. Craft’s life and work by examining this journal and material in monasteries and archives in the Dakotas and in Rome. His research has led to this book, a very readable biography that shows Fr. Craft as a human person who tried to follow his call to serve the American Indians despite opposition from various clergy and members of the government.
Born on September 23, 1852 in New York City, Francis Craft was part Mohawk from his paternal grandmother’s side. He was also an Episcopalian who converted around 1874. Before his conversion, he had enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War at the age of ten, with his father’s permission and the help of the governor of New York. He served as a messenger at the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, where he was wounded. After the Civil War, he entered Columbia University at twelve years old to become a medical doctor. He studied at the University of Louvain in Belgium to learn more about surgery; while there, he joined the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War. At age nineteen, he raised an army to go to Cuba to fight for its independence from Spain.
After his military career conversion to Catholicism, Francis Craft decided to join the Jesuits around 1876, though he ultimately decided not to stay. He joined Bishop Martin Marty, O.S.B.’s large missionary diocese of the Dakotas. Bishop Marty ordained Craft on March 24, 1883, and Fr. Craft began his ministry on the Rosebud Reservation. He was adopted by Chief Spotted Tail and given the name Hovering Eagle; he was also made an honorary chief. Fr. Craft came into conflict with the reservation’s agent, and Bishop Marty moved him to Standing Rock Reservation. He was later assigned to Fort Berthold Reservation.
Fr. Craft had a bellicose nature, inclined to fight anyone who insulted or threatened him, and he carried a gun. At the Wounded Knee massacre, he himself was injured. In the massacre’s aftermath, he wanted to found a religious order for American Indian women and sent some Sioux women to a novitiate with the Benedictines to learn about religious life. His order was opposed, though, by several bishops and the Catholic Indian Bureau. Still, he eventually got his bishop’s permission to try to create the order. Around ten women joined and some made final vows, in opposition of other bishops. St. Katharine Drexel was beginning to found her order to minister to American Indians and African Americans. She had their support, and she had her own money to support the order, while Fr. Craft did not have the money to keep his order going. Eventually he had to leave the reservation and his order,too, had to leave. They first went to help minister in Cuban hospitals during the Spanish-American War. One of the sisters died there, and Fr. Craft tried to re-establish his order somewhere else. He was unable to convince any bishop to support him, and the sisters were forced to return to the reservation where they later married and had children. Fr. Craft found a parish to work in the Scranton, Pennsylvania diocese, remaining there until his death on September 11, 1920.
Fr. Craft’s personality may have been his downfall in attempting to create a religious order for American Indian women. He was not patient, nor was he disposed to being politically correct with bishops or government officials, although he did have some support from various government officials and other important personages. Still, they eventually were unable to help him; he had created animosities with too many important clerics and government officials. He seemed unwilling to work with them by compromising on some things. He wanted all things his way, and he ran into a wall. In 1935, according to Foley’s epilogue a Native American order for women was founded and is still in existence.
This book is part of the University of Nebraska’s Bison Book series, a well-written volume containing several black and white illustrations. Foley includes maps to show where the reservations are, as well as endnotes, a bibliography and an index.
Thomas Foley is a retired labor-personnel executive. He began transcribing Fr. Craft’s journals in the 1960s; after his retirement in 1990, he and his wife devoted more time to the research for this book, which is highly recommended to those interested in U.S. Catholic Church history, history of Catholic missionaries to Native Americans, and life on reservations in their early days.