‘To have a voice in the Church’ - the faith of Native American Catholics (Part 3)

A Pillar special report

As the U.S. bishops’ subcommittee on Native American affairs takes up the task of drafting a comprehensive vision statement on native ministry, it will need to address the complex reality of native Catholic life.

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The Native peoples in the United States are far from monolithic. They are a diverse group of communities, with complex stories and connections to the Church.

Native American Catholics communities exhibit a vibrant faith, interwoven with traditional Native practices, but many leaders say they are concerned about the challenges of passing their faith to a younger generation.

With the U.S. bishops preparing to develop a new outline on the idea of Native American Catholic ministry, The Pillar wanted to know what the Catholic Church in America’s Native communities really looks like: What are the strengths and struggles within Native faith communities? What do Native American Catholic leaders think “Native American ministry” should actually entail?

We learned a lot. In this three-part series, we look at the past, present, and future of Native American Catholics, and ask what they hope to see in a plan for Native American ministry. Part 1 of the series looks at the history and demographics of native Catholics in the United States. Part 2 takes a look at the faith traditions in some native Catholic communities. 

In Part 3, we’ll ask what Catholic Native Americans say they hope to see from the Catholic Church.

‘A voice in the Church’

Bishop James Wall of Gallup is chairman of the USCCB subcommittee charged with drafting a new document on Native Catholic ministry.

He said the project began with listening.

“In 2019, we had a listening session with Native American leaders,” Wall told The Pillar.

“The first thing I heard was that they feel forgotten. And these are the first people to receive the Good News in the New World.”

“We want in this plan to establish a good framework, in order to minister to and amongst Native American peoples, so that they know that their voice is heard within the Catholic Church,” Wall said. 

“They are [called] by virtue of their baptism to fully live out their faith, to have a voice in the Church,” the bishop added.

The idea of “a voice in the Church” is mentioned often in discussions about Native Catholic ministry. And what do leaders want to say? That depends which ones you ask.

Marlinda Riley, who is of both Laguna and Hopi ancestry, organizes liturgical music in the Gallup diocese. She told The Pillar she wants to urge bishops toward “acceptance of both ways, of our traditional ways.”

“With the drums, our cornmeal [a traditional native Catholic sacramental], and just who we are. And although [in] our Gallup diocese, Bishop Wall has been very accepting of our both ways with us, I know there are other places that are not.”

Bishop Edward Clark, an auxiliary in Los Angeles, said Native American symbolism and ritual can be drawn into traditional Christian practices.

“When we’re talking about Native rituals, we’re not necessarily talking about things that are hostile to Christianity, we actually are talking about things that can very well be blended with Christianity,” said Clark, who has ministered to Native families in his urban diocese. 

“They want to be respected. They want people to respect their history, their culture, and their religious rites,” Clark explained. But that respect runs two ways: “They don’t like to be put on display.”

“Once in a while, a parish will have a Mass or will celebrate maybe Juan Diego or Kateri Tekakwitha, and will invite the Indians to come. Well, they just really want them on display. And the Indians don’t want that. ‘We don’t want to be invited for our feathers and our leathers,’ is how they sometimes put it.”

“Sometimes parishes are not very accommodating to them,” Clark continued. “For example, with burials, the Indians have certain traditions. They’re not in any way opposed to Christian traditions, they can be easily incorporated, but the priest won’t allow that… They [need] a place in the Church in which their identity can be recognized. We need to awaken our own people to that, and to become more understanding and accepting.”

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Other Native leaders mentioned the importance of encouraging Native American Catholic vocations.

“We have a high Native American population,” said Germaine Little Bear, director of Native Ministry for the Diocese of Rapid City, and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.

“You don’t have to choose whether you should do the traditional way or the Catholic way. You should do both. We have one God, and we just pray. We have a lot of similarities, and I think it’s really important to have [Native] deacons as an example to people how you can do both.” 

In some areas, the idea of native clergy is a luxury, as clergy shortages mean that priests of any background are desperately needed to provide sacramental ministry.

“The primary need would be the need for priests,” said Paul Pino, who lives in Encinal on the Laguna Pueblo reservation and has worked on the reservation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Program. “We’ve had the Franciscan friars here [in New Mexico] for centuries, and their numbers are dwindling.”

Not long ago, the Gallup diocese was almost entirely served by Franciscans. While many still serve in the area, diocesan priests are assuming more and more ministerial roles.

“A priest is a spiritual father,” Bishop Wall told The Pillar, “and it’s difficult not to have your father at home all the time, and to have him on the road.

“I would say that’s our greatest need, because without the priest, you don’t have the Eucharist.”


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‘You can’t undo the pain’

Some Native leaders mentioned the recent confirmation of now-unmarked graves at Native residential schools.

In recent months, the presence of unmarked graves at some government-funded residential schools in the United States and Canada has been confirmed by radar detection methods. Most of the schools were administered by Catholic, Anglican, and other religious groups. That confirmation has brought into public discussion the systemic and personal injustice of the residential school system, and the long-lasting effect on some Native American families. 

“I think it would be nice to have the bishops acknowledge that,” said Victoria Begay, a woman from the Navajo Nation, and a board member of the Southwest Indian Foundation, “and continue to say a prayer for those who have gone through that environment, plus at the same time those who were lost.”

“You can’t undo the pain,” said Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, who is of Wea descent. But apologizing for the past is an important step toward healing, he added.

“It’s hard to apologize for something that you didn’t do in real time,” Conley told The Pillar.

“But as an institution, that can be healing, because we represent an institution… we’re not responsible for those people’s actions [in the past], everyone’s responsible for their own actions, but the institution, if it had anything to do with condoning it or supporting it, we can apologize for that, and that can help to heal — finding the truth, and acknowledging it, and not denying it.”

“Yes, the Church was involved in this. And this was wrong. This should never have happened.”

For his part, Wall told The Pillar that the scandal of the Church’s complicity with abuses at residential schools was a major topic of conversation at the 2019 listening sessions he held.

“First and foremost, everything has to be brought into the light,” Wall said. “You can’t just sweep it under the rug and hope that time will heal it. I think everything has to be brought into the light. We learned that with the sex abuse crisis too, that you can’t just say, ‘Ok well, get over it.’ That’s not the way of our Lord.”

“We also have to allow people to give voice to what’s hurt them,” the bishop said.


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‘On fire for the Lord’

Some Native leaders told The Pillar that Church leaders should ask what they can learn from Native Catholic communities.

Bishop Wall agreed.

The faith of Native people is “really strong, really committed. It’s super inspiring,” Wall said.

The bishop described one woman from the Navajo Nation who, each year at the Easter Vigil, has brought a new person or family to be received into the Church.

“You see that all over the place on the different reservations, whether it’s at Laguna or Acoma or Zuni. When you meet somebody who’s on fire for the Lord, they really are on fire for the Lord.”

“I would say also there’s a really strong contemplative spirit among the Native Americans,” Wall continued. “That’s a real gift that they bring to the Church. That doesn’t necessarily mean really quiet or passive, but just to be able to contemplate the Lord’s presence in their life and that reliance that they have upon the Lord.”

“One of the things they’re able to see is the worship of the Creator, and they’re able to see God’s creative hand in everything. That’s one of the things that we can really learn from them, and I think a lot of that ties in with a real appreciation and care for the environment.”

“God doesn’t call us to dominate things, he entrusts them to our care. Among the Native American peoples, we’re able to see that,” Wall said.

Patrick Mason, Supreme Secretary of the Knights of Columbus, who is a member of the Osage Nation, told The Pillar that his community’s openness to the supernatural makes doctrine immediate and tangible.  

“You tell any of them, ‘look, God became one of us and he transforms this bread and wine into his Body and Blood and we’re united with him perfectly,’ and they’re like, ‘huh, that totally makes sense with how I understand the world.’”

“That deep sentiment is within so many Native Catholics,” Mason said. He added that Native American Catholics can witness to the whole Church what it means to be open to the spiritual life.

“I think that’s a sentiment we can teach non-Natives,” he explained. “The modern world has lost that internal connection to the spiritual.”

“We recognize the connection to the spiritual world, and that’s why so many of us are Catholic.”


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A guest post by
Joe Slama is a freelance reporter and a graduate student in Greek & Latin. He is based in Washington, D.C.