‘We’re double-blessed’ - the faith of Native American Catholics (Part 2)

A Pillar special report

The U.S. bishops’ conference approved in June the drafting process for a comprehensive vision statement on Native American and Alaska Native Catholic ministry. 

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The statement will be produced by the conference subcommittee on Native American affairs. 

But what does the Catholic Church in America’s Native communities really look like? What are the strengths and struggles within Native faith communities? What do Native American Catholic leaders think “Native American ministry” should actually entail?

The Pillar wanted to find out. And we learned a lot. This is part two of a three-part series looking at the past, present, and future of Native American Catholics, and what they hope to see in a plan for Native American ministry. Part one can be found here.

Traditional practices meet Catholic faith

Native American Catholics who spoke to The Pillar made frequent reference to lives enriched by living in two traditions: that of their Native heritage, and that of the Catholic faith. 

“It’s a double blessing. We’re double-blessed,” said Michelle Ray, a catechist who lives on the Laguna Pueblo reservation. “Because we have our traditional side, and then we have the Christian, Catholic side.” 

She described a year full of preparations for celebrations — some Catholic feasts such as the solemnities of local parishes (still observed by their dates on the calendar of the usus antiquior, though the villages celebrate the Ordinary Form of the Mass) or St. Kateri, as well as a calendar populated by traditional Laguna tribal observances. It makes for a lot of work, she said.

“They parallel each other, but they’re not mixed with each other,” said Fr. Christopher Kerstiens, OFM, who is a priest at St. Joseph parish in the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico.

“They emphasize that the best values of both are identical.”

The parallel was on display at Mass for the feast of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a patron of the diocese and the only canonized Native American, in the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup on July 14. Parishioners from the Laguna Pueblo tribe each year provide music for the Mass. The liturgy was very clearly Roman — yet also distinctly Laguna.

The entrance antiphon gave way to joyful drumming and chanting the Our Father in Keresan, the Pueblo people’s language. The celebrant, Bishop James Wall of Gallup, wore vestments made by the Navajo people, which depicted Kateri on the chasuble. In a normal year, Native dances would have featured in the liturgy, but the 2021 celebration was notably toned down due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns. 

“The greatest thing for me is that we get to pray both ways,” said Marlinda Riley, who is half-Laguna and half-Hopi, referring to the balance of Native and Catholic practice. “And the third way is with our music...We say our Native prayers, our English prayers with the Mass, and then we sing with our drums.” Riley helped organize the Laguna musicians for St. Kateri’s day.

A Mohawk woman born in 1676 in what is now upstate New York, St. Kateri Tekakwitha converted to the faith at 19 and moved to live on a Jesuit mission in Canada to escape persecution and pressure by her family to marry. She died at 24. 

Devotion to St. Kateri is “something big,” Riley said, “because we’ve been here years, and we finally got someone recognized, and honored.” St. Kateri was canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. The Gallup diocese is currently building a shrine in her honor.

While Kateri is beloved as the only Native American saint so far, there is hope for a second to be raised to the altars. The Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota has a Catholic population which is 27% Native. This is due in no small part to the work started by Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, whose cause was opened in 2017.

Black Elk was a member of the Oglala tribe and a medicine man and convert to the faith, who as a catechist worked to bring over 400 Lakota people into the Church. He died in 1950, and his cause was opened in the diocese in 2017. The positio for his cause, a biography accompanied by documentation attesting to his sanctity, was recently submitted to Rome.

“We’re really encouraged by that,” said Germaine Little Bear, director of Native Ministry for the Diocese of Rapid City, and also a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.

Little Bear explained that modes of worship with traditional practices infused in them are a common feature of Native Catholicism. 

The Diocese of Rapid City holds a biannual retreat designed specifically for Native Catholics. The weekend is called Canku Wakan (Lakota for “Holy Road”) and is hosted at the Sioux Spiritual Center in the diocese. 

“It’s putting together the Lakota way with the Catholic Church,” Little Bear told The Pillar. The weekend-long retreat is based on the model of the Cursillo apostolic movement. It features talks as well as Native practices of a sweat lodge Inipi ceremony, sacred pipe, and sage blessings. 

Sage is a common Lakota element in Native Masses and ministry in the Rapid City area and is used in a practice known as “smudging,” explained Little Bear. 

“It’s like incense. They use sage and an eagle feather,” Little Bear said. “Through the smoke from the sage they incense everybody, and you pull the smoke over your head and over your body to help you be purified.” 

Paul Pino, who lives in Encinal on the Laguna Pueblo reservation and has worked on the reservation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Program, described much of the Native way as overlapping with Christian belief. 

“Catholicism and our traditional beliefs go hand-in-hand,” he told The Pillar. It is “the same as what Christianity asks us to do, to care for one another and be kind to one another, and be a community. I think that’s something a lot of us still live.”

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Young people, language, and passing on a culture

Preserving the two-fold way, however, is a pressing matter. 

The Catholic Church worldwide faces a kind of crisis around young people. A synod of bishops met in Rome in 2018 to address the topic, and the growing number of “Nones” - those who mark no religious affiliation in polling - have become a demographic commonly discussed in the Church. 

But the nuances of this issue are even more complicated for Native American cultures. There’s a double risk for Native Catholics who desire to pass on both the faith and their Native culture. 

“Our grandparents, great-grandparents, were all taught the same way,” said Ray. “They were a lot more tight-knit than we are now. Of course, they didn’t have all the technology, they weren’t as mobile as we are now. Everybody was within the community. They all learned the same way, they were all taught the same way. As they had kids, and as those kids had kids, everybody became more mobile. People moved away. So, there wasn’t that passing on of those traditions as evenly as there was when everybody was still here.”

“I’m the only one here with my mom, and I’m the only one that goes to church with her every Sunday,” she continued.

A poignant example of this phenomenon is the status of indigenous languages in the United States. Cultures are largely transmitted by language and within language groups, so if a language is not passed on to a new generation, the texture of a culture can disappear.

“There’s a lot of folks who perceive linguistics, their language, to be of utmost importance,” said Fr. Charles McCarthy, OFM, pastor of St. Joseph’s in Laguna. “Language is more than vocabulary and words and grammar. It’s also a manner of expressing life and lifestyles.”

Ethnologue, an academic project to preserve and revitalize endangered languages across the globe, records 225 living languages - that is, languages still learned by speakers from birth - in the United States. Of these, 164 are classified as “dying,” and 42 more as “in trouble.” That is the vast majority of the country’s linguistic heritage. One estimate says that at least 65 of the country’s Native Americans languages are extinct. That’s conservative: others place it at well over 100

Native language revival efforts exist across the country, and often depend on interest from the local community, mainly younger members of a nation who want to preserve the linguistic heritage. Experts in linguistics and second language acquisition may or may not be involved. But this is dependent on local interest, which is not guaranteed. 

In Laguna, elder Edwin Riley estimates that the only fluent and native speakers of Keresan left are over 70, of whom he is one. There is an effort on the reservation to preserve and pass on the language. 

“It’s good that they’re teaching them at the school now,” he said. “It was recommended not long ago that the language be taught, so the young kids are starting to learn it. Sometimes I get asked to go up there to sing or to tell a story, or something like that, in our native tongue.”

“Most of my brothers and sisters understand our native tongue. But it’s our children that understand it but can’t speak it.”

Efforts to maintain all facets of Native culture are gaining some steam in recent years, though. 

“There’s more awareness in the last few years of things that we’re losing,” said Ray. “Whether it’s customs and traditions, whether it’s the language. So now there’s more of an awareness on our younger part of what we need to focus on, what we need to start learning.”

“[The pandemic] kind of highlighted this during COVID: we’re losing those elders. We’re losing the ones who are going to teach. And if we get to the point where ‘OK, well now I’m ready to learn,’ who’s there to teach? Whoever’s left is going to teach shortcuts that they learned, not the traditional way that it was done 50, 60 years ago.”

It is within this complex set of circumstances that the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on Native American Affairs has been tasked with reimagining ministry to and with Native peoples. That task will involve consulting with Native Catholic leaders, scholars, and organizations around the country.

What does the Native Catholic community hope to see in this reimagined ministry? The Pillar will explore that question in part three of the series.

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