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Catholic Culture, Native Roots

When the news of Kateri Tekakwitha’s approval for canonization reached the West Coast, there was much cause for celebration. For decades, even centuries, Catholics of Native American heritage longed for a time when one of their own would join the ranks of those whose holiness is publicly, universally acknowledged. At the Religious Education Congress for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in February of this year, the excitement was palpable.

Native American Catholics, living among the many cultures of California, have promoted Kateri and, more important, an expression of Catholicism with roots in Native American culture for many years. At the annual Congress, attended by about 40,000 religious educators primarily from the West Coast, the City of Angels Kateri Circle would staff an informational booth, and each year there was a eucharistic liturgy that incorporated elements of Native American culture.

Now their moment was arriving. “I mean it’s been many years,” says Dan Lopez. He’s one of the leaders of Los Angeles’ Kateri Circle. The 60- year-old talks of how his family, from Texas, suppressed their identity as Native Americans to blend in with the people around them. “I joined the circle almost 20 years ago,” he recalls. “When I found the circle, it allowed me to embrace my Tiqua tribal identity even more, our culture, as well as being Catholic.”

He is awestruck at news of the canonization: “Think about it: the first American Indian to be canonized. Yes, it’s very big for us. It’s something we’ve prayed for, wished for, and it’s coming true. It’s hard to put in words what you feel, but she’s led us this way.”

Dan is quick to add that Kateri will now take her place as a saint for everybody. Initially he had balked at her being canonized in Rome. “Why not at her burial grounds?” he asked a priest friend. When he heard the explanation that a celebration at the heart of Catholicism would symbolize the universality of her message, he rejoiced. “She’s not only for us; she’s for everybody,” Dan explains. “Her innocence and how she took Christ and didn’t understand but learned and loved—that’s what brought us here now.”

He credits St. Kateri with bringing him back to the Church 25 years ago. “Through her, and when we found her, she drew us closer to the Church. She drew us closest to the humanity of all amongst us,” he recounts. “All of us are the same.”

It is the purity of Kateri that means the most to Dan. “Her innocence says it all,” he observes, and her holiness is for everyone: “She cared for all. It doesn’t matter what color skin we are, what race we are, what nationality we are. As a Native, we say we have a red path that God develops for us. Everybody has a path. We are a tree with many branches. And we’re all leading to one spot. That spot is heaven, is Father, Christ, all. Praying through her, we pray to Christ. Through her we enter into Christ.”

Two Native Women

Eva Walters and Jo-Ann Semon are two of the women at the center of the Los Angeles Kateri Circle. They express a deep pride in Kateri’s canonization, but from a different perspective. Jo-Ann observes how Kateri was looked down upon because of her many scars, yet survived: “That’s what we as American Indian people have done. We have survived.”

Eva, director of the Kateri Circle, speaks of the Mass the evening before, offered in thanksgiving for the coming canonization. “Our elders and our children are the first people we honor.” There were prayers for the elders, many of whom, now deceased, had prayed for this day. And there were six young princesses in places of honor. “As we were living this liturgy last night, the little boy was using his dad’s eagle feathers to bless us with the sage [incense]. That’s what it means to us—survival not only for ourselves, but for our children. And we’re here.”

In Kateri, Jo-Ann, who is president of the Kateri Circle, sees a role model for women: “You know, we as women, we’re mothers, we’re grandmothers, we’re sisters—and there’s so much confusion going on in this world. To have someone who was focused with what she wanted and would do for people—that’s the type of a role model that we need: someone who would pray for others. No matter who or what they had done, she would accept them—whether it was her own people, whether it was others. You know, as a grandmother, I get aggravated with people. But if we live in the spirit of Kateri, we need to bless them and bless ourselves and keep going.”

That openness to others is what captures Eva, too. She recalls that Kateri was a teacher who suffered rejection for taking on her mother’s Catholicism. And Kateri suffered many physical ailments, even blindness. “But she kept on and on. I’m proud of that.”

Eva knows, because she has persisted, even when much of the Native American community shunned Catholicism. “I’m a California Mission Indian,” she says. “So many of the Indian people left the Church because of all the suffering most of us did regarding the missions. I am proud of the fact of the few Catholic Indian people who stayed and carried on—look at where it finally got us: our representative in heaven, a mentor, a role model.”

The celebrations at Anaheim culminated with the liturgy Jo-Ann mentioned, in the huge arena, attended not only by thousands of religious educators, but also by Native American Catholics from all over the West. That Mass, led by Father Paul Ojibway, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, himself of Native American heritage, was conducted with the kind of cultural expression so pleasing to Blessed Pope John Paul II. There was sage incense—used to bless the spirit—a circle of elders beating a large drum, an eagle feather (a sign of the sacred), and a procession of people from throughout the Native American community— including Dan, Eva, and Jo-Ann, dressed in beautiful Native American ceremonial attire.

“We’re elated,” reflects Dan. “What can we say? It’s 400 years. So, yes, I walk on a cloud right now. The cloud is very high. And I bring everybody who can latch onto me onto that cloud.”