When asked about the news of Kateri Tekakwitha’s October 21 canonization, Brother Maynard Shurley, OFM, replies, “It’s about time we have a Native American saint!” The 56-yearold Navajo friar saw the news as a great source of pride for all Native Americans when St. Anthony Messenger interviewed him in New Mexico last February.
Brother Maynard was born close to the Navajo reservation in a small town east of Gallup, New Mexico. He serves as the local minister or guardian of the small Franciscan friary at Tohatchi, New Mexico, on the reservation. He was recently elected to the provincial council of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Brother Maynard speaks to the people in either Navajo or English, as needed. He walks easily between cultures.
Learning from Kateri
Brother Maynard recalls several events in the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. He remembers how Kateri was opposed by her family when she became a Christian. He says he experienced similar opposition from his own Navajo relatives.
He says some asked him, “Why did you choose the white man’s religion? You could have become a medicine man instead.” Brother Maynard says he simply answered: “Because God called me to the Catholic way. Franciscans are just like the medicine people. We, too, are called to be holy, as well as people of prayer and healers.
“Kateri is a model for us Navajos, inviting us to be bridge-builders in bringing our two traditions into harmony. After all, both the Navajo and the Christian tradition teach us to take care of our elders. And both traditions teach us the importance of prayer as well.”
Brother Maynard also points out, “Kateri departed from her tradition, too, by choosing not to marry. This is a bit similar to our Navajo way or tradition. We are expected to have children in order to be a truly prosperous or rich person. Kateri decided to remain a virgin, even though her family did not understand.”
Aware of this attitude in the Navajo tradition, Brother Maynard sees special difficulties when it comes to recruiting vocations in the Navajo community.
Kateri Tekakwitha and Storytelling
“Kateri found storytelling a good way to evangelize,” says Brother Maynard. “People listened to her, for example, as she told the story of Jesus and his importance for our lives. People sensed the presence of God in Kateri, as she told stories such as these.
“In our own way, we Navajos also tell stories. It’s important, for example, that as Catholics we know the importance of the sacraments. When we tell the story of Jesus sharing his Last Supper with the disciples, for instance, the Sacrament of the Eucharist makes more sense to us. And every Sunday, when we celebrate the Eucharist, the story is recalled again.
“When Navajos think about death, they know little about life after death. In their Navajo traditions, they only have fuzzy ideas about what happens after their deaths. Catholic teaching fills in the missing pieces of the puzzle by filling in the gaps with the resurrection stories of Jesus.”
St. Francis: Navajo at Heart?
As Brother Maynard also affirms, “I think St. Francis of Assisi would have been a good Navajo. Francis was very much attuned to all the creatures and the natural environment of the Navajo reservation. If St. Francis were to walk around on this land, he would greet all the creatures as family—as brother wind and sister water, brother sun and sister moon, and so on. Anything we see and taste and feel is a relative to us. As Navajo people, we are never alone because our surroundings—the mountains, the plains, the water, and the air—are our brothers and sisters!”
Other Voices on the Navajo Reservation
Two Navajo women who work with Brother Maynard also chatted with St. Anthony Messenger about their experiences as Catholics on the reservation.
Alice Burbank was born in Tohatchi, and Ethel Yazzie was born in nearby Naschitti. Like Brother Maynard, they are both admirers of the soon-to-be St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Both are also commissioned lay ministers and lectors, as well as eucharistic ministers at Tohatchi. Alice and Ethel lead RCIA classes for children, while Brother Maynard leads the classes with adults. Ethel is also a weaver of Navajo rugs.
Alice says she has been very much aware of Kateri for over 20 years and has been carrying around a small holy card with Kateri’s image on it. Ethel has also been acquainted with Kateri, but only more recently.
At the Tohatchi mission, there are at least two framed paintings of Kateri. One is inside St. Mary Church, and another is in the small, circular, hogan chapel, which only holds 15 or so worshipers for daily Masses.
Alice and Ethel spoke about the “simmering cedar ceremony” that is used in several Catholic churches on the Navajo reservation, including St. Mary Church.
Upon entering the church, parishioners sprinkle little pieces of cedar on smoldering charcoal, causing smoke to rise. The parishioner, with his or her hands, gently fans the sweetly scented smoke—causing it to spread toward one’s body or face. It’s a way of blessing oneself. In these churches, the cedar ceremony is an alternative to using holy water.
As Alice explained, a former bishop of the Gallup Diocese, Bishop Donald Pelotte, SSS (now deceased), much like Pope John Paul II, encouraged “enculturation” in the churches of his diocese. According to Alice, “People at Tohatchi often use both ceremonies as ways of blessing ourselves.”
At the Tohatchi church, there is another imposing example of enculturation. Behind the altar is a largerthan- life image of Jesus as a Navajo shepherd. In the painting, Jesus is wearing traditional Navajo dress, including a deerskin shirt and a cloth headband around his black hair. Alice says, “Being Navajo means being familiar with sheepherders who watch over their sheep. That’s what Jesus was: he was like the Navajo—a good shepherd!”
Even as a 17th-century Mohawk and Algonquin Catholic, St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s life and virtues speak eloquently to us today in many different places across North America.