America‚Äôs Native Americans Now Have a Saint to Call Their Own
by John Mark Willcox
ltar offerings of beans, corn and squash, with pitched chants joining the sound of beating drums blending with the aroma of burning sage, ‚Äúhair of mother earth,‚ÄĚ are familiar rituals for the Native American Catholics who live within our diocese. Now, these American Indian Tribes among our faithful, who trace their Catholic ancestry back for hundreds of years, finally have a Patron of their own after Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on Sunday, October 21, 2012.
Like so many parables of the faith, the decision to welcome Kateri into sainthood helps bring the story of the Native American‚Äôs relationship to the Church full circle. Born in 1656, on the Southern bank of the Mohawk River, in what is now Auriesville, New York, Kateri entered this world a mere decade after four French Jesuits destined for sainthood were tortured and martyred by her tribe as the Church began to evangelize the new world. Kateri lost her Algonquin Christian mother and her warrior Mohawk father to smallpox prior to her fifth birthday, barely surviving the same epidemic herself but not without severe facial scarring and near blindness which earned her the Tekakwitha moniker ‚Äúshe who bumps into things.‚ÄĚ
As a teenager Kateri befriended the Catholic missionaries traveling the St. Lawrence River area and she entered the Church despite protests from her clan. After her baptism, Kateri fled to Canada and lived a simple life of service to the sick and devotion through prayer before her death in 1680 at the age of 24. Led by the Jesuits, the Catholics of this new region of exploration saw almost immediate miraculous signs, as prayers for Kateri‚Äôs assistance were followed by unexplained healings and the miraculous legend of the ‚ÄúLily of the Mohawks‚ÄĚ begin to grow in influence and devotion.
Now, over 300 years later, a fourth saint has emerged from the Mohawk Valley‚Äôs sometimes violent history and this particular servant of the Lord stands not for martyrdom, but for peace, understanding and a desire to participate in the symbolic dance of friendship among Catholic Christians. This canonization begins a refreshing chapter to the turbulent history of Church relations with our brothers and sisters who represent the original inhabitants of the Americas.
Within our Diocese of Shreveport, the largest concentration of Native American Catholics occurs in our Southern Deanery within the civil parishes of Red River, Desoto and Sabine.¬† Most, but not all of our regional tribes include Caddo, Coushatta, Adais/Brushwood, Cherokee, Choctaw/Apache, Tunica and Creeks.
Within Sabine Parish along the southern border of our diocese, the Choctaw/Apache tribe has been active for decades, maintaining a tribal office near Zwolle and holding periodic gatherings and powwows. Members of this fascinating tribe are descended from the mission Indians of Texas, Apache slaves who were sold at auction in French and Spanish colonial era Natchitoches, and the hunting Choctaw tribe which migrated to the area in the late 1700‚Äôs and early 1800‚Äôs.
Current Choctaw/Apache Chief John W. Procell is grateful to finally count a Native American among the family of saints within the Church.
‚ÄúThere are many people within the Indian Nations who have worked so hard to see Blessed Kateri named as a saint. While I believe it should have happened earlier, this is such a welcome thing for our tribe and for Native Americans everywhere and I pray this will bring much needed attention to our tribal communities in this nation. As Chief, I visit many regional tribal gatherings and dances, and everyone I speak with in the Native American community is so very excited about Kateri‚Äôs sainthood. We have between three and four thousand people on our rolls, and the majority of those members are Catholic, so this is a really big deal to all of us and we truly feel that things will never be quite the same for us in a good way.‚ÄĚ
Before we parted ways with Chief Procell, he presented me with a gift of sacred tobacco and the feather of a Blue Heron in thanksgiving for the Catholic Connection showing interest in the Native American Catholic community.
St. John the Baptist parishioner Yvonne Busby served as tribal secretary for many years and remembers researching catechetical material and discovering the story of Kateri Tekawitha.
‚ÄúI had never heard of her until that moment,‚ÄĚ comments Mrs. Busby.¬† ‚ÄúI found her story to be such a perfect fit with our Native American culture where I grew up as a Sepulvado within St. Ann Church in Ebarb. After that discovery, we all really took Kateri to heart both within my own family and our entire congregation.¬† When John Paul II beatified her in 1980, I thought that the Church was getting serious about her cause and that we might actually see her finally named a saint, and now it has actually happened!‚ÄĚ
Below the Southern civil parishes of our diocese, within our mother Diocese of Alexandria, nine various Native American tribes can be found and Bishop Ronald Herzog has announced that the Alexandria Diocese will host the National Conference of Native Peoples and Personnel in 2015.
‚ÄúI serve on the Bishop‚Äôs Sub Committee for Native American Catholics,‚ÄĚ commented Bishop Herzog, and I thought bringing this conference to central Louisiana would be a great way to celebrate Saint Kateri and the various tribes of Catholic Native Americans in this entire area.‚ÄĚ
Despite the climatic event of Kateri‚Äôs canonization last month in Rome, area Catholics will have plenty to celebrate in the coming months as Native Americans will descend on central Louisiana in less than two years to gather, dance, pray and celebrate all the wonderful things that our Indian sisters and brothers bring to our united faith community from the four winds and the four sacred corners of mother earth.