Wednesday, August 14, 2013

There's a New Saint in Town

St Kateri Tekakwitha on the grounds of
St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Adamsville, Ala.

Growing up in Tallapoosa County in east central Alabama, I very quickly became aware of the fact that I was living and walking on ground that was once the home of Native Americans, or “Indians” as we said back in the 1960s. “Tallapoosa” after all is a Native American word.  Depending upon whom you believe, it comes from the Choctaw term for pulverized rock, or a Creek word meaning “golden water" (I like golden water - it's how the Tallapoosa River looks after a big rain).  In addition to our county name, there were other place names that derived from the former Native American inhabitants. In fact, Alabama is full of Native American place names: Saugahatchee, Wetumpka, Tuscaloosa, Eufaula, Sylacauga – they are too numerous to mention here.  Not only did the place names reflect Native American heritage, their history was ever present.  Arrowheads could still be found on occasion during hikes in the woods and on walks along the lake.

Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, on the Tallapoosa River and just a few miles from our home, memorialized the defeat of the Creek Nation at the hands of General Andrew Jackson and his army. Jackson’s role in the Indian wars set him on a path to the presidency where he would sign into law the Indian Removal Act. The Cherokee Nation went to court and won when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that act unconstitutional.  Undaunted by the rule of law, President Andrew Jackson proceeded with the forced removal of Native Americans from their tribal lands in what would be known as the Trail of Tears.

Withered Memories

Having grown up in the shadow of Native American history where Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctoaw influence had been reduced to place names and withered memories, as a young adult I began to wonder how my life might have been different, how our culture could have been different, if we had learned to coexist with native tribes  rather than implement the genocidal policies our forbears chose.  How might our development as a country have been augmented? What values would we hold as a society? Would we be closer to nature and more respectful of the environment? Would we be more inclusive and less xenophobic? How would I see the world differently if I had grown up in a land that included its native population and respected their culture?

Questions like these led me to come to appreciate the words and witness that I found in works such as Black Elk Speaks, by John Neihardt which relays the story and vision of the Lakota shaman Black Elk in his own words; and Russell Means' autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread, which gives an account of the modern day plight of Native Americans from their viewpoint told by one of their own, beginning with the Wounded knee massacre. Knowing that as a descendant of Scots-Irish settlers I walked on blood-stained ground, I therefore wanted to learn more about the stories of the Native Americans who once walked the same ground.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Last month when I learned that there would be a “Native American Mass” at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church (Adamsville, Alabama) for the feast of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, I was naturally intrigued and made it a point to attend. Kateri Tekakwitha, I learned, was canonized just last October – the first Native American saint to be recognized by the Vatican. Known to devotees as “The Lily of the Mohawks,” her official feast day is July 14.  When I arrived for the service I was surprised and amazed that there was a beautiful shine to the Algonquin saint on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Church.  I learned that there is a Kateri Circle that meets at St. Patrick’s whose purpose is “to promote Native American spirituality within the Catholic Church.” I learned from the parish’s website that the shrine was dedicated in 2005.

I went to the Mass at St. Patrick’s with the full understanding of the complicated nature of the church’s relationship with the Native American population.  The conversion of American Indian tribes to Christianity was a mixture of genuine compassion on the part of many missionaries and a sense of patriarchal condescension on the part of many Christians. Moreover, it was one element in a larger attempt to eradicate Native American culture as white settlers sought more land to occupy.  Today, much too late by some standards, we are coming to have a better understanding of Native American cultures. We are beginning to recognize that while there is value in cultural exchange, efforts at wholesale conversion can be just another form of aggression on the part of the dominant culture.  That being understood, I was interested in seeing what a Native American Mass would be like.

When I arrived for Mass, the service was simple and straightforward. Scriptures for that day were read from the lectionary and prayers were offered.  The hymns that were sung included "We Are One in the Spirit." The priest, Father Vernon Hugley, gave a homily recounting some of his experiences growing up as a minority (African American) in the South and offering St. Kateri as an example of living with simplicity. 

After the Mass, the congregation processed to the Woodland Garden. It was then that I first laid eyes on the Shrine to the new saint. There was a gentleman there who played a Native American flute as more prayers were offered. There were some people visiting from New York of Mohawk descent who spoke of their veneration to St. Kateri Tekakwitha. One of them, dressed in Native American garb, explained the custom of smudging then offered the ceremony to all who wanted to participate (which was everyone present). Smudging, she explained was a cleansing ritual in which a smoke, or incense, derived from the burning of sage was fanned upon an individual using fan made of bird feathers. Native Americans would typically undergo smudging just prior to entering into ritual dance. Smudging was also often done for a household if there had been a visitor who had brought any kind of negativity or disharmony to the family therein.

I participated in the smudging ritual and listened to members of the Kateri Circle explain the medicine wheel which stood next to the statue of St. Kateri. The conversation turned back to St. Kateri when one lady from the Mohawk tribe in New York told of how her obstetrician had told her when she was pregnant that her child would be born handicapped. Her grandmother, not knowing of the doctor’s report sensed something was wrong and appealed to Kateri for a healthy child. That same “baby” was with her that day as a completely normal 20 year-old young lady.  [Kateri had been named “venerable” by Pope Pius XXII in 1943, and “beatified” by Pope John Paul II in 1980.  According to Catholic practice, that made veneration appropriate, though she had not yet been named a saint.

The members of the Kateri Circle and the Native Americans who spoke to the group that day were delighted that the Vatican has recognized St. Tekakwitha. They saw it as an affirmation of their culture. “We were not even recognized as citizens of the United States until 1924,” one person pointed out (that was the year the Indian Citizenship Act was passed).  As the ceremonies were carried out with the Native American flute playing in the background, there was a definite sense of progress in multicultural relations. Whereas in the past, there had been an attempt to eliminate Native American languages and cultural practices from American Indian tribes, on this day there was an affirmation of Native American customs.

When she was declared a Saint in October of 2012, Kateri Tekakwitha was named patroness of the environment and ecology.  As the Roman Catholic Church has made room for Native American customs within her fold, may we likewise make room for some of the values shared by our Native American friends.  Respect for the environment and consideration for future generations would be a good place to begin.

The plaque on a stone by the Medicine Wheel reads:
"An ancient symbol of the Sacred Connection
of the Creator, all People, and all Creation.
It is still a powerful sign of good medicine"


All photos were taken by Charles Kinnaird


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