CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2006 International Conference
July 13-16, 2006
San Diego State University, San Diego, California
Religion, Globalization, and Conflict: International Perspectives

Katerian Catholicism: the travails of the Global Church in Native North America

by Bernadette RIGAL-CELLARD (Université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux 3)

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2006 International Conference. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

Abstract and introduction

This presentation explores the problems linked with the inculturation of Catholicism among Native North Americans around the figure of Kateri Tekakwitha. After having studied her cause for canonization and the various reasons for its failure thus far, in the Summer of 2005 I investigated her impact among Native communities in the North of the United States, in Manitoba, Northern Ontario and Québec. Knowing that many Native Catholics had been leaving the Church, I was interested in seeing how the institution was trying to evolve in order to maintain its position in those areas.

My hypothesis was that Native members had resolutely taken its functioning into their hands and had imposed many changes in order to indigenize it. My findings however did not corroborate all my expectations. If indeed the clergy ministering to the Native Catholics, the Jesuits and the Oblates for the most part, did encourage such changes, the transformations have not been easily accepted on the two levels involved: first, strangely enough it was within the Native communities themselves that changes met with opposition in the beginning. Second, within the institution itself the paths taken by the Conference in the USA and by the Solomon Sisters in Canada have not met readily with success. I will here present the novelties in the rituals, the strict adherence to Catholic doctrine of these Indigenous believers, and the various tests they are still constantly faced with in their profound commitment to combine harmoniously the teaching of the Gospel and the respect for Indigenous cultures and concerns.

First of all a few words to present Kateri Tekakwitha with whom you may not be familiar. Mohawk on her father’s side and Algonquin on her mother’s, she was born in the colony of New York in 1656 and died in New France in 1680. When she was very young, smallpox killed her parents and damaged her eyesight. She was adopted by her uncle. The Jesuits who visited the village were surprised by her profound Catholic faith that she inherited from her mother and that their teaching strengthened. As a teenager she committed herself to Jesus and refused to marry. She finally joined the Jesuit mission of Sault-Saint-Louis, on the St-Lawrence Southwest of Montreal. She died at the age of 24 after a rich life of penance and intense prayers. Local tradition has it that she was a saint and has caused many miracles. However she remained unknown within the grand history of American Catholicism until the 19th century when the clergy looked for national models to comfort the Catholics in their patriotism. They thought of the martyred Jesuits, Father Jogues and Goupil, but they were Europeans first of all, and this was when they uncovered the story of Kateri, in a way reminiscent of how Pocahontas had been dug out to create a mixed blood national genesis, or more recently Sacajeawa. In 1884 the American bishops introduced her cause for canonization in Baltimore, along with that of the Jesuits and the following year the Canadian clergy did likewise. The martyrs of New France were canonized in 1930, but the process has not been successful for Kateri. She was beatified in 1980 but so far no miracle has been proclaimed by the Vatican. Her case is still pending, much to the irritation of her followers.

In 1939 the Church chose her to protect a conference held in Fargo (North Dakota) to revitalize the evangelization of Natives in the sense of what would be called inculturation. This Tekakwitha Conference met with such success that it became institutionalized and has been held every year since. However its activities were open only to the clergy and not the Native grassroots, the objects of the meetings. Strengthened by the political movements of oppressed minorities, several Native women, mostly nuns, forced their way in and since 1977 the Conference has not only been open totally to the Natives, but it has been directed by them.

As in many other respects, the two neighboring countries do not function in the same way in the Catholic field: the Conference is a structured and efficient organization only in the USA, and its headquarters are in Great Falls, Montana. In Canada, Kateri is the patron of many parishes, mostly in Quebec and Ontario but there are just a handful of Jesuits, Native nuns and lay members who take care of her devotion. It is this new religious brand that I call Katerian Catholicism.

My working hypotheses

I knew that many Christian Natives had been leaving their Churches to return to their own traditions that were being revived. Those who remained in the Church insisted that it take into account their own ancestral practices and current concerns. They wanted Catholicism to indigenize. I imagined that just as they had forced their way into the Tekakwitha Conference, they were trying to rule the Church, wrenching power away from the paternalism of the Euro-American clergy. I also imagined that such indigenization might imply a certain transformation of the doctrine. The problem I envisioned was that of the limits of the opening up that the hierarchy would accept. How many exogenous ingredients could Catholicism incorporate without losing its own specificity, knowing that if it did not agree to change, it might well disappear altogether from those parts? My hypotheses were only partly confirmed for the transformations within the Church did not exactly operate as I had expected.

I. Katerian Catholicism as inculturation in the making

First of all, it is hard to say whether inculturation was imposed by the Natives or, on the contrary, contrived by the Church to cope with decolonization and maintain its supremacy in non-European cultures by agreeing to take their beliefs and practices into account. Inculturation is the result of decades of debates that started before Vatican II and accelerated after that, led by its transformation towards the vernacular, the local church and the lay members. The Jesuit General, Father Arrupe, is said to have coined the term in 1977. To entitle his book, one of the best on the subject, Christ is Amerindian, Achiel Peelman, OMI, took up the words of John Paul II when he visited the shrine of the Canadian martyrs in Huronia in 1984.

In Canada the pioneers of inculturation were Eva and Priscilla Solomon in the 80s. Both are Sisters of Saint-Joseph. Their father was a well-known theologian, of mixed Anishinabe (Chippewa) and Jewish ancestry who cleverly blended Native traditions with Christianity. The birth of the Katerian movement started on a small scale in 1982 in Thunder Bay. The Native Pastoral Seminar was organized by priests, nuns and lay Catholics involved in Native ministry, in order to size up local concerns. The following year, the organizers asked the Natives to join them and this is how the Solomon sisters became active in the field. Interestingly, when their American counterparts, in the Tekakwitha Conference, asked them to work with them, Eva chose to try and start a separate Canadian movement. Yet, the bishops she went to see for support did not respond favorably, arguing that it was impossible to gather so many different tribes within the same body, a rather hypocritical answer since in the USA the tribes were rapidly organizing. In 1987 the sisters held the first Kateri Conference in Ontario, but it ceased to exist in 1995. Eva, who lives in Toronto, has however kept working with Catholic sisterhoods, but it is not very easy. Priscilla works from within the Sisters of the Saint Joseph motherhouse in North Bay to train teaching nuns about the abuses and various social problems which Native women are facing. Jesuit fathers in charge of many Kateri parishes help them in their mission and they regularly meet to take stock and move on.

In the USA, Katerian Catholicism is run from Great Falls by the Tekakwitha Conference. Sister Kateri Mitchell, SSA (Sister of Saint Ann), has been the executive director since 1998. Like Blessed Kateri, she is a Mohawk and one of the best examples of these women who have taken Native ministry within their hands.

The national program of the Tekakwitha Conference is precisely defined: in spite of more than five centuries of evangelization, Natives still have problems finding their own place within the Church. Yet, its future rests with the emergence of new leaders within the community itself. Each member must manage to balance his or her Christian beliefs and traditional spirituality. The Tekakwitha Conference seeks to unite all Native Catholics while respecting their tribal differences. It meets once a year (July 19-22 this year in Seattle) to share ideas, solutions, explore problems and new vistas. The preparatory documents describe the major innovations carried out since the first truly indigenous meeting in 1978, which have always met with the approval of the Pope: « We have no less a model than John Paul II at whose liturgies when visiting Native nations in the United States and Canada most of the adaptations mentioned in this document, including the use of sacred pipes and other Native rituals, have been used. » (Tekakwitha Conference site)

The liturgy must follow the Catholic canon and the indigenous variations are defined along these lines:

- The liturgy must display the particular culture of the tribe organizing the meeting;

- The participation of indigenous clergy is encouraged;

- Symbols, chants and dances must embellish liturgy and lead the participants to a profound understanding of the Christian mystery;

-The altar must be covered with a cloth of the sacred color of the inviting tribe;

-The ceremony will be punctuated by Native songs, the drums (or some other traditional instruments), dances…

-Tobacco or sweetgrass will be burned instead of incense, which is called smudging. The offerings may be corn, pumpkin, wild rice… Eagle feathers may be used for blessing, the pipe for prayer that will be addressed to the four directions…

-sacerdotal vestments will display indigenous symbols, notably the Indian cross (two tree branches fastened in the middle), as well as all liturgical objects, or baptismal fonts, etc. In September 1987, the Pope celebrated the mass in Burns, in the Canadian North, in fringed and beaded leather vestments.

In Thunder Bay, Father Murray, SJ, and Sister Eva Solomon, SSJ, elaborated an inculturated baptism ceremony that falls into two parts, the first one corresponding to a Native naming ceremony. The prayer sent to the East, carried by sweetgrass goes thus: « Children, we give you this sweeetgrass to carry with you in life. May you be blessed with good dreams; may your good dreams be turned into good actions. Your dreams will help you to understand who you are. May you be guided by the Morning Star and your guardian Spirits to help you see your way clearly ». The grandmother promises to help the child and his or her parents. For the South, cedar is given to the child, the priest anoints him or her with sacred oils: for the West, sage is offered, and an elder says: « Walk in the way of Jesus, loving God, yourself and others and living the right relationship with all creation. » For the North, tobacco is offered. After the prayers, the party moves to the church where the canonical ceremony is held.

The report Native American Catholics at the Millenium indicates that in 51 dioceses (or 30% of all American dioceses) Natives do use their own religious symbolism during Catholic ceremonies, either for specific services or for all of them.

Another very visible sign of inculturation is the architecture of churches, often round, or tepee shaped, and the various decorations inside: drums, the four directions symbolized by circles of the corresponding color, feathers, and always the statue of Kateri that come in all shapes from the most saint-sulpician style to the most abstract.

Katerian ministry

For all those involved, the crisis the Church is facing is most serious and they are not even seeking to convert new members but simply to try and recall those who were brought up as Catholics and have gone astray. They analyze the situation with marketing tools: where did we go wrong, what can be done, is it worth it? Perfectly aware that the colonial and recent past (residential schools, social and political neglect, etc.) is to blame, the major points center around confessing, letting go, forgiving, healing, building new relations.

As we know, the Churches that in Canada repented and were sued (the United Church notably) have been losing billions of dollars to the claimants and I guess one of the functions of the Tekakwitha Conference is to smooth things over to prevent more class actions. This is fairly visible in the titles of some of the workshops of the Tucson meeting in 2005: « Forgiveness: the Unforgivable is Forgivable », « Protecting Self, Mind, Body & Spirit », « Self-Esteem », « Opening Dialogue: About young American Indian Issues Today », « Walking with Faith in the School Hallways », « How we Come to Pray », « Our Lady of Guadalupe & Social Justice », « Inculturation, Basic Directions in Ministry », « Sacred Ceremonies, sacred families ». Others bore on: « Apache Creation Story », « Apache liturgical songs », « Shawl Fringing & Sharing », « How to Fringe a shawl ». Kateri is often the model to follow: « Kateri Tekakwitha, Princess of the Eucharist », « Catholic Ways, especially virginity, are shown by Blessed Kateri », « God’s World in Kateri’s Lifetime: her response and her message ».

To conclude this part, I need to go back to one of my hypotheses: did inculturation imply a modification of Catholic doctrine? The people I asked were most surprised. Father Murray, SJ, exclaimed that for Native Catholics: « You don’t mess with Jesus! » Sister Priscilla was almost offended when I suggested that inculturation might be a new form of hypocritical colonization, for it could simply be a new term to designate the century-old imposition of a Western system of thought to non-Europeans while pretending to take Native values into account, which is why non Catholics traditionalists mock Kateri Tekakwitha as “the saint of the Whites”. Sister Priscilla, like all the other Natives I met, is profoundly Christian, and protested that there was no hypocrisy at all: « Jesus lived in a specific time and culture, but his teaching is above culture. »

Yet, she contended, there has been in a way a transformation of the doctrine but solely at the level of the sources. Until then, the only one was the Gospel, but now the Natives have gone back to their own spirituality and mythology and have found correspondences with the Bible (such coincidence is exactly what inculturation is about). So they like the Old Testament stories that they feel are close to their own stories, and they are very fond of people like Joseph or Saint Francis.

According to Sister Priscilla now the Natives have two Testaments, the biblical one and the indigenous one, which are intimately complementary: « Our aboriginal spirituality is our way back to God, to find eternal life. The teaching of my own tradition points to Jesus-Christ, to the grace that He brings to us ».

Consequently priests still have a role to play, a radically new one at that: it consists in guiding their flock back to their ancestral spirituality for it is those who explore their indigenous faith in depth who become the best Catholics (Sister Eva Solomon in Vecsey, Where the Two Roads Meet, 282).

Inner resistance to inculturation

Interestingly, when the Jesuits implemented the new policy, their parishioners were profoundly shocked. When in the 70s in Thunder Bay, Father Maurice, SJ, placed a feather headdress on the tabernacle to signify that Jesus was the great Chief, the headdress was promptly snatched up and cast aside: “you should not do this!”, he was reprimanded. Some years later when Eva Solomon introduced smudging, she was sharply told this was not proper. It was the same thing when the drum replaced organ music.

In fact, those very traditional Catholics were reacting exactly like other Catholics to the radical changes brought about by Vatican II. There was something more idiosyncratic though in their bafflement: for centuries they had been chastised for daring to refer to their own customs, they had been told these were the mark of the Dark One, superstitions that would take them straight to Hell. Obviously, they could not understand why suddenly they had to bring their own traditions into the churches. The Jesuits I met, Father Murray and Father Kroker understood perfectly what was going through their minds: “if you reduce the Church, that is to say the triumphant institution, to Indian culture, you diminish its aura since you taught us the lesser value of our culture and how we should despise it.” Further still: “if you try to make us more Indian than we now care to be, you are diminishing our own value”. It thus took years before the innovations brought by the Jesuits to implement inculturation were accepted. Now that they have become commonplace, paradoxically the Natives insist less that the liturgy be indigenized: « Now that their identity is stronger, they don’t need to have it so much in church ». Nothing is done by the clergy in terms of liturgy or policy without asking the consent and advice of the elders.

II. The constraints of Katerian Catholicism

1. The limits of Katerian territories

In the USA, the energy of the Conference has successfully united a vast number of Kateri circles, but in Canada the situation is different: Kateri is not known outside of Québec and Ontario and this will not improve in the near future.

Another problem has to do with the variety of cultures involved in Katerian practices: for example, Sister PrisCilla told me she had provoked a violent reaction in a Mohawk context: as a Chippewa she had performed a smudging clockwise and had been severely criticized by an elder for whom such direction is reserved for burials!

Indigenized rituals are thus mostly performed in rural areas, for in cities too many customs systems collide. Yet, it is precisely in urban areas that Natives now live (about 60% of them in the US) and it is there that they are in need of spiritual guidance. If they cannot find there the right kind of Catholicism, they will quit it altogether.

2. The shortcomings of the indigenization of structures

Most inculturated churches have been built and are maintained by Jesuits. Yet, these are aging and they want to see the parishioners take over; moreover they really wish paternalism would give way to grassroots responsibility. Father Murray told me he and his fellow Jesuits wanted the Kateri Center of Thunder Bay to become self-sustaining. They had originally built it to serve as a model, as an “inverted reduction” that would open the Christianized Natives onto the outside world (instead of cutting them off from the pagans as in the early days of evangelization). Strangely, but understandably, many Natives are very sad at such a prospect for they do not feel they possess all the required managerial capacities to run the center without the fathers and without financial help from the diocese. The shift is too rapid. The situation is critical: those accused of paternalism want to move out, or are in fact fading out, while the flock does not feel trained enough to replace them. There have been, however, examples of such successful transmission when the tribes were very organized and had a sound economic structure.

3. The lack of vocations

This is probably the major issue within the global Church. Most of the Jesuits I met (all were non-Native) are aging and there are very few indigenous priests. Native nuns are more numerous, about 50 of them. If we compare the situation with that in Africa, it seems that one of the causes for such rare priestly vocations is due to the specificity of Indian tribes that do not value personal power, whereas in Africa becoming a priest brings all kinds of social and economic privileges, including the much sought after option of filling in European parish vacancies. Celibacy is also contrary to Indian customs. In Native America the solution so far has been the deaconate, since the marriage of the priests (highly recommended by the Jesuits in those parts already several decades ago) has no chance of being authorized. It is also the solution at large: today 556 parishes are run by deacons in the US whereas there were only 268 in 1993 (Ostling).

4. Gender wars

Another problem is that of the relations between women and men within the Church that duplicate those in the larger society. If the Jesuits and Oblates who minister with the nuns actively promote inculturation, support is virtually non-existent from other superiors. Native Catholics feel that the delay in canonizing Kateri is a further proof of the lack of interest on the part of the male Roman hierarchy, whether in the Vatican or in America. Indeed, as a consequence of the lack of vocations, there are only two Natives (in fact they are only partly native) in the higher spheres of the American Church, two Bishops: Mgr. Donald Pelotte, SSS, and the Archbishop of Denver, Mgr. Chaput, and neither seems to be enthusiastically pushing Katerian Catholicism. I was told: « They are not keen on engaging significantly in the inculturation process. Maybe they are engaging, but we don’t hear about it. »

The Native nuns, profoundly active in the ministry on a daily basis thus feel rather let down. In spite of their training in obedience, they resent the pyramidal structure of the Church, which is both its strength and weakness, notably in an open country and in their egalitarian cultures, for the grassroots cannot influence it enough: Sister Priscilla pessimistically concluded: « The people from a given culture need to take over the evangelization, but they have no real power. » The nuns don’t give up however and stress the need to develop « empowerment » techniques; obviously this is one of the major functions of Katerian Catholicism. We see here again how close they are to the concerns of all Native Americans.

5. The conflicts within the Roman hierarchy

The Jesuits have always been known for their adventurous evangelization from the outset, an impetuosity that has not always carried the day. Today, as during the famous “quarrel of the Chinese rites”, many criticize the changes they have brought to Catholic rituals. Even around Native areas, priests and bishops do not approve of the transformations. John Paul II did support everything the Natives were doing; in fact he was very fond of them and he invited Sister Eva Solomon several times. Yet, there are major gaps within the pyramid, or rather stumbling blocks… When reports arrive from mission lands, they may be rewritten or simply ignored by the curia. Also, since the ordinaries (the bishops) have great leeway to implement or not what the Holy See recommends, they do not feel bound to please their Native parishioners who only represent a tiny fraction of their diocese and of American Catholicism in general: in Canada even if 55% of Indigenous people are Catholic, altogether they only represent 3,8% of the population. Out of 65 million Catholics in the USA, there are only about 500,000 Native members of the Church.


Father René Fumoleau, OMI, who has lived over 55 years among the Dénés of Slave Lake in the North-West Territories, is pessimistic about the future of the Church in Native lands. He holds the Church responsible for its own plight: “We have imposed liturgy in a few years without having really founded it on serious teaching. Now, Christ waited 33 years before crossing the step of ritualization, and He only did so after a whole life of preaching.” Catholicism has thus not fully taken root, conversion has not been fully achieved except in some rare spots. Two future trends are conceivable: either the full return to indigenous spiritualities, which are also rapidly evolving, often towards original syncretisms, or the adoption of the new brands of Christianity that are revitalizing Protestantism, such as Pentecostalism. In urban reservations, the religious supermarket offers thousands of new options.

In spite of such threats, I wish to end on a more positive note for the Native Catholics I met were extremely dynamic and full of hope. Inculturated faith may still thrive in the long term. One of the reasons may be the fact that many reservations are so poor that the social and medical help provided freely by the missionaries will still be greatly needed.

The travails of the Church in Native America are a good testing ground for its future elsewhere. The Tekakwitha Conference does demonstrate the incredible adaptability of the institution. We are witnessing the recomposition of the Church, but it has not become the first global denomination without having from its inception mastered the art of adaptation, which we shall from now on simply call inculturation.



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Adresses de la Tekakwitha Conference :
P.O. Box 6768
Great Falls, MT 59406-6768(Montana, USA)
E-Mail: tekconf@att.net