Indigenous Catholics celebrate faith, culture at national conference in Tacoma

TACOMA – More than 700 Native Catholics seeking spiritual and cultural growth came to Tacoma July 18-22 for the 79th annual Tekakwitha Conference.

This year’s conference focused on “healing, working in Indian communities, as well as reaching out to the broader community,” said Deacon Scott Aikin of St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver, one of the conference co-chairs.

“The impacts on our people have been traumatic, and we are always searching for ways to heal, to be a whole person as a native and Catholic,” said Deacon Aikin, who grew up in the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas.

The conference, which brought Catholics from tribes around the country, is named for St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint.

“It’s very much a multicultural, multi-tribal event,” said St. Anne Sister Kateri Mitchell, who is retiring after 20 years as the Tekakwitha Conference’s executive director.

Washington state tribal communities participating this year included the Colville, Cowlitz, Lummi, Makah, Nisqually, Puyallup, Spokane, Stillaguamish, Swinomish, Tulalip, Upper Skagit and Yakama, according to co-chair Eugena Buena-Douglas, a member of the Puyallup Tribe.

“The spirit [at the conference] is one of prayer, learning, healing and connecting, making friends,” Sister Kateri said. “We’re a family reunion. It’s really a gathering of St. Kateri’s family.”

FAITH AND CULTURE TOGETHER

The conference was a chance to celebrate faith and culture in one place.

“For many native people there’s a belief that I have to give a part of myself up or give up my native traditions to be Catholic,” Deacon Aikin said. “I’m here to attest that doesn’t have to happen.”

Growing up, he said, he experienced the tension between his grandmother, raising her children in the Catholic faith, and his grandfather, a spiritual leader for the tribe. “It was not until my grandmother passed away that my grandfather understood [her Catholic faith] was not a competing interest, but a complementary experience,” Deacon Aikin said. His grandfather converted to Catholicism six months before he died.

This year’s conference opened with a smudging ritual that uses smoke from burning sage for healing and purification; each nation carried colorful banners during an entry procession.

The conference included opportunities for Mass and reconciliation and a slate of workshops on topics ranging from

ecology to prayer practices, with simultaneous workshops for children and youth. Prayer services featuring regional customs and language were hosted by different Kateri Circles, devotional groups whose members pray and study together, emulating the life and work of St. Kateri.

“It was very nourishing to go and hear what others are doing to guide, support and share with their communities,” said Mona Cree, a member of the Yakama Umatilla tribe and St. Leo the Great Parish in Tacoma.

On one of the final evenings of the conference, a relic of St. Kateri is presented to the planning committee for the next conference. Last year, Buena-Douglas received the relic, and it was taken to parishes around the Archdiocese of Seattle in the months ahead of this year’s gathering.

Members of St. Joachim Mission on the Lummi Reservation (near Bellingham) hosted the St. Kateri relic earlier this year. “We held healing session and drove around the reservation blessing houses and roads asking for her intercession,” said Lucetta Pena, a St. Joachim parishioner and member of the Lummi tribe.

It was the same relic that Sister Kateri brought to a Seattle hospital in 2006 after 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner, a Lummi member, contracted a flesh-eating bacteria and his family was told he might die. His family and others had been praying for the intercession of then-Blessed Kateri, and after Sister Kateri placed the relic on Jake’s hospital bed, he began getting better. His recovery was deemed the miracle needed for Kateri’s canonization, and she became a saint on October 21, 2012.

“It was the people, their faith and their prayers, that helped bring about the miracle,” Sister Kateri said.

A PILGRIMAGE TO LUMMI

The day before the conference ended, participants made a bus

pilgrimage to the Lummi Reservation.

The day’s events, hosted by parishioners of St. Joachim and St. Paul Parish on the Swinomish Reservation, included a seafood luncheon, rosary, dance performances and Mass celebrated by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.

“This whole event has been a chance for us to evangelize,” said Cheryl Johnson, a member of St. Joachim and the Lummi tribe, who helped coordinate the pilgrimage. By getting people involved with the event planning, “we have already seen more people coming to Mass,” she said.

They involved young people in the effort by asking them to make signs reading, “Pray for us, St. Kateri,” that were posted along roads around the reservation’s peninsula.

“Seeds have been planted,” Pena said. “When other youth see the signs, we hope they’ll be curious and Google it.”

Pena said their pastor, Father Francis Thumbi, “has allowed us to utilize our desire to get out there and evangelize. We pray that Kateri will reunite our community, every community, facing troubling factors,” she said. “This gives us real hope.”

Reprinted with permission of Northwest Catholic. Northwest Catholic and NWCatholic.org are official publications of the Archdiocese of Seattle.