Friday, November 25, 2016

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, We Give Thanks for You

We all know that Thanksgiving is a time when Americans recognize the importance of expressing gratitude for the abundance which the Earth provides us with, and for the family and friends with whom we share it. Thanksgiving commemorates the hospitality offered by Native Americans to the European Puritan colonists, as winter was setting in and the colonists were unprepared for the cold months ahead. The Native Americans provided food and support. However, the history of Thanksgiving is much more complex than that, and also involves violence, conflict, and massacres. It was actually not celebrated as a national holiday until the midst of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday and a time for families to re-unite. This history is important to think about as present-day armed security forces inflict horrendous abuses to Native Americans at Standing Rock in North Dakota and those who are standing in solidarity with them as they protect their land and water from exploitation.  Which is why this year especially, I have felt conflicted about this holiday, a sentiment I believe is shared by many people across the country.

We cannot stand idly by and pretend like Thanksgiving can be the same as it has been celebrated for generations. The situation at Standing Rock brings to the forefront a history of centuries of exploitation, trauma and broken promises experienced by Native Americans.  Not to mention the insult to injury added to non-whites overall, through the terrible racism which has surfaced with the 2016 election. The United States has always been a place of violence and abuse of Native peoples, and of other people of color, even as it sees itself as a beacon of freedom for all. How can we now hold up that beacon, even as the armed forces inflict violence against our own people? 

Over the past few years, I’ve come to learn about the roots of much of this violence, by learning about the Doctrine of Discovery, the 1493 papal document which allowed explorers to lay claim to any land they “discovered” that was not owned by Christians.  This doctrine, which has not yet been officially renounced by the Vatican, still governs U.S. Indian law today, still being cited into the 21st century.  I really do wonder how likely it is we will begin to see Native Americans and their land treated with the respect they deserve until this document is rescinded and removed from U.S. law.

Meanwhile, over the past year and a half, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have had the opportunity to read and discuss Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si.  This modern document, which discusses at length the dual “cry of the earth and cry of the poor,” calls us to dialogue and action on behalf of all of God’s creation. Through dialogue, we can identify actions that help us carry out the work to which our spirituality calls us. 
It was through such a dialogue that I came together with several followers of Pope Francis to plan a potluck meal this week in honor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  Through a network of kind-hearted faith-rooted social justice advocates I know in NYC, several of us, especially Sara Jolena Wolcott from Union Theological Seminary, Tom Dobbins from the Catholic Charities office of the Archdiocese of NY, and Terry Michaud from the Blessed Sacrament Social Action Committee and the Metro NY Catholic Climate Movement, and myself, came together to organize a dinner and discussion around the topic of indigenous peoples, and food, water, and climate justice, in honor of St. Kateri.


Held in the dining room of the Blessed Sacrament rectory, the dinner was attended by members of Blessed Sacrament’s Social Action Committee and RCIA program, members of the Metro NY Catholic Climate Movement, Tom Dobbins, Sr. Odile Courier from Holy Name Parish and Franciscans International, and several others. After prayers, we went around our circle of about sixteen people sharing what brought us into the room. People asked rich questions around food, climate, spirituality, faith, and history of the church. We started off with everyone sharing what brought them to the room. Responses were rich, and varied across the topics of food, climate, spirituality, faith, and history of the Church.  Some were concerned about food waste, portion sizes being so big, how food is valued so much less now than it used to be, why is food a privilege, and why are food dyes and other toxic chemicals fed to kids in the form of junk food. Others discussed the poor state of recycling, and how overproduction stems from a fear of not having enough. Sara reminded us that wastelands used to be referred to as “the commons,” a far cry from what most wastelands look like today. Some wanted to learn more about St. Kateri and contemplate how we can better “welcome the stranger.”

There is a thirst to learn what will wake up the planet in regards to climate change, to reconnect with creation, and to learn, what is the liturgy to support sustainability in the Catholic Church?  One woman who grew up in the Bronx reminded us that “life grows through burned buildings and cracks in the concrete,” and that, “life has to have its day.”  Sr. Odile shared how working with the indigenous people in the Philippines taught her about what it means to be close to nature/creation, and how we are so disconnected from it. A French citizen, Sr. Odile reminded us to keep our ethnocentrism in check: the U.S. is important but other countries' backgrounds are important too and we need to act together. Someone mentioned that we need to have the moral courage to talk about economics; the financial bottom line not always being the most important factor to take into consideration when making decisions.

Given the current U.S. political situation, there was a comment about the history of Church opposition to the Third Reich. An interesting comment was also made about the harm the church has done by perpetuating a false split between spirit and matter, to which I responded by saying this false split is debunked through recognizing the divine nature in all of creation including the food we eat, and the importance of food and faith in bringing us around the table together (one of the core tenants around which Christianity was founded). I also shared my discovery of the amazing parallels between Native American prayers and the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis of Assisi in praising creation, as I believe now more than ever, it is critical for us to recognize the parallels between Catholic and Christian spirituality and indigenous spirituality.


Sara Jolena then gave us a history lesson through retelling the story of where we are today in a way that tied together the fifteenth century Church, the Doctrine of Discovery, colonization, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and St. Kateri. The essence of the story is as follows: through a papal bull, in 1451 Pope Nicholas V gave permission to King Alfonso V of Portugal not only to explore but also to enslave the peoples of the West Coast of Africa who were assumed to be non-Christian "pagans," or "Saracens," or Muslims. This enslavement would become the Transatlantic Slave Trade. A 1454 Papal Bull gave the Church authority to the witch hunts, destroying the lower-class "indigenous women of Europe."  In 1493, when Columbus returned from the "New World," Pope Alexander VI wrote several other bulls that encouraged conquest of any land not inhabited by Christians. This became known as the Doctrine of Discovery. It supported Spain’s conquest of the New World, starting with the landsdiscovered” by Columbus. The Doctrine of Discovery had at its premise that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”1  [The tragedy, which was made painfully clear to me during a recent talk by a Colombian visitor to the Union Theological Seminary Center for Earth Ethics, is that indigenous peoples did not quite need to be “converted” to Christianity, especially through violent conquest which is against the core tenant of Christianity. The Natives already possessed a respect for the divine nature of creation and did not need to hear Jesus’ message as much as the people to whom Jesus preached and ministered to in his corner of the world.]

St. Kateri, meanwhile, was a Native American who converted to Catholicism and practiced a devout religious life. She chose the name "Kateri," the Mohawk form of Catherine, taking the namesake of Catherine of Siena.  Her short life was marked by illness, loss, sorrow and suffering as she witnessed her family suffer and become turned upside down in the contact with the Europeans, who brought disease, a monetary-based economy hungry to consume the natural resources of this land, and a faith that stirred her heart. despite her family's protests, she refused to marry anyone except Jesus Christ. She lived between two worlds: Catholic and Mohawk. So far as we know, she treasured both. Eventually she moved to a monastery in New France where she and another Native woman yearned to start their own nunnery; they were told that they were too young. She died at age 24 surrounded by her new-found community. According to the priests who sat besides her as she was dying, after her death, the scars from the small pox that had marked her face since she was suffered from the disease brought by the Europeans at age three vanished and her face began to brightly glow. It was one of many miracles associated with her.

Given this history and the current state of affairs with Native Americans, I find myself asking, what would St. Francis of Assisi do?  The Doctrine of Discovery didn’t come into existence until a few hundred years after Francis’ death. But he gave us the Canticle of the Creatures, which is of the same thread of understanding of our place within the ecological web of life as the beliefs held by indigenous peoples. He also gave us a lifetime’s worth of inspiring actions that he took in response to the simple command he heard through prayer to “repair the house” of God.  In the same way that Francis’ life and spirituality has been a source of inspiration for Franciscans for centuries, St. Kateri’s ability to bridge indigenous culture and Catholic tradition should be a source of inspiration for us all as well.  So, in the wake of human rights atrocities and what Pope Francis refers to in Laudato Si as “unbridled exploitation” happening at Standing Rock, may we remember that Water is Life, and do all that is in our power to protect it for one another and for generations to come.

1 http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-inter-caetera.html

*Updated to include edits from Sara Jolena Wolcott 

You may also find this resource useful:  How to Give, and to Give Thanks, to Standing Rock  

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