‘It’s the same great spirit’

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*The following is an opinion piece I wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press after attending the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha in Rome last weekend. Read the original article text here.

VATICAN CITY — “Sainte Kateri, Protectrice du Canada et premiere Sainte Amerindienne…”

Those words from Pope Benedict XVI were ones Chief Wilton Littlechild travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to hear. Despite the 26 C heat, he watched from the crowd in St. Peters Square wearing a traditional war bonnet, resplendent with beadwork, tanned hide and eagle feathers.

“It’s unbelievable, just amazing” he said to me. He should know. This is the latest step on a journey for Littlechild that has taken him from a residential school as a boy to an appointment as commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Indeed, reconciliation between the church and First Nations people was on the minds of many here.

On this day, we were two among hundreds of indigenous people from across Canada and the United States who travelled to the Vatican to witness the canonization of the first native American saint: Kateri Tekakwitha. Many wore traditional regalia. Scanning the crowd, I saw Anishinaabe jingle dresses, beautiful turquoise jewelry from the Pueblos of the southwestern United States and many, many outfits with the purple and white colours of the Haudenashonee, Kateri’s people (also known as Mohawk).
The canonization ceremony (Kateri is one of seven new saints) capped off a series of celebrations that brought indigenous North Americans into the Catholic Church perhaps more completely than ever before. The rite itself featured a prayer in the Mohawk language. The night before, at a special vigil for Saint Kateri, the cardinals, bishops and worshippers present smudged with sage and sweetgrass — this in the San Giovanni In Laterano Basilica, the “mother of all churches.”

Yet even as indigenous North Americans are celebrated by the church, there are signs the embrace could go further. During his remarks, the Pope noted that although Saint Kateri “worked, faithful to the traditions of her people,” she “renounc[ed] their religious convictions.”

The church views indigenous cultures as merely a host for the Catholic religion. This approach is called “acculturation” by Catholic missionaries. As one priest explains in the new film In Her Footsteps: The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha, acculturation is the process where the local culture becomes like a “prism” through which the “truth” of the gospel is revealed.

Talking to many of the indigenous people at the canonization ceremony, many of them residential school survivors, I don’t think this is what they have in mind. They speak of embracing Catholicism, but also of practising their traditional spirituality. It is precisely this pluralistic approach that made the inclusion of smudging and indigenous language so important to them. It is that same reason that motivated so many of them to wear their traditional clothing to Vatican City.

As Chief Littlechild says: “We can have both spiritual beliefs, although it’s the same great spirit and the same Creator.”
There was much talk from church officials this week about how Kateri’s sainthood opens the doors for new forms of evangelism. Pope Benedict himself called for a “renewal of faith in the First Nations.” This misses an opportunity.

The truth about reconciliation is this: It is not a second chance at assimilation. It should not be a kinder, gentler evangelism, free from the horrors of the residential school era. Rather, true reconciliation is a second chance at building a mutually respectful relationship.

While the Vatican may not yet treat it as such, many of the Aboriginal delegates in Rome this week do. They speak about new beginnings, healing and moving on. In a quiet courtyard in Vatican City at a post-canonization reception, Littlechild says, “I’ve forgiven, even more now, I think. For myself, the experiences that I’ve had, but also for my family.”
Nearby, a young boy, Jake Finkbonner, poses for photos with well-wishers. It is his close encounter with death from flesh-eating disease and subsequent healing that the Catholic Church calls a miracle attributable to Kateri. This paved the way for her canonization.

For me, however, the example set by Chief Littlechild and countless other residential school survivors in Rome this week is a miracle of at least equal significance: that people treated so poorly by the church as children grew up to not only forgive but embrace it. I am so proud of Littlechild, my father Tobasonakwut Kinew and all the other former students I spoke to at the canonization. Their courage in preserving our culture gives me the chance to be a proud indigenous person. Perhaps more importantly, the grace with which they have embraced Catholics as brethren shows me how to be a good human being.

Perhaps the Aboriginal culture really is a prism through which universal truths like love, compassion and forgiveness can shine through. I pray other Catholics recognize they are truths to which no religion has an exclusive claim.

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