Spirituality for Today – September 2014 – Volume 19, Issue 2

Native American Day

Rev. Raymond Petrucci

A photo of Native Americans

On the 26th day of September, the civic holiday known as Native American Day is celebrated. This special day celebrating the native peoples of America was initiated in California in 1968. I admit that I was unfamiliar with the holiday, but a day lauding the presence and contributions of the first Americans is highly merited and much overdo. European and Native American interaction goes back to Columbus and, very likely, to earlier contact with Norse explorers. Those relations run the gamut from mutually beneficial to bloodily hostile. The United States has been blessed with contributions too numerous to count that are attributed to its Native American citizens. Among them, the nation owes its gratitude to the Navajo and Comanche Code Talkers during the two world wars this nation had to wage. Vital information during a battle and orders from commanders conveyed symbolically by means of a tongue understood only by the transmitting Native American soldier and the receiving Native American soldier saved countless lives and contributed greatly to battlefield victories. The enemy never was able to break the code established on the native languages of these tribes.

Within the context of the Catholic faith in the New World, North America can look gloriously to the figure of a young Mohawk maiden who would be known as the Lily of the Mohawks – Kateri Tekakwitha. Born in 1656 in a Mohawk village near to modern day Auriesville, New York, her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother was a Catholic member of the Algonquin tribe. When she was a young girl, small pox took the lives of her parents and a sibling. Her world was marked with the presence of European traders and missionaries. The French and The Dutch curried the favor of local tribes for trading rights and added to the turmoil of the times. With a French victory in a localized war, Kateri came under the influence of French Jesuits who introduced more of Catholicism to her. She converted to the faith at age twenty. This action incurred the wrath of many in her tribe. She moved to a fortress near Montreal and grew in piety and devotion to her faith. Kateri took upon herself numerous forms of mortification and other penitential actions. She noted to her mentor priest that these practices weakened her body, but strengthened her soul. Daily attendance at Mass became part of her devotion. Her religious conviction had a great impact on her community. Eventually, she weakened and died. She was only twenty-four years old, but Kateri had a profound influence on her people and all who knew her. In a few years, pilgrims and other faithful established a devotion to her. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized her as the first Native American saint.

I have read that the Native American prefers to be called an American Indian or just Indian, so much for Political Correctness. No matter, although they are a little less than one percent of the population, the American Indian has had a big impact on the history of this country and ought to have had an even larger impact on the American conscience. The Native American suffered from European diseases, the flood of European conquerors and immigrants, the idea know as Manifest Destiny, broken treaties, and a thousand slights. One chief said, "The white man made us many promises; too many to remember. They kept only one: They promised to take our land. They took it." Personally, I like to recall this Native American proverb, "Every time you wake up ask yourself 'What good things am I going to do today?' Remember that when the sun goes down at sunset, it will take part of your life with it." In gratitude, may all races that make up the great experiment that is America appreciate the gifts provided by the indigenous peoples of this country. Pray for our Native American citizens and that they may endure in grace and wisdom.