“Loving one another through the spirit of St. Kateri” was the theme for the 78th annual Tekakwitha Conference, held from July 19-22 in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The Tekakwitha Conference is the largest gathering of Indigenous Catholics in the United States, named for the first Native American Saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. Tribes from across America gather for three days packed with workshops, talks, Mass, and fellowship, with many bishops from Native American populated dioceses in attendance to lead liturgies and listen to issues concerning their Indigenous flocks.

“Everything is about prayer, asking God for assistance,” said Cornell Iyua, recalling his time at the conference. “He’s always there by us. If I were to encourage other people to go I would.”

Iyua, Clara Kinsel, and their daughters attended as part of the Kateri Family Youth Circle from St. Mary’s Church in Tohatchi, NM. Iyua, who is Navajo, recalls a time when religion played little importance in his life. But when his daughters began asking their parents to go to church as a family, he felt that he had to be a good role model and oblige them. Then the family learned the story of St. Kateri.

“Church really changed our ways,” he said. “Going to be conference for the first time in San Francisco [in 2016] really opened my eyes to how strong this little girl was, and now she’s a Saint.”

Clara Kinsel hopes that the example of St. Kateri will help her own daughters to grow up strong and courageous in their faith.

“She changed everything for us,” Kinsel said. “She’s a good role model for us Natives for how she suffered but made it up there. For us Native Americans, we can be acknowledged because she’s our Saint and she’s up there and we’re following in her footsteps.”

Sr. Patricia Bietsch has spent many years working on reservations in the United States. She currently oversees various parish activities and ministries at St. Mary’s Church, and remote reservation villages including Coyote Canyon and Naschitti.

“For me, it feels like faith in the Native American tradition to see them come together and to see them so proud of who they are,” Bietsch said. “So it’s the faith experience of another culture. I’m not Native American, but I get to stand with them, to be proud as a Catholic.”

Parishioners from St. Mary Church, Tohatchi, at the 2017 Tekakwitha Conference. Photo courtesy of Sr. Pat Bietsch.

The Tohatchi group took extra time during their trip to visit prominent memorials and historical sites commemorating the struggles of northern Native American tribes. At Little Bighorn, the youth and their parents viewed the hill where a combined force of Plains Indians defeated and American Cavalry Regiment.

One of the Oglala Sioux present at that historic battle may someday become a Catholic saint. Nicholas Black Elk was 13 years old when Custer and the American military were defeated. In adulthood, he was a prominent Oglala Medicine Man, father, and tribal leader. Later in his life he converted to Catholicism; his great moral character and skill as a catechist is credited for the conversion of hundreds of his tribesmen. Black Elk’s love of both his faith and Native culture has led his grandchildren and tribe to formally petition the bishop of the Diocese of Rapid City to nominate Black Elk for the cause of canonization.

During a time when the national debate about painful history is prominently in the spotlight, the Tekakwitha Conference embraces the history, culture and religion of indigenous peoples. Each year the conference is held in a different Diocese with a large population of Native Americans; the 2018 Tekakwitha Conference will be held in Tacoma, Washington.

“Our Catholic Native Americans – this is the only vehicle where they can all come together”, says Sr. Bietsch. “It gives them the universal understanding of the Catholic Church. And that’s the beauty of the Catholic Church, you see, because there’s other Catholics that are [Native] who also suffered and they can share their story.”

As Clara Kinsel reflects on the summer experience she shared with her family, she offers a decisive piece of advice for her fellow Native American Catholics.

“To my people, have your heads up and follow in Kateri’s footsteps.”

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