One Church Many Cultures The Good News of Cultural Diversity Newsletter Spring/Summer 2021
Native American Affairs
Many Nations, One Faith
By: Robert Barbry II, Executive Director of the Tekakwitha Conference
“The Tekakwitha Conference began in 1939 as an annual meeting for Catholic missionaries who evangelized American Indians in Northern Plains states.” This is a quote from Marquette University Archives describing the circumstances and purpose for which the Tekakwitha Conference came into existence. What began as something of a support group for priests doing ministry on reservations eventually reorganized itself into a Catholic 501(c)(3) organization and an annual gathering that bears its name.
Only now, this annual gathering welcomes bishops, priests, men and women religious, and laypeople alike. Attendees include those in active ministry in Native American, First Nations, and Alaskan Native settings to those who simply have a devotion to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, or any number of holy, indigenous men and women. Rooted in its Roman Catholic identity and dedicated to making room for the many cultural expressions of America’s first peoples, the Tekakwitha Conference aims to be the voice of those who are both Native & Catholic.
As Catholics, we all can attest that representation matters. For a Church that began in the Middle East and spread throughout the inhabited world, it is important for every tribe and nation to be able to see themselves reflected in the face of Jesus Christ – to look upon His Church and say assuredly, I belong here. The conversation among those who identify as both Native & Catholic has long been about finding the ways in which their traditional native ways are compatible with their Catholic faith. To many, there is no division, no this or that, only both/and.
In Kateri Tekakwitha, Native Catholics find this worldview personified. Historically, members of the Tekakwitha Conference have been among the most fervent advocates and intercessors for her cause of canonization. In 2012, when Holy Mother Church finally called her “Saint” it was a moment of both celebration and affirmation. In the near-decade since, many other causes for sainthood have been opened, explored, or petitioned for indigenous men and women who lived a life wholly dedicated to Jesus Christ and his Church without compromising the very fabric of their identity.
This year, the Tekakwitha Conference will commemorate its 82nd year of ministry with a virtual conference. The organization, like so many others, has recognized its need to be agile and to adapt its methods and means of ministry while safeguarding its mission. The holding of this first-ever virtual Tekakwitha Conference represents, in another way, all the work that remains. Historical trauma, racism, and representation are issues still present in the hearts and minds of faithful conferencegoers and first-time attendees alike. To learn more about the Tekakwitha Conference or to find out how to register for this year’s virtual conference in July 2021, please visit tekconf.org.