‘Blueprint for Sainthood’ Seen in Native American Lives, Martyrdoms

American Catholics are discovering a hidden, but glorious legacy of holy men and women, including hundreds of martyrs, in North America thanks to the Tekakwitha Conference.

This portrait was painted around 1696 by Father Claude Chauchetière, who knew Kateri personally and wrote the first biography of the saint.
This portrait was painted around 1696 by Father Claude Chauchetière, who knew Kateri personally and wrote the first biography of the saint. (photo: Register Files)

What does it mean for a Catholic to make a free choice for Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost? Many American Catholics in the aftermath of horrific scandals of abuse and cover-up are examining the foundations of their Catholic faith and facing this decisive question.

In an interview with the Register, Robert Barbry II, executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference, shares that the Church has a powerful answer in the heroic lives of Native American Catholics. The Tekakwitha Conference hopes that by sharing their stories, these holy men and women can reveal to Catholics today the “blueprint for sainthood,” even in the darkest times, that comes through following the call of the Lord Jesus Christ.


The Tekakwitha Conferences have been raising awareness about Native Catholic men and women who led holy lives, hundreds of whom were martyrs. Why is this work so important, and what fruit have you seen from these efforts so far?

Just last month our conference celebrated its 80th year of uniting both Native [American] and non-Native people around a common devotion to our patroness, St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Since her canonization in 2012, however, the focus of the conference has broadened to include other holy First Nations men and women whose causes for sainthood are currently being explored. Chief among those causes are the Martyrs of La Florida and Servant of God, Nicholas Black Elk.

Being fairly new to the role of executive director, I’ve observed a common thread among many of our members and attendees. This thread is such that in Saint Kateri, Black Elk and other models of holiness, our people have recognized that being a faithful Catholic is not mutually exclusive with being faithful to one’s indigenous culture. This conference is just that: an experience of faith and culture. It is a multicultural gathering that allows our people to learn from one another, pray and worship with one another, and unite around our common bond — our Catholic faith.


I've spoken with many non-Native Catholics who have had no idea about these holy men and women, and are hungry to learn more. Why do you think these stories of Native Catholic men and women can speak so strongly to all Catholics?

I believe these stories of North American indigenous saints and prospective saints offer a true testament to the power of the Holy Spirit. Between the wounds stemming from the boarding school period and the historic marginalization which took place at the hands of colonizers, the relationship between Natives and the [institutional] Roman Catholic Church has been rocky at best.

Through our annual event, we continually work to strengthen efforts of reconciliation. We seek to create spaces for dialogue between our people and our clergy, including our bishops. If you’re following me, here, the stories of these holy, indigenous men and women demonstrate the fruits of the earliest missionary work on the North American continent. I think this is what people might find compelling — in the midst of brutality and abuse at the hands of these explorers, there are many stories like Saint Kateri, Nicholas Black Elk, Antonio Cuipa and Companions, and the Jesuit martyrs who ministered among the indigenous population. These stories show that even in such a dark period of our story, the power of the Holy Spirit, the grace of the sacraments, and the charity of those missionary priests and religious who broke rank from their merciless counterparts paved the way for the continuing evangelization of our Native tribes, pueblos and nations.


What were some of the compelling stories of holiness people heard at the Tekakwitha Conference in Ohio this year? Are there key features in their lives that show clearly "this is how you be a saint"?

Among our workshops and keynote presentations, attendees learned the accounts of Pablo Tac, a Luiseno man, who would go on to study in Rome as a seminarian and [almost] become a Roman Catholic priest — a fruit of the often-controversial California missions (think Junípero Serra, et. al), Joseph Chiwatenhwa, a Huron/Wendat disciple of the Jesuit missionaries, Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota Holy Man and catechist, the Martyrs of La Florida, as well as the stories of other well-known indigenous saints such as Saint Kateri Tekakwitha and Saint Juan Diego.

The blueprint for sainthood, as exemplified among each of these and, indeed, every saint is their complete and total abandonment to Jesus Christ. Their stories, unfortunately, are often misconstrued and we are led to believe that many indigenous men and women were coerced into the faith by force. While there may be occasions where that was true, the agency and free will of these men and women are often overlooked and undercut. These Native American saints and prospective saints shine a light on the free choice they made to follow Christ, no matter the cost. You see, many of them were deeply religious prior to their contact with Catholic missionaries. What they recognized in the Catholic tradition was Christ as the remedy for their deepest religious inclinations.


Our Church is facing a very deep crisis right now, which has had long and deep roots. Many people are suffering a crisis of faith. What do Native Catholic saints and martyrs teach us about what it means to follow Jesus Christ? How do they teach us what it means to be holy like Jesus in a time of scandal?

We could all assume that many of the missionaries who sought to evangelize the indigenous population of North America were ministering at a disadvantage. These clergy and religious came to the New World in the same boat as the oppressors. Building trust became a long and arduous process. These missionaries could not simply come, make their case and then move on. This missionary work required them to learn the language of these tribal communities; it required them to assimilate themselves into the fabric of these Native American societies — because without first earning their credibility among the local population, any further attempts at evangelization would have been for naught.

I believe the takeaway here is that faith is more often caught than taught. The cry of today’s lay Catholics to the hierarchy is: don’t just tell us, show us. The bonds between the laity and hierarchy are severely strained. We can look to the stories of these Native saints and learn that humility and charity are the lights along the path to healing and, ultimately, holiness.


How can we all work with the Tekakwitha Conference to promote these lives of holiness and generate greater awareness of the great gift of faith that has come to us through our Native Catholic brothers and sisters?

Simple. Join us at our 81st Annual Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, July 15-19, 2020. More information about our ministry can be found on our website, tekconf.org, and online registration for next year’s conference will be available in January 2020.