Restoring St. Kateri’s Languages: The North American Church’s Story

Native Catholics say the Church risks losing some wisdom of holiness without St. Kateri’s Mohawk and other indigenous languages.

Above, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia celebrates Mass at the 2013 Tekakwitha Conference gathering. Below, Murray O'Coin, a Mohawk of the Bear Clan, and lay administrator of the Keristos Ne Korah:Kowah [Christ the King] ordinariate community in Tyendinaga.
Above, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia celebrates Mass at the 2013 Tekakwitha Conference gathering. Below, Murray O'Coin, a Mohawk of the Bear Clan, and lay administrator of the Keristos Ne Korah:Kowah [Christ the King] ordinariate community in Tyendinaga. (photo: Courtesy of the Tekakwitha Conference and Jane Hodgins)

KAHNAWAKE, Canada — At St. Francis Xavier mission in Kahnawake, the Mohawk nation land along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, a beautiful marble tomb holds the remains of one of the most beloved saints of North America: St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.”

St. Kateri grew in holiness in a 17th-century Catholic Iroquois community that produced many holy laymen and women, including four martyrs, whose lives were characterized by communal morning and evening prayer, daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration, frequent confession and reception of Holy Communion, the Rosary and Marian devotion.

St. Kateri and her contemporaries lived out the Catholic wisdom in the Haudenosaunee word for Christian: “True-One-Who-Makes-the-Sign-of-the-Cross.”

Today, Native Americans all over North America seek the preservation of their languages, the foundation of their culture and identity, including the Mohawk and Algonquin languages spoken by St. Kateri. St. John Paul II prophetically revealed the Church could not let these languages join St. Kateri in her tomb.

In 1984 at the Martyrs Shrine in Midlands, Canada, the Holy Father — who risked his life in World War II to commit to memory and recite Polish literary works banned by the Nazis — told native Catholics that the Church depends on the “revival of Indian culture.”

“Through his Gospel, Christ confirms the native peoples in their belief in God, their awareness of his presence, their ability to discover him in creation, their dependence on him, their desire to worship him, their sense of gratitude for the land, their responsible stewardship of the earth, their reverence for all his great works, their respect for their elders,” he said. “The world needs to see these values — and so many more that they possess — pursued in the life of the community and made incarnate in a whole people.”

Sister of St. Anne Kateri Mitchell, the executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference, told the Register that her own experience of Catholic faith, identity and spirituality was shaped by her parents, who taught her the prayers in the Mohawk language, which they spoke at home. Sister Kateri was born in the St. Regis Mohawk territory and is a member of St. Kateri’s family, the “Turtle Clan.”

“The language is part of your identity and who you are,” she said. Sister Kateri learned Mohawk from her parents, who spoke it in their home. But the language, she said, is both the “root of culture” and also expresses their culture’s spiritual life and identity: “Part of our being as a Mohawk people is to give thanks for all creation.”

The Tekakwitha Conference encourages the revival of North American indigenous languages in the lives of native Catholics, both through promoting language immersion and increasing their use in the Church’s liturgy, prayer and hymns.

Ryan DeCaire, a professor who teaches Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language, at the University of Toronto’s Center for Indigenous Studies and through adult immersion programs, told the Register that “language plays a critical role in identity” — but particularly in the case of North American indigenous languages, which had to pass on to countless generations in their culture, religion, values, governance and stories without the aid of a written language.

The North American languages are verb-based, DeCaire explained, while Indo-European languages work differently by stringing nouns representing abstract ideas together.

For example, he said, English has the word “right,” implying a sense of ownership, but the equivalent Mohawk word brings out a different emphasis because it translates as “you-have-a-responsibility-to-this.”

However, DeCaire estimates that only 1,000 fluent speakers of Mohawk remain, and “there are indigenous languages in worse situations in the U.S.” Canada has 80 remaining indigenous languages, and unless the trajectory is reversed, he contends most will be extinct by the end of the century.

One of the drivers behind this language disappearance in the U.S. and Canada was the residential school system, which was designed to separate children from their parents and communities that transmitted their language and culture, forcing their assimilation. The Church unwittingly contributed to this in varying degrees by the late 19th century — in part because missionaries no longer had to go out to their people, but would have native children brought to them — and damaged the earlier missionaries’ previous legacy of respecting and integrating native language and culture into Catholic life.

However, DeCaire said the Church now has the opportunity and responsibility to support native peoples in reintegrating them with their language and identity. He pointed out that this support could be lifesaving: According to a 2007 preliminary study by the University of British Columbia (UBC) of 150 native communities in the province, youth suicides dropped to near zero in those communities where more than half the members could converse in their indigenous language, achieving a rate far below average for native and non-native youth; however, communities in which less than half the members spoke the language saw six times the suicide rate.

Native Canadians make up just 1.5 million of Canada’s 35 million people, but they account for 25% of all suicides. But the UBC report concluded the evidence showed “indigenous language use, as a marker of cultural persistence, is a strong predictor of health and well-being in Canada’s Aboriginal communities.” 

Getting “advanced-level speakers,” DeCaire said, requires the language be spoken in the home. DeCaire said the Church could support native language restoration by providing forums for them to speak and hear their language, such as parishes, schools and other institutions. Formally supporting language methods proven to re-immerse adults in their own language — providing them financial and institutional backing — would also be welcome.

“We don’t have any time to spare,” he said, noting that indigenous language teachers are in a race against time to create a new fluent generation. The biggest priority for indigenous people, DeCaire said, is making sure these languages — with the stories and wisdom of their cultures — are not lost forever by the time the last fluent elderly speaker passes away. “We can’t distract ourselves from creating speakers.”


Catholic Schools

The critical importance of native languages shows itself in the foundation of the Church in North America. The Virgin Mary announced to St. Juan Diego in Nahuatl that she was “Tlecuatlecupe,” which translates as “The-One-Who-Crushes-the-Head-of-the-Serpent.” This is how the patroness of the Americas became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Because of their language’s capacity to capture the truths of the Catholic faith in a word, Huron Catholics taken captive by the Iroquois and adopted into their families did what the eight Jesuit martyrs of the U.S. and Canada dreamed of: They brought the Catholic faith to the powerful Five Nations of the Iroquois League and spread it among them. One of them, a Huron-Wendat man adopted into the Oneidas named Francis Xavier Tonsahoten, would later, with his wife, Kateri Ganneaktena, co-found the Catholic Iroquois community along the St. Lawrence River that helped to form St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

Catholic schools could play a critical role in reversing the tarnished legacy of the residential schools by re-immersing indigenous students in their own language as part of Catholic education.

The Jesuit-affiliated Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota now teaches students at all K-12 levels in Lakota language and tradition, thanks to a $2.2-million grant that funded its comprehensive Lakota Language Program. Phase I reported 67% of students were now using the language more in the home, and 77% were more aware of their heritage and traditions. Phase II will focus on integrating families and community involvement in speaking the language.

Dot Teso, president of St. Michael’s Indian School in Gallup, New Mexico, told the Register that the school is today living out more than ever the authentic vision of St. Katharine Drexel — a patron of American Indian education — by promoting authentic Catholic identity and Navajo (Diné) culture.

“We offer Navajo language and culture for all grades,” she said, adding that in the upcoming school year, they intend to introduce a pre-K program.

Because the school witnesses to how one can be fully Navajo and fully Catholic, both faculty and students have embraced the Catholic faith — 13 students this past year. The Blessed Sacrament is central to the school, and all the teachers are Navajo.

But Teso said that many Catholic schools that saw Navajo language and authentic Catholic teaching as opposed to each other have shuttered their doors, failing to either pass on the faith or the Navajo language and culture. But Catholic identity is the secret to St. Michael’s success because parents want their children to have a Catholic education, and they like to see the Navajo language and culture alive in the school.

Students are immersed in Navajo government, language, culture and art — and even school elections are based on Navajo tradition. St. Michael’s does a Navajo Mass at graduation — 98% of students go to college — which incorporates drums, incense made of burning sage and a reading of the Navajo “Four Directions” into the liturgy.

“It is the only Catholic high school in the diocese that has survived,” she said.


Native Liturgy: Then and Now

The Church has worked over the past couple of decades to bring native people’s culture and identity into the Mass in an authentic, harmonious way.

Father Michel Mulloy, director of divine worship for the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, said the diocese has made strides to integrate Lakota culture and spirituality into the celebration of the liturgy and the construction of churches, following guidelines established by then-Bishop Charles Chaput, who is himself of Native American descent, part of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Father Mulloy said what is now needed is getting the liturgy into Lakota.

Getting the Roman liturgy fully translated into native languages requires the approval of two-thirds of the bishops’ conference. But it also demands a bishop who will persistently advocate for it. The Diocese of San Cristobal, Mexico, pushed for seven years for the Vatican to allow the Mass in Tzotzil and Tzeltal, indigenous Mayan languages in Mexico’s Chiapas state, until Pope Francis approved it in 2013.

But the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, for example, has not received requests from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to translate the Third Edition of the Roman Missal into any indigenous language. Navajo, the largest spoken indigenous language in the U.S., has 170,000 speakers, but only parts of the Mass have been translated.

However, native languages in North America had been integrated into the Church’s Latin Mass before the liturgical reform in what was known as the “Indian Mass.”

Claudio Salvucci, author of The Roman Rite in the Algonquian and Iroquoian Missions: From the Colonial Period to the Second Vatican Council, said the “Indian Mass” appeared to have had a nearly three-centuries-old indult that allowed native peoples to sing the ordinary and proper prayers of the Mass in their own language. They even had their own “Indian vespers,” not the traditional Roman vespers.

“Culture and worship are supposed to go together,” Salvucci said, explaining that the prayers contain native insights into the Divine, which are their contributions to the Church’s universality.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, native communities found the Church’s Latin language replaced with European languages, not their own.

Sister Kateri indicated that while some priests serving native parishes have made a greater effort to learn the languages of the people they serve and incorporate them into the liturgy, she and other indigenous Catholics would like to see greater intentional efforts made to incorporate indigenous language, culture and spirituality into the Mass. Part of that, she said, could be aided by raising up substantial numbers of native clergy, but educated in ways sensitive to native culture. Sister Kateri said the personal ordinariates (established by Pope Benedict XVI to provide a lasting home for the Anglican patrimony in the Catholic Church) might provide a possible model for how the Church can nurture in a coordinated manner across a geographically dispersed area the growth of native Catholic liturgies, spiritual traditions and priestly and religious life under a bishop, who does not have to be an indigenous person, but one “with a heart for the native people.”

Affirming Identity

Murray O’Coin, a lay administrator of Keristos Ne Korah:Kowah (Christ the King in Mohawk) community, which is part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, said his entire life he has looked through the Bible with Mohawk eyes and had a deep love for Jesus’ mother Mary even before becoming Catholic, precisely because the Mohawk tradition reveres their mothers. Bishop Steven Lopes has encouraged his community to continue to find ways to integrate Mohawk into the ordinariate’s Mass known as Divine Worship. Besides having the Sign of the Cross, the Our Father and the hymns and carols they have sung since St. Kateri’s day, O’Coin said his community is looking to add the Apostles’ Creed in Mohawk and considering the possibility of whether Collects from old Mohawk translations of the Book of Common Prayer (much of which is integrated into the ordinariate’s missal) could also be integrated into the Mass.

“My bishop is very supportive, and I’m appreciative of that,” he said.

For O’Coin, being able to pray the Mass parts and sing hymns in the living language of his people is a deeply powerful affirmation of what they bring to the whole Church as a people. More Mohawk people have joined the Church because they see the culture alive in their ordinariate community, where they are encouraged to be “fully Mohawk and fully Catholic” and lift up their voices in the Church.

“We have young people hearing those hymns, prayers in Mohawk, and it becomes part of their everyday,” he said.

“Even just being able to pray the Lord’s Prayer in Mohawk, it says being Catholic and being Indian is good. I don’t have to do anything than be what God has made me to be.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.