Restoring St. Kateri’s [and Other “Native American”] Languages: The North American Church’s Story

Restoring St. Kateri’s [and Other “Native American”] 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, His Excellency performs an American Indian feather blessing over the Eucharistic Elements with a shaman (medicine man) in the background.

[Also incorporating American Indian pagan practices into the Sacred Liturgy with the encouragement of the USCCCP (see
Nothing like celebrating a Catholic Saint with paganism), Connecticut Catholic Corner, Friday, August 4, 2017)]

Peter Jesserer Smith

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-Men-Who-Make-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 the Mohawk language. 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 is trying to promote the revival of native languages in the lives of native Catholics, encouraging language immersion and the increasing incorporation of their languages into 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.”

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