July 24, 2023 | National & World News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Amber Tseabe Roy dances in a powwow July 22 at the Tekakwitha Conference in Bloomington, Minn. She belongs to St. Kateri Rosary Circle in Chicago. (OSV News photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

Tekakwitha Conference honors God’s gifts of water, wisdom and elders in faith

BY JOE RUFF, OSV NEWS

ST. PAUL, Minn. (OSV News) — Celebrating Native American Catholics’ cultures and traditions along with a special Mass with Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis were the focus July 22 of the 84th annual Tekakwitha Conference in the Twin Cities.

Several hundred people traveled by bus from a hotel in Bloomington, Minnesota, where most of the North American conference was held July 19-23, to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul for a cultural day that included a morning water ceremony with prayers and hymns honoring God’s gift of the precious resource and its life-giving importance.

Maryanna Harstad of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and program director at Gichitwaa Kateri in south Minneapolis guided the water ceremony with stories, prayers and hymns. She noted the outdoor gathering at the university was only 5 miles away from the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, which in Dakota and Ojibwe spirituality is considered a place of creation and healing. Water used in the ceremony was drawn from Minnesota’s Lake Itasca at the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Dana Thompson, a descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes, spoke in a nearby auditorium about her effort to re-establish Native foods to combat economic and health crises affecting Native communities.

“When they say, Mother Earth? It’s true,” she said. “We are of the earth. And the plants around us are here as teachers,” said Thompson, citing the health benefits of electrolytes found in birch syrup and protein-packed fiddlehead ferns. Thompson’s work involves co-owning and helping run The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis, which includes a restaurant dedicated to Indigenous foods and the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.

Tanya Tucker, right, and her daughter, Marcela, carry a banner for Gitchitwaa Kateri parish in Minneapolis July 20, 2023, during the grand march of the Tekakwitha Conference in Bloomington, Minn. (OSV News photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw, an author, international speaker and digital content creator who lives in Apple Valley, Minnesota, spoke about insights to wisdom and healthful living he gained while learning and helping create a dictionary of the Ojibwe language.

Ojibwe words with complex structures and multiple but interconnected interpretations brought him to understand the sacred nature of relationships with people and nature fed by humility, respect and love, said Vukelich Kaagegaabaw. He is a descendant of Turtle Mountain, who has written a book about his adventures with language and culture titled “The Seven Generations and the Seven Grandfather Teachings.”

In his homily at Mass in the auditorium, which was celebrated in English with hymns sung in Ojibwe and English, Archbishop Hebda spoke of the importance of elders including grandparents, and he thanked those gathered for the way they enrich the church and teach about faith and life.

“I couldn’t help but note that today, throughout the world this weekend, the Holy Father has asked us to celebrate grandparents and elders,” the archbishop said of Pope Francis instituting the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, adding, “you’ve taught me so much about elders and respect for family.”

“My suspicion, brothers and sisters, is that many of you can speak not only about your parents but about a grandparent or a great-grandparent who introduced you to the faith and who helped you persevere even in difficult times; who taught you about what’s important in life,” the archbishop said. “And not just your grandparents by blood, but those elders who have been so much a part of Catholic Indian communities throughout this country and who have passed on not only the wisdom of the elders but have passed on our faith.”

After Mass, Michelle Hakala-Beeksma, an enrolled member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northeastern Minnesota and co-chair of the conference, gave blankets of appreciation that were placed on the shoulders of several organizers and supporters of the Tekakwitha Conference, including Archbishop Hebda. The blankets are an Ojibwe way to honor people, Hakala-Beeksma said, by “wrapping them in your love and prayers.”

The Tekakwitha Conference wrapped up July 22 back at the hotel in Bloomington with a powwow that included drumming, chanting and dancing.

Joe Ruff is the editor-in-chief of The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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