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Celebrating Christ and Being Native

Each year during the time surrounding the Christian days of the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I find myself thinking about how I became a person who still goes to church. My father’s family is deeply immersed in Lakota religion and his grandparents became Episcopalians who had baptisms at their home. My great grandfather noted important religious events throughout his life. My grandmother, Alice Cadotte, felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in her life everyday. They were Episcopals in the Catholic town of St. Francis. My mother was raised in the Catholic Church and graduated from St. Francis Mission. She and my father were religiously tolerant which I witnessed many times throughout their lifetimes.

During my childhood and my teen years, I voluntarily, even eagerly, practiced my Episcopal faith. I went to church regularly, attended youth fellowship and even taught vacation bible school and Sunday school. All the young people in Rosebud participated with the Catholic and Episcopal youth organizations. The churches were who hosted events and dances and the priests and our families worked hard to keep us busy. As a result, for many the highlights of our childhood and teenage lives were connected to the churches. Grandma Ellen Quick Bear ran the Church of Jesus rummage room and saved me the coolest clothes – maxi dresses and a suede coat with a fur collar stand out as memories. Father Richard Pates was the confidant of many young people who hung out at the CYO building playing basketball, pinball and board games. Our first dances were live bands at the CYO.

When I finally was able to fully come home to my own Lakota religion, there was a period of time when my anger over the experiences of so many of our relatives caused me to turn away from Christianity and the rituals of my youth. I practiced a little radical Christianity and had communion in my home with others who rejected organized religion but wanted to honor and be one with Christ’s teachings, I argued the reasons to reject the church, and ignored my mother’s desire for her grandchildren to be baptized.

Throughout, I have been with many, many Native people whose faith in Jesus and his teachings are easily and readily accepted as a natural part of who they are as Natives. With most people, they like my grandparents and great-grandparents, are immersed in their Native ways while integrating their Christian lives. They are able to look beyond the experiences of mission schools and the policies and practices of organized religions into the teachings of Jesus Christ who brings the message of peace. They do not forget, they go to a deeper place seeking understanding. My adopted mother, Doris, one of most knowledgeable practioners of our religion, loved to sing Dakota hymns during the holidays. At every celebration and death in our family we would have both Lakota and Christians ceremonies. We would load our pipe and smoke together and say a meal grace. We had the prayers for the dead from the Episcopal prayer book and buried our family members with songs and prayers from the iyeska, medicine man, and his helpers.

One day many years ago, I had an insight that I was trying to hard to reject my own personal history of having a relationship with the familiar church of my childhood. I learned to live in the dichotomy that is being Native and celebrating Christ. I know that the White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the cannupa to us with a message of peace and teachings for our daily lives, I believe Jesus did the same, he brought a message of peace and guidance for behaviors for ourselves and with each other. When I go to church I pray to Tunkashila, the grandfathers, I believe Jesus as a teacher is there with them. When I go to ceremony, Sundance, or the inipi, I pray to Tunkashila, our relatives in the spirit world, and to Unci, our grandmother for good health and support for all. I do not search my Lakota beliefs for a place for Christ, the religion of our people is much older then Christianity, and it does not need Christ to be true and real.

This is the first time, I have written about the place of Christianity and church in my spiritual practice. I cannot forget to mention that I really appreciate and love the rituals of my practice and the intimacy of my relationship with the church is part of that.

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