This year, and for the first time, Tacoma has the honor of hosting the 79th annual Tekakwitha Conference. The conference runs from July 18-22 at the Greater Tacoma Convention Center, and registrations are being taken at www.tekconf.org. (Please note that the blocked rooms in all three host hotels are full at this time.)
This annual gathering, according to the conference vision statement, is held to be the voice, presence and identity of indigenous Catholics under the protection and inspiration of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. St. Kateri was a young, Mohawk/Algonquin woman of the 17th century canonized by Pope Benedict in 2012. She is the first Native American to be canonized a saint and thus very precious to Native Catholics around the world. Travelers to the conference are expected from as far east as Florida and as far north as Alaska.
Two-and-a-half years in the making, each day of the conference is packed with workshops, presenters, plenty of opportunities to meet and mingle with fellow attendees, masses, and sunrise services at the host hotels with a different theme to pray for each morning, such as children and families affected by homelessness, drug and alcohol addictions. A member of the Puyallup Tribal Council will give the official welcome during the opening on July 18, and Sister Kateri Mitchell (Mohawk Nation), executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference, will speak as well and be present throughout the conference. After two decades as Tekakwitha Conference executive director, this will be Sr. Kateri’s final year to do so. Robert Barbry II, MA, is the new executive director in training and will be coming on board this fall.
Activities for youth and adults alike will ensure that people of all ages come away from the conference with a refreshed spirit, an inspired heart and a renewed sense of devotion to the gentle power of St. Kateri, known affectionately as “Lily of the Mohawks.”
Deacon Scott Aikin (Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Indian Tribe) is conference chair. A permanent deacon at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Vancouver and archdiocese of Seattle, he is also the national Native American liaison to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“In gathering people from all over the nation, the intent is to give support and solidarity to speak about issues that are faith related but can expound to challenges on the reservations, inner cities, and in the political arena that we as Indian people face,” he said. “We bring that together through a Catholic perspective and certainly a Native perspective. This is so valuable for the Coast Salish people.”
Of the 573 federally recognized tribes, conference organizers anticipate that at least 1/3 of those will be in attendance at any given time. “Some will be from non-federally recognized tribes as well, making for a rich cultural experience,” Scott said.
HEALING AND RECOVERY
The focus of the gathering this year is on healing and recovery from challenges in Indian Country, like addiction and years of neglect, for which healing is still occurring. The conference opens a way to bring in people who are non-Indian, Catholic priests and nuns for example, who want to reconcile with tribes in their area.
“The healing we receive in this gathering and intercession of Kateri, we can take back to our children and families,” Scott said.
Puyallup Tribal member and Tacoma Kateri Treasurer Eugena Buena-Douglas is co-chair of the conference. She said that St. Leo’s Fr. Pat Twohy has been an invaluable source of encouragement and support for her and the conference as a whole.
“He said that Native leadership is so key, especially in this conference, and that’s what they teach — that Natives can take the lead on just about anything in the church if you put your mind to it, so that’s what I did,” Buena-Douglas said in regard to accepting the responsibilities of being co-chair.
Intentionally involving youth in the conference brings with it a special gift, she said. “It’s a joy for me to see teenagers there and they love participating in the mass. For youth, (the conference) teaches them to appreciate the Catholic Church and to keep it in their lives. And when you come to this conference, you celebrate with your family so we highlight the youth too along with the adults.”
St. Kateri herself was just 24 years old when she died from smallpox complications and was very close to young people in her community. “She enjoyed the youth,” Buena-Douglas said. “I think her calling was to teach us as much as she could not knowing that she was going to be gone at the age of 24.”
As co-chair of the conference, Buena-Douglas has been entrusted to keep and protect a first-class relic of St. Kateri, which she has held ever since last year’s conference and will turn over to the next host city at the end of the Tacoma gathering.
“First class usually means a bone fragment,” she explained, and it is beautifully encased in a heavy golden cross about 10 inches tall with the tiny bone fragment visible through a circle of glass in the center that’s surrounded by sparkling gems. “It’s really rare to get a first-class relic. I’ve been letting it go to different parishes and they have different ways to celebrate with it, but it’s mostly at St. Leo’s every Sunday. Some people kiss it, some people venerate it…whatever you feel is helpful.”
PILGRIMAGE TO LUMMI
A highlight for Scott and Buena-Douglas will be the Saturday pilgrimage to St. Joachim Catholic Church on the Lummi Reservation in Bellingham. Hosted by members of the Lummi Nation and parishioners of the Swinomish Reservation, the day’s activities will take place in the Lummi longhouse, the Wex’liem community building. Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain is also scheduled to attend.
The Lummi Reservation is the site of the final miracle for Kateri to be considered for canonization. Lummi tribal member Jake Finkbonner was just 6 years old when he accidentally hit his lip on the base of a basketball hoop and contracted a flesh-eating bacteria. His face badly scarred (like St. Kateri’s was from smallpox) and near death, his parents were grief stricken. The family priest encouraged his parishioners and children at Finkbonner’s school to pray to St. Kateri for her intercession in his healing. This was when things started to turn around for Finkbonner, and his condition markedly improved upon a visit from Sister Kateri Mitchell. At Finkbonner’s bedside, she placed a St. Kateri relic next to him and prayed — and he ultimately fully recovered.
“It was later that I heard that the doctors themselves said that this definitely is beyond any medical intervention,” Sr. Kateri told The Catholic Register in a 2012 interview.
Tekakwitha Conference travelers will be able to meet Jake and his family while on the Lummi Reservation, along with enjoying traditional food, cultural presentations, dance, crafts, and parishioners from the Bellingham area will be there too.
For Buena-Douglas, a highlight of the conference is the Reconciliation and Healing Service, where traditional healing and Catholic healing combine. “It’s a chance for us to come together and pray for each other,” she said. “If you have any hurts, if you have any prayers or if you just need spiritual healing, priests and traditional healers will be there. It’s always inspiring for me to see people healed — to see them participate in traditional healing as well as walk over to a priest ready for confession and to see that priests really are genuinely concerned about the Native soul.”
Scott encourages members of the tribal community to come to the conference even for just one day. “We’re a meek community and it costs people a lot of their earnings to come and attend this. It is a real commitment and sacrifice and outpouring of love on their part. For the people of Tacoma, it will affect them in meaningful and powerful ways.”
The fundraising goal for the conference was exceeded thanks to the generosity of:
- Puyallup Tribal Council: $25,000
- Seattle Archdiocese: $10,000
- Swinomish Tribe: $10,000
- Tacoma Kateri Circle: $5,350
- Upper Skagit Tribe: $2,000
- Stillaguamish Tribe: $5,000
And many additional smaller donations as well. Scott, Buena-Douglas and the entire Tekakwitha Conference board extends their deepest thanks for the blessing of this financial support.