“Mercy transforms us when we need it most,” said Bishop George Thomas of Helena, Montana, in his homily at the July 10 Mass of the annual North American Indian Days in Browning.
The Sunday morning Mass at Indian Days is considered the highlight of the year for many Native American Catholics. Steeped in Church teachings and rituals, but sparkling with Indian customs and symbolism, the outdoor Mass explodes with colorful clothing, dancing and drumming, and highlights the unique expression of being Native American Catholic.
Bishop Thomas, who celebrated the Mass for the 13th time, asked the Native Americans at the Mass to “call to mind those who have wronged you, hurt you and slighted you. Forgive them. Give up resentment. Give a friendly attitude to those who are not entitled.”
“Mercy doesn’t come easily and may have a personal cost,” he said. “But it’s a gift that sets our hearts free, lowers blood pressure and gives our body much needed rest.”
An estimated 20 percent of Native Americans are Catholic. In recent years, the Church has made significant efforts to incorporate Indian traditions into Catholic services and the Diocese of Helena, Montana has made a strong commitment to ministries with Native Americans.
Beginning 65 years ago, Indian Days is a four-day powwow that now draws about 10,000. Hosted by the Blackfeet Nation, Native Americans from every region of the country and Canada attend, representing some 50 tribes. They come together — many dressed in spectacularly elegant and intricately decorated native attire — to dance, play games and socialize in a stadium-like arena called the arbor.
The liturgy, which brought together Native Americans from 50 different tribes across North America, sparkled with Indian customs and symbolism — burning sage, drummers and headdresses — and powerfully expressed the Church’s wide open embrace of their gifts.
Harry Barnes, a parishioner of Little Flower Parish in Browning and chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Council, said, “We need to build our faith within the Indian context. Even though the Catholic Church is 2,000 years old, it is the ‘new kid on the block’ for us natives. We need to combine our local cultures into the Church. Catholicism widens our path.”
Most attendees stayed right at the campgrounds, setting up hundreds of tipis and tents throughout the grounds. Food booths were scattered about, as well as arts and souvenirs tables and a few carnival-like rides for children.
The festival included a parade, which weaved through the town of Browning, featuring businesses, organizations, politicians and families. The parade had vehicles of all shapes, overflowing with signs, decorations and waving passengers, and horses were interspersed throughout. During the parade pounds of candies were thrown from the passing cars to the children scooping them into bags.
This year’s festival, which is always held in the second week of July, was the 45th year in which a Mass was included.
Bishop Thomas greeted the crowd of about 400 by saying, “It is one of the high points of my year to be with the Blackfeet and to see how much they love and celebrate the Lord.”
A native of Montana, Bishop Thomas has a deep love for the state and its people. He is especially close to the Native Americans and has earned their respect.
One of the Blackfeet elders, 92-year-old Gertie Heavy Runner, who attends the festival annually and had a place of honor at the Mass, said of the bishop, “We have given him the name ‘Holy Warrior’ because of his courage, wisdom and integrity.”
Bishop Thomas is keenly aware of the huge challenges that Native Americans face. He understands their struggles with poverty, despair, substance abuse, domestic violence and the tensions around cultural identity and survival.
Sharing his concern is Father Ed Kohler, one of the priests who concelebrated Indian Days Mass and the pastor of Little Flower Parish in Browning.
The town of Browning, in the northwestern corner of Montana and close to the Canadian border and Glacier Park, is located in the Blackfeet Reservation. The reservation, established by treaty in 1855, runs along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, comprising 1.5 million acres, an area larger than the state of Delaware. With more than 17,000 members, about half of whom live on the reservation, the Blackfeet Nation is one of the 10 largest tribes in the United States.
Father Kohler, the only Catholic priest within 30 miles of Browning, has been pastor since 1982. He sees the struggles of the Indians on the reservation. Recently, he said funeral Masses three days in a rows for young victims of suicide. Everyone seems to know someone who has died violently. Especially for young people, life on the reservation is tough. Thirty percent of its people live below the poverty line, and unemployment hovers around 80 percent.
Although he said a “dark cloud” hangs over the reservation, he believes that the Church can help. At Little Flower — a parish of about 250 regulars and another 250 non-regulars — he initiated the Cursillo Movement, a series of retreats and workshops, to help strengthen the faith of parishioners. Across from the church, he also helped found the grade school, De La Salle Blackfeet, which serves 70 students in grades 4 to 8.
For his devotion to Native American Catholics, Father Kohler received Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi (“Light of Christ”) Award in 2010.
Catholic Extension has been supporting the Diocese of Helena, which was established in 1884 and originally encompassed the whole state, since its first church building grant there in 1911. The diocese now covers more than 50,000 square miles, which is almost double the size of Ireland.
Over the years Catholic Extension has granted more than $20 million in today’s dollars to the diocese. Sixty-six of these grants have been related to Native American ministry, half going to Little Flower Parish. In the last five years, Catholic Extension has extended $1.6 million to the diocese, a total that is in the top 10 of all dioceses that the organization supports.
Catholic Extension has been a consistent supporter of Catholic Native American ministries around the country. The organization provides more than $1 million annually to support these ministries in 20 dioceses.
Bishop Thomas has also been dedicated to investing in the young people of the diocese through youth, young adult and campus ministries, a path that is paying off with youth actively engaged in the Church and a growing group of vocations. Currently the diocese has 14 seminarians.
At the Mass, he turned to a seminarian working at Little Flower for the summer and said, “Our seminarian, Ned Scheidecker, gives us hope for a bright future together.”
In Browning that’s a future of Catholicism oriented to serve Native Americans exactly where they need it.