Growing up, the Catholic Church was always a normal part of my life. It’s just always been a family thing. But as I’ve learned about the history of the Catholic Church and Native American tribes, I’ve kind of had mixed feelings about it, knowing that Catholicism was pushed on my ancestors. That made me uncomfortable. I’m still Catholic, but sometimes it’s a hard balance. Sometimes I want to know more about the tribal culture and values and how I mix those in with my Catholic faith.
At the same time I wonder how my identity as a member of the Menominee tribe and a member of the Catholic Church work together. For me, though, faith isn’t a bad thing if it’s making me a better person. And it makes me more thankful and aware of what I have been given. It’s not me turning against my ancestors.
At St. Norbert, there aren’t that many Native Americans so I get a lot of questions, which is fine. I don’t mind answering questions if people are curious, but it’s important to realize that being Native American is not my only identity. I’m Ruthie. It’s just a part of me.
I’ve always felt welcome at St. Michael’s because that’s where I’ve gone my whole life. Sometimes it’s hard because we get a lot of visitors to our parish. We have smudging at our church, which is a traditional Menominee ritual for cleansing. Seeing non-natives confused and laughing uncomfortably about this has been confusing to me. Why would they laugh at something just because they don’t understand it?
Introducing smudging at our church was a very positive thing for me. Also, the Kateri Tekakwitha group at our parish is another important piece, since she is the first Native American saint. Both of these have helped bridge the gap between the Native Americans and non-natives at St. Michael’s. Having elements of my culture incorporated makes it feel more homey and an ode to what happened in the past. Seeing Kateri Tekakwitha and the faith she had makes me feel OK that I am Catholic and Native American. I can have both identities and it’s fine.
It doesn’t have to be hard lines. My Catholic faith and my Menominee culture can be interwoven. Knowing where the Catholic Church is on our land, it’s important to cross those lines and blend the Catholic and Menominee culture together. It shows an understanding of who are the people showing up at the church.
I think the church could do a better job of acknowledging the history between the church and Native Americans. I went to a Catholic school and I never learned about that history, and there were a large number of Native American students there. Just acknowledging it would be really helpful in remedying the tensions with the Catholic Church. Make the history of the church’s involvement with Native American tribes public and let people know that you’re aware of it and you are acknowledging that it happened. Whether good or bad, this is the history.
Editor’s note: This is part of a special Compass series featuring photos and narratives from the “Open Wide Our Hearts” photo exhibit. For more information on the exhibit, visit gbdioc.org/openwideourhearts. You can now also see the full exhibit online at openwideourheartsgb.org. Ruthie Tucker is a member of the Menominee tribe and grew up attending St. Michael Parish in Keshena and Sacred Heart School in Shawano. She is currently a student at St. Norbert College.