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Wendell George | The pope shook my hand

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AP file photo Pope John Paul II blesses the faithful in St. Peter’s Square from a Vatican City balcony after he was named pontiff.

The brightly lit arena seemed to brighten even more as the pope entered to a wall of applause. I had managed to finagle a seat about 10 rows back from the stage. I sat next to some nuns and about 40 bishops with their zucchetto clerical skull caps. We were told to remain at our seats but when the pope came around the nun next to me grabbed my arm and said “come on!” and we went up to the retaining rope. I shook hands with the pope and felt exhilarated. I thought I would never wash my hand again.

My group of about 30 tribal members from the Colville Indian Reservation had been attending the Tekawitha Conference in Phoenix on Sept. 14, 1987. The Veterans Memorial Coliseum was packed with 18,000 natives and supporters from all over North America. We witnessed many Native American customs and healing ceremonies for two days before the pope’s arrival. Two Jesuit priests came with us, Fr. Jake Morton and Fr. Pat Conroy. Fr. Pat is now the chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. He returns to St. Mary’s Mission every year for our Easter service.

We have a special feeling for Pope John Paul II because of his outreach to Native Americans and all people in general. He said our stewardship of the earth is commendable and shows great respect for natural resources especially land and water.

In an unprecedented move he allowed one of our natives to bless him with cedar smoke. Cedar is considered one of the strongest ties to the earth and reminds us we are one with nature.

He was appropriately pronounced a saint on April 27. This is a fast track compared to Kateri Tekawitha, a Mohawk Indian who lived in the New York area, which took 332 years after her death in 1680. The canonization process didn’t start in the U.S. until 1884. She was pronounced venerable in 1943 and beautified in 1980. The difficulty was proving the required second miracle. That’s where the Tekawitha Conference came in.

The Tekawitha Conferences was started in 1939 by the Catholic clergy and eventually began to integrate Indian traditions such as smudging, sweat lodges, and drumming. Their theme for Indian values is to be in harmony with nature. One of their major efforts was to pray for Tekawitha’s canonization.

The second miracle came in 2011 to a five-year-old Lummi tribal member in the Pacific Northwest. He was healed of an incurable flesh-eating disease. His healing was attributed to a visit and prayers from a member of the Tekawitha Conference who coincidently was also a Mohawk and named Kateri. Tekawitha was credited with the intercession and canonized on Oct. 21, 2012. It was a statement of strong beliefs and the inherent healing ability of the human body.

The Little Joe story will continue in the next article.

Wendell George writes Go-la’-ka Wa-wal-sh (Raven Speaks). He can be reached via email at His books are available at the local book stores, tribal museum and Amazon.