Home missions: Pueblo Indians deeply steeped in faith


Catholic News Service

LAGUNA, N.M. — San Jose Mission, built in 1699, sits atop a hill in the center of the village of Laguna and at the center of life for many Laguna Pueblo Indians.

Less than 20 miles away is the Acoma Pueblo, located on a 365-foot-high sandstone mesa. At its center is San Esteban del Rey Mission, built between 1629 and 1641.

Both Pueblo Indian reservations are in the Gallup diocese, which straddles northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. They are on the high desert — a landscape of mesas, valleys, hills and dry washes, or “arroyos” — and their people have lived there for centuries.

Young Native Americans take part in a festival near the Old Zuni Mission Church on the Zuni Pueblo Indian reservation in New Mexico Oct. 22. (CNS/Bob Roller)

Both the Laguna and Acoma, two of seven tribes in the diocese, are “deeply steeped in Catholicism,” said Franciscan Brother Chris Kerstiens.

“The Laguna and Acoma pueblos are probably considered the most Catholic,” Brother Chris said in a recent interview with Catholic News Service in the church office. “They have found a very harmonious way in which Catholicism and their traditional, non-Christian puebloan religion can co-exist.”

A student at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Brother Chris is more than halfway through a yearlong internship as pastoral associate at the Laguna church.

When he arrived last June, he said, “one of the first things I was deeply impressed by, I guess, or touched by was just how friendly the Lagunans and the Acomans are.”

Florence “Flo” Chino, who is Laguna and a lifelong member of San Jose Mission, said: “The way I was brought up, my mother was a devoted Catholic and she always told me that Catholicism and our native culture go together as one.”

For example, she said, the church’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is “similar to the initiation in our own culture.”

“We have lots of fiestas. We have six churches, a lot of people participate. … We were one tribe at one time; this was the mother village. Everybody came to church here, to have baptisms, marriages confirmations, whatever,” explained Chino, 66.

There are six villages, each with a Catholic church: Laguna, Encinal, Mesita,Paguate, Paraje, Seama. And one pastor, Franciscan Father Wayne Gibbeaut, who was away on sabbatical; Franciscan Father Sean Murnan was filling in. The Laguna pastor also takes care of the Acoma churches.

Catholicism is “probably practiced more richly” among the pueblo peoples “because our traditional beliefs are incorporated. It makes us even stronger Catholics,” Deacon Larry Valdo told CNS.

Ordained eight years ago, he ministers at St. Anne Mission Church in Acomita, on the Acoma reservation. He was born on the reservation but raised in Barstow, Calif., where his father worked for the railroad. The 73-year-old deacon is a retired physician’s assistant.

He, too, noted parallels between traditional beliefs, such as the tribe’s “different events that take place as we grow” and the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments, from baptism through holy orders. Fasting is important for both traditions, he added.

“Our tribal leaders encourage the people (to) practice both,” the deacon added.

Ernie Vallo,76, grew up on the reservation. A retired civil engineer, he is a tribal leader. A lifelong Catholic, he is a sacristan and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at St. Anne. Both he and the deacon are military veterans; they were in the Marine Corps in the 1950s.

Vallo and Deacon Valdo went through a Gallup diocesan formation program for Native Americans called “Builders of the New Earth.” Through that the deacon discerned his vocation to ordained ministry and Vallo became a lay leader.

“I serve both Christianity and traditional” ways, Vallo said.

The harmonizing of two traditions “was one of the results of the pueblo revolts at the end of the 17th century,” according to Brother Chris.

In 1680, several pueblos organized an uprising against the Spanish colonizers over their treatment and the suppression of their traditional religion. Among those killed were Franciscan friars and Pueblo Indians who had converted to Catholicism and refused to abandon it.

In 1692, the Spaniards returned, accompanied by one Franciscan priest, and reached a peace settlement with the people. But the key, according to Brother Chris, was that the Indians said, “‘We’ll be Catholic and we are going to practice our tribal ways but we’re going to keep the two very separate.’ And they have to this day.”

“They don’t blend the two, they embrace both and they’re both part of their identity as Lagunans and Acomans,” he said.

“They have managed to have one foot completely in the non-Indian world and one foot in their native Indian world and find their modus operandi … to be part of this without becoming so much a part of it that they lose own native identity,” he added. “That is no easy thing. In fact it’s one of the biggest problems, not just here in the Southwest but all Indian lands in North America.”

The major traditional religious institution for the Laguna, Acoma and other pueblo Indians is the kiva, “used for communal purposes and sacred rites,” Brother Chris said.

“They have their own ceremonies, their own rites and we’re not even aware of what those ceremonies are. We’re not allowed to participate, no outsiders whatsoever are allowed to participate. That has been a means of preserving (their traditions).”

Chino has been volunteering with her church since she was a teenager, teaching religion classes, helping with RCIA and organizing fundraisers. Back in the 1970s, she said, their pastor at the time encouraged laypeople to take on more and more responsibilities for the parish, expecting that someday there might not be a full-time priest.

“It’s all volunteer. I don’t mind. I get it back in a different way,” Chino commented.

“Laguna is so unique. In spite of our Catholicism and our belief in Christ, we hold on to our own way of life,” said Sister Consolata Beecher, a Laguna who has been a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for 50 years. She teaches at St. Bonaventure School in Thoreau.

A cradle Catholic, she was raised on the reservation and though she doesn’t live there now, she returns regularly for the tribe’s sacred ceremonies.

“There was dancing and singing, telling the story of our people … out in the open, under the sun,” she said about a recent ceremony she attended. “I’m so filled with pride that we continue it.”

The Black and Indian Mission Office assisted CNS in setting up various interviews for this story. Information about the mission office is available at www.blackandindianmission.org.