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National
Pope John Paul recalled for support of Native rights


Native people are joining the world in bidding farewell to Pope John Paul II, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church who died on Saturday at the age of 84.

In his 27 years as pope, John Paul II visited Native communities, met with Native leaders and offered apologies for the church's treatment of indigenous people throughout the world. He canonized the first Indian saint, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Aztec from Mexico who lived during the 1500s, and beatified Kateri Tekwakitha, a 17th-century Mohawk woman credited with several miracles. Beatification is a step below full sainthood.

The pope also spoke several times of the right for Native people to guide their own destinies. His support for self-determination goes as far back as 1984, when he made his first trip to Canada and addressed, via video, Native Catholics who gathered in Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories.

"It is clearly the position of the Church that people have a right in public life to participate in decisions affecting their lives," the pope said in September of that year. "It has particular applications for you as Natives peoples, in your striving to take your rightful place among the peoples of the earth, with a just and equitable degree of self-governing."

Beyond ideals, the pope embraced the need for Native communities to expand their lands, educate their youths and develop their economies. "For you a land-base with adequate resources is also necessary for developing a viable economy for present and future generations," he said at the time. "You need likewise to be in a position to develop your lands and your economic potential, and to educate your children and plan your future."

"These words meant a great deal to all those who heard them," recalled Phil Fontaine, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The pope returned to Canada in 1987 and made a special visit to the Dene Nation in Fort Simpson and held an open-air mass that was attended by an estimated 3,000.

The same year, the pope addressed a large crowd of Native Catholics during a mass in Phoenix, Arizona. "What he did on that visit was significant because he apologized to the American Indian community for past injustices that the church engaged in over time, in terms of taking away our cultural identity," Vivian Juan-Saunders, the chairwoman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, told The Arizona Daily Star.

The themes of justice and equal treatment continued when the pope more recently spoke about indigenous rights during a visit to Guatemala and Mexico in July and August of 2002. He used the sainthood of Juan Diego to call attention to the plight of Native people who are at the bottom of the social and economic ladder in their own lands.

"The noble task of building a better Mexico, with greater justice and solidarity, demands the cooperation of all," the pope said. "In particular, it is necessary today to support the indigenous peoples in their legitimate aspirations, respecting and defending the authentic values of each ethnic group. Mexico needs its indigenous peoples and these peoples need Mexico."

Despite the words of support, the pope personally fought priests in Latin America who sought to use the church to back Native causes such as land rights and poverty. As an opponent of Communism, he likened the teachings of these practitioners of "liberation theology" to Marxists and slowly shut them out of official Vatican during the 1970s and 1980s.

The church also remains marred by physical, sexual and meantl abuse that occured at boarding schools in the United States and Canada. Catholic churches in both countries have been sued for their practices at government-sponsored institutions. More than 10,000 claims are pending in Canada alone.

But Fontaine said the pope always kept an open mind when it came to Native issues. He met with John Paul in 1999, the year before the Vatican issued a general apology to Native people.

"The fact that the Pope was willing to meet with a representative of Canada's First Nations was, to me, a strong show of commitment to understanding the concerns and perspective of indigenous peoples in this country," Fontaine said. "I found him to be a man blessed with the gifts of compassion, conviction, insight and a keen intellect."

Hundreds of thousands of visitors have already traveled to the Vatican to pay their last respects to the pope. His funeral will be held on Friday. Millions are expected.

Relevant Documents:
Remarks in Canada (September 1984) | Remarks in Mexico (August 2002)