With more than a billion Catholics in the world, the approximately 500,000 Native American Catholics in the United States have had their share of difficulties finding an identity within the Church. Native Catholics, as they call themselves, are hoping for a big boost in recognition if Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Catholic nun who lived in the 17th century, is declared a saint by the Vatican.

Like Mother Teresa, who was beatified this fall, Blessed Kateri must have a physical miracle attributed to her and authenticated by the Vatican to be considered for canonization. While many Catholics believe that Mother Teresa–who was personal friends with the pope–is on a fast track to sainthood, Blessed Kateri, who was beatified by John Paul II in 1980, is far less known, and it could be years before she is declared a saint. That’s why a small group of Catholics in Garner gather regularly to pray for the canonization of Blessed Kateri. Led by Chris Keffer, a mother of three and a descendent of the Onandaga tribe from Upstate New York, a group from St. Mary, Mother of the Church, has formed a Blessed Kateri Prayer Circle.

Recently, Keffer invited Sister Kateri Mitchell, a member of the Mohawk tribe and executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference, to come to St. Mary to speak about the plight of Native Catholics. Mitchell’s group, which includes more than 130 Kateri prayer circles in the U.S. and Canada, drew close to 1,000 people to its national conference last summer in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mitchell, 63, a woman small in stature, is a member of Mohawk’s turtle clan. She is also a member of the Sisters of St. Anne religious order. Mitchell says her biggest problem is trying to get traditional Catholics to appreciate the Sacred Earth spirituality of Native Catholics, and to realize they want to hold on to their rituals and customs and incorporate those traditions into their Catholic worship services.

Native Americans often use drums, rattles and feathers as part of their sacred rituals, practices that were declared pagan and opposed by many European settlers who sailed to this continent in centuries past. Many Native Americans are still bitter about the efforts of those early settlers to force the native peoples to “put aside a beautiful, rich way of spirituality,” Mitchell says.

Catholic religious orders also joined forces with the U.S. government to found boarding schools for Native American children to indoctrinate them against their cultural traditions, Mitchell said.

“The basic premise was you take these pagan children out of their homes because they’re not learning anything,” Mitchell says. The practice led to “a total loss and lack of identity,” for thousands of native children, she says. The result has been a “wounded spirit” for many native people. The brokenness of the native peoples, because of their “experiences of prejudice and discrimination and racism,” has led to other problems, she says.

“Our people are broken and have latched on to dysfunctions of all kinds,” she says.

“Alcoholism is prominent,” she said, as are drugs and gambling.

While Catholics in the pews and many among the church hierarchy misunderstand Native Catholics, Mitchell said John Paul II has given the U.S. group his strong backing.

Mitchell, who has met the Pope twice, said he came to the 1987 Tekakwitha Conference and “strongly encouraged” Native Catholics to share their culture within the Catholic Church.

Mitchell says the canonization of Blessed Kateri would be the greatest thing that could happen to Native Catholics.

“Blessed Kateri is feminine,” Mitchell said. “She’s a woman, but she speaks to both male and female. Our identity has become stronger as Native Catholics, and also our need and wanting a voice as Native Catholics is stronger. And we feel that if the Church would recognize Blessed Kateri as a saint–as we recognize her as a saint–that we would definitely have a stronger voice, and that stronger voice would reach to all people, to all the hierarchy to help us along this path.”