Thirteen indigenous grandmothers, formally known as the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, initial greeting at the Vatican was not pleasant. The group was almost kicked out while performing a prayer and waiting to speak with Pope Benedict XVI.
They went to pray. They went to see Pope Benedict XVI on his home turf. They went to ask that he rescind historic church doctrine that played a role in the genocidal onslaught of millions of indigenous people worldwide.
For 13 indigenous grandmothers, accomplishing only one of their three goals wouldn't have been so bad - had they also not been harassed by several Vatican policemen who claimed the women were conducting ''anti-Catholic'' demonstrations.
The elders, formally known as the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, convened in the morning hours of July 9 at St. Peter's Square. After setting up an altar cloth, candles and sacred objects, including feathers and incense, they began holding a prayer and ceremony circle. Nine-year-old Davian Joell Stand-Gilpin, a direct descendant of Chief Dull Knife of the Lakota Nation, was brought along by one of the grandmothers to participate in traditional regalia.
Soon, however, four Vatican police officials asked the women to stop the prayer ceremony, claiming their prayers were in contradiction to the church's teachings - despite the two crosses on the alter cloth and some of the members being practitioners of the Catholic faith.
The officials told Carole Hart, an Emmy and Peabody award-winning producer and filmmaker traveling with the grandmas, that the group was in violation of Vatican policy. They said a permit Hart had obtained in order to document the prayer gathering was only relevant in terms of filming, but did not allow the women to pray, sing or burn incense.
The police said the actions of the grandmothers were ''idolatrous.''Through the course of obtaining the permit, Hart had written to Vatican officials explaining that the grandmothers would be conducting a prayer ceremony at the site.''We stuck to the fact that we were legitimately there with this permit,'' Hart said.
''The grandmas did not back down.'' Still, the police urged the grandmothers to move on; but Hart and the group appealed the decision to a higher authority. Finally, the police brought back a law official who assessed the situation. Upon seeing 13 indigenous elder women and hearing one of their songs, the official concluded there was no problem with the ceremony.
The official also ultimately invited the grandmothers to enter St. Peter's Basilica to rest and pray.
Despite their short-term success, the ultimate goal of the grandmothers - to hand-deliver a statement to Pope Benedict XVI, asking him to rescind several controversial papal bulls that played a part in the colonization of indigenous lands - was thwarted.
Documents from the 15th century, such as the papal bulls, show the papacy played a role in the genocidal onslaught that affected millions of indigenous people on the North American continent. In 1455, for instance, Pope Nicolas authorized Portugal ''to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans'' along the west coast of Africa, enslave them and confiscate their property - which set the tone for European interaction with the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. (The movie The Mission deals with this particular event in an extremely powerful way. It's one of my all time favorite movies.)
Just a short time before the grandmothers left for their long-planned journey to Rome, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be leaving the Vatican to rest at his summer home, called Castel Gandolfo, in preparation for a trip to Australia.
The pope had originally been scheduled to be in residence July 9. Laura Jackson, the grandmothers' publicist, described the pope's decision to leave the Vatican as a ''sudden cancellation'' and noted that the grandmas held tickets to a scheduled public audience he was to have held that day.
While Castel Gandolfo is less than 20 miles away from the Vatican, the grandmothers ultimately decided not to make the journey to the pope's summer getaway despite some in their inner circle encouraging them to pay an unexpected visit.
Hart believes the grandmothers chose to focus on St. Peter's Square because it's part of the Vatican and is a strong symbol of the pope.
''As women of prayer, I think they felt that bringing their prayer there, on the very ground on which the church as an institution stands, as close as they could get to the heart of the church, would have a great effect on what will happen next,'' Hart said. Additionally, the women had no guarantee that they would even be able to enter the grounds of the pope's summer residence.
Instead, the elders left a package with one of the pope's personal guards at the Vatican. The package contained a written statement the women had sent to the Vatican in 2005 decrying the papal bulls, to which the Vatican never responded. It also contained a new 632-word statement to the pope asking him to repeal three Christian-based doctrines of ''discovery'' and ''conquest'' that set a foundation for claiming lands occupied by indigenous people around the world.
''We carry this message for Pope Benedict XVI, traveling with the spirits of our ancestors,'' the women said in their new message. ''While praying at the Vatican for peace, we are praying for all peoples. We are here at the Vatican, humbly, not as representatives of indigenous nations, but as women of prayer.''
The package was given to the pope's guard via a traditional Lakota manner, by extending it to him three times with him then accepting it on the fourth attempt. The entire process was captured on film, and is expected to be made into a documentary by Hart in the coming year.
It is unknown whether the pope has yet personally received the package, but legal scholars and Native activists in the U.S. have nonetheless been paying close attention to the grandmothers' journey.
''I think the trip is very significant,'' said Steven Newcomb, co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of the book, ''Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,'' and an Indian Country Today columnist.
''These are women who are very much grounded in their own languages and traditions. They're able to raise visibility of the issue in ways that others are perhaps less effective.''
In Sr. Joan's article she quotes from Pope Nicholas V's encyclical Roman Pontifex which was sent to Portugal's King Alonso in 1455. This particular encyclical impacted Africa but subsequently also South and Central America, Mexico and portions of the US Southwest. Apparently Sr. Joan was unaware of this encyclical and found it shocking:
"More than true, the content is also shocking. The shock that comes with knowing that it was a Papal Bull that authorized both conquest and slavery in the New World for hundreds of years is, at very least, part of what such a letter is meant to teach us today: "No decision should be made," the Native Americans tell us, "that does not take into account its affect on the next 10 generations." What we do today, in other words, has something to do with what life will be like 500 years from now."
What I want to focus on is the last couple of sentences which say that no decision should be made that does not take into account it's affect on the next 10 generations. This really is the frame work in which indigenous tribes make decisions and these Grandmothers are working on a specific aspect of the next 500 years.
Traditional indigenous belief says that unless one works through and reconciles the past 500 years the same energy from that era will be brought into the next 500 years. Many indigenous tribes believe the spiritual consciousness of man works in 500 year cycles. This is why it was important for the Grandmothers to go to the Vatican and meet with Pope Benedict. It wasn't just an apology or a rescinding of the bulls they were after, it was also an offering to work through and reconcile the energy of the past--for both groups.
Previous to his death, when Navajo Grandfather Leon Secatero was here in Helena last summer, he spent a great deal of time teaching on this very subject. He taught that it was critically important that both individuals and cultures work to pass through their real and perceived injuries and hurts by finding the good in them, the lessons in them, and then drop them by the wayside freeing oneself of those burdens. He taught that both the conquered and the conqueror were carrying the same burden, that of exploitation, and that both had to reconcile their active participation in that dynamic.
He taught that for the past 500 years the signature energy of humanity was the exploitation of one group or person for the profit of another. This was not to be the signature energy of the next 500 years, but we had much work to do as people to see that this energy of exploitation was not carried forward. He also said that we would see many things happening around us which would show that exploitation was a failed energy and that it could not sustain itself much longer. (I would say that was somewhat prophetic given the last eight months.)
He also said this was a difficult thing for Natives to hear, that one of the things which whites had taught Natives well, is that their true place was to be a victim. He also said that until Natives passed through this mentality that whites would be slow to get their own lessons and that Natives would continue to victimize each other. Strong words that made all of us who heard them uncomfortable. Leon was one of the most gentle people I have ever met, and it was the dispassionate and gentle way in which he said these things that made them that much more powerful.
The thirteen Grandmothers who went to the Vatican were on the same mission as Leon. It's really unfortunate that Pope Benedict didn't get a chance to meet with them. The Indigenous leaders who are bringing this message to the world are giving the world an incredible gift about how they see the future. It's a vision in which women take a much larger role in nurturing the planet and empowering spiritualities. It's a vision in which exploitation is not tolerated and where there really is union in diversity. In other words it's a consciousness of both/and, not one or the other. Some would call it the Kingdom of Heaven brought to Earth.
This is not the Kingdom of Heaven that the New Apostolic Reformation sees, and is being promulgated by numerous conservative Catholics. The kingdom they see is one of domination and exploitation of the 'unsaved' for the sake of the saved. It is the exact vision enacted in Roman Pontifex and for the exact same reasons.
In our present time this reflects old energy defending itself against the incoming new energy. This battle of energies is what I find so fascinating about the Grandmother's experiences with the Vatican. The old energy folks call them pagan, anti Catholic and want to chase them out, while the new energy approves of their efforts and invites them in---and this from official representatives of the same church.
All these denominational and political battles are not really between the left and the right as much as they are between people working in the new energy and people defending the old. There are people of the new energy on the right, just as there are people of the old energy on the left. If one can hold to their opinion with out fear or the need to conquer the other, one is operating from the new energy. It's really pretty simple, and it's one of the core teaching of the true Christian message.