Native American sister serves own
Sister Clissene Lewis founded the Little Servants of the Cross. Photo by J.D. Long-García

FORT MCDOWELL, Ariz. — This doesn’t happen very often. 

Four Yavapi-Apache crown dancers, eagle feathers in hand, circled Sister Clissene Lewis during a Nov. 12 blessing ceremony down by the Verde River. Three drums beat in unison through the smell of burning sage. 

The dancers stepped North, South, East and West, acknowledging all of creation, and through it, the Creator. A medicine man sang over the drumbeat. The blessing is a healing ceremony — Apaches don’t dance for entertainment. It’s prayer. 

The tribe blessed Sister Clissene the day she left for her novitiate year. The sister — who is a Yavapai-Apache and Pima Indian — is taking the next step in establishing a religious institute to serve Native Americans. 

The institute, the Little Servants of the Cross, would fill a great need in the Diocese of Phoenix, and if it grows, other parts of the country. Their name describes their mission: to be little, or humble, to serve others and to follow Jesus by accepting their cross. 

“It would be a great blessing to have a religious community, founded by a Native American woman to evangelize Native Americans,” Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said. Sister Clissene is founding the institute under the bishop’s tutelage. 

Understanding the culture

Sister Clissene started serving Native Americans shortly after she converted to Catholicism 12 years ago. Now, having taken religious vows, she goes to powwows wearing her little brown habit, being true to her culture as she’s true to her faith. 

“When you have a Native American doing the ministry they bring an aspect that no one else can bring,” said Franciscan Father Dale Jamison, who heads up Native American outreach in the diocese. Most of those involved in Native American ministry aren’t Native American. 

“There’s a syncretism involved there,” he explained. “And we’ve made mistakes, both historically and in the present. That would lessen with Native American vocations.” 

The idea of a religious vocation was foreign to Sister Clissene, too. After making her cursillo, she was asked to consider a religious vocation by a sister who heard her testimony. 

“I couldn’t be a sister,” she said. “I had a daughter. I had known the married life.” 

Her husband had died at the time, and her daughter was already an adult. So she began discerning religious communities a few months later, eventually settling on the Missionaries of Charity in Brooklyn, N.Y. 

When her father died, she returned to Arizona, realizing then she was called to serve her own people. 

“I saw hurt, I saw the suffering of the people,” she said. Sister Clissene began serving at a local Native American mission, at first just cleaning a church and helping set up for Mass.

She later became a parish life coordinator at one of the missions in the Gila River Indian Community. That community struggles with rampant diabetes, gang activity and drugs. 

“For Native people, substance abuse comes from depression,” Sister Clissene said. “That depression comes from the invasion — when our people were killed or assimilated.” 

Evangelization obstacles

The conflict with European settlers is burned in Native American memory. The settlers didn’t see them as human beings, she said, taking their land and putting them on a reservation. 

“When you destroy a people’s way of life, from their language to their religion to their culture, that’s demoralizing,” Sister Clissene said. “That’s where the infection begins.” 

Some adults living on the reservation today attended government-run boarding schools, which forbade Natives to speak their own language and made them to cut their hair — a forced inculturation. 

Children have a battle within themselves, she said, between their heritage and what mainstream culture considers success. 

“We’re a people who are angry and frustrated,” she said. “We’re the poorest people in our own country.” 

That history, and the anger that remains, presents a distinct obstacle to evangelization, she said. The Native people who are angry with “the white man” see him and his religion — Christianity — as evil. 

“You tell us that we can’t lie, cheat, steal and then you do it in the name of your God?” she explained. “How can a Church reconcile a bad missiology? You do it through their own people, you do it through love.” 

Love forgives, she said, and forgiveness serves. 

“Sin has no color. That’s a lie — that it’s white,” she said. “If you hate them because they hate you, you become the thing you hate. The only way you can change that is through love.” 

The Little Servants of the Cross would show Native people the love of Christ through service, she said. They would also educate non-Natives about Native ways. 

“It’s important to remember the past,” Sister Clissene added, “but it’s also important to move on.”

Drawn to tradition

Sister Clissene used to be a Christian fundamentalist. One day she went to a service right after a powwow, where she’d been a dancer. She wore a feather of an eagle — a sacred creature in the Native tradition. 

Her pastor pulled her aside after the service, and told her to never bring such a “pagan symbol” into his Christian church again. 

“It wounded me deeply,” Sister Clissene said. “I couldn’t understand how God could not accept me as a Native person.” 

She began to learn more about Catholicism from a college professor. The Church’s reliance on tradition reminded her of her culture’s reliance on tradition. 

“Wow! Scriptures and tradition,” she recalled saying. Sister Clissene said the parish where she entered the Church accepted her Native traditions. 

Since then, she’s been drawn to serve the Church, a call that’s still being clarified in prayer. At first the idea was to establish an institute of Native American sisters that serves its own community, but now it will accept anyone who’s called to that service. 

“The relationship becomes more complete through Christianity,” Sister Clissene said of the Native peoples understanding of God. “There’s a lack of understanding between Native and non-Natives. The only way to bridge this is through love.” 

‘One of their own’

She will be studying with the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Tucson. Her novice master, Sister Pascal Coff, has been in vows for 60 years. 

“It’s high time,” Sister Pascal told OSV in reference to the emergence of an order founded by a Native American. 

St. Katharine Drexel established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to serve Native Americans and African Americans in 1891. But this would be the first congregation or institute founded by a Native American. 

The significance of it being “one of their own,” can’t be overstated, Father Jamison said. He explained how, for example, the Native people are awaiting the canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. 

“They are pining for this,” he said. “If it happened yesterday, it wouldn’t be soon enough.” 

Deacon Jim Trant, director of the Office of the Diaconate for the Phoenix diocese who’s also worked in Native American ministry for years, hopes seeing “one of their own” will encourage vocations. 

“I’m sure nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said. “Through Sister Clissene, Native American Catholics understand they can become religious in the Church, they can become priests, they can become deacons.” 

At first, Sister Clissene and the Little Servants of the Cross puzzled the Native community. But they’ve since embraced it, Deacon Trant said. 

The blessing from the Apache crown dancers demonstrates that embrace. “It’s not a Catholic thing, this is not a Catholic community,” Deacon Trant explained. “But they have great respect for it.” 

The blessing, which Phoenix Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares attended, along with other priests and religious, showed a reciprocal sign of respect between the Catholic and Native traditions, he said. 

Sister Clissene’s brother, who is not Catholic, orchestrated the blessing. 

“Christ died for our sins. But before the [Europeans] came here, the Creator was already speaking to us,” Gordon Lewis said. “They defiled our tradition rather than learning our ways and how we serve God.” 

Lewis said the crown dance was a sign that the Native and Catholic traditions “serve the same master.” 

“If we felt the Catholic way was a bad way, we wouldn’t do this,” he said. “If we learned to be less judgmental about people’s language and culture, we could be one.”

J.D. Long-García writes from Arizona.