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Native American Flute at a Papal Mass?!? To Play or Not to Play...


"So a Native American Flute Player and the Pope Walk into a Baseball Stadium…"

Out of the blue one day, I received an email asking if I would be willing to play Native American Flute with a World Music group that had been invited to participate in a Papal Mass. Pope Benedict (since retired) was planning his first trip to the U.S. and was going to say his first Mass at Washington Nationals Ballpark in D.C.

At the time, I was living close to D.C. in Maryland,

so travel was not an issue. I spoke with the Music Director of the group, who was a fine blues singer. She had put together a good bunch of musicians, some of whom I knew and had worked with before. Of course, a Papal Mass would be quite the spectacle and should at least be interesting.

So far, so good.

But I still had a tough time accepting the gig. The Catholic Church, like all of the Christian Churches really, has an abysmal record in its dealings with Indigenous Peoples all over the planet. The stories about abuse of Native Americans in Church Missions and Schools are horrific. Missionary tactics often amount to cultural genocide. Also, although my Mother had raised me as a proper little church goer and I had tried various flavored churches along the way, I had given it all up as a bad job some time before.

So I played the gig. Here’s why.

Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony. As a result, I had many Native American Indian friends who would go to Mass on Sunday morning, then dance their hearts out in the Tribal Dance Circle the rest of the day. I thought it might be meaningful for them to hear a Native Flute at the Papal Mass, perhaps even see someone in a Ribbon Shirt on the musicians’ platform. The Mass itself turned out to be one of the most fascinating experiences I have ever had as a musician. But more about that in a little while.

First, another Papal Mass. A few years later, there was a new Pope, Francis, who was scheduled to do an important Mass in Washington, this time on the campus of Catholic University. Again, I was invited to play Native Flute. Francis was born in Argentina, is the first Pope born in the Americas and was already known to be progressive on some issues. So far, so good.

But at some point in the process, I realized that at this Mass, Francis planned to canonize Junipero Serra, the founder of the infamous California mission system in the 1700’s.

Serra and his missions were directly responsible for the enslavement and deaths of many thousands of California Indians. The missions, along with later California and U.S. Government policies caused the literal extermination of some California tribes and brought cultural genocide for many others. The few survivors struggle to this day with multi-generational trauma disorders at the individual, family and tribal level.

Deborah Miranda provides a detailed and moving account in her tribal memoir, Bad Indians.

I could not participate in making Serra into a Saint when it would be more appropriate for him to be tried posthumously for crimes against humanity. The Priest with whom I was communicating said he appreciated and accepted my view point. He also said he would like to have lunch sometime to talk about it. I was willing but, no real surprise, that was the last I ever heard from him.

Musicians are taught to play gigs. Any gig you can get, the higher visibility the better. A Papal Mass is a high visibility gig. “Play the gig, fool”. Why “yes” to one and “no” to the other? It comes down to community and relationship. I am Cherokee and Maryland is not the traditional homeland of my People, although a lot us live there now. There is a strong pan-Indian community in Maryland as well as several local Indigenous Native communities. These communities had always been welcoming and supportive of my music, often inviting me to play flute for their gatherings. As mentioned earlier, many of the People in Maryland identify as Native and Catholic. I played the Mass to honor my relationship with their communities and show my appreciation for their hospitality. A number of them told me afterwards that hearing a Native Flute at the Papal Mass was quite meaningful for them, so I am happy I played the gig. The second Mass invitation called on my sense of connection to a larger community of Indigenous American Peoples. Refusing to participate in a Mass honoring Junipero Serra was the only real option available to show support for the communities still struggling to overcome the devastation he caused. In both cases, whether or not it was a “good gig” was irrelevant. So was the Pope.

Back to Washington Nationals Ballpark. Those of us in the band are lined up at Security with our instruments. The Security Guard knows we are the band, so he waves everyone through. Except for me. He doesn’t believe that what I am carrying are musical instruments. Even though I am with the band. Even though I open my flute case and my band mates assure him that what he is examining are my instruments. To get through security, I actually have to take a flute out of my case and play it for the guard. Only then will he believe that my Native American Flutes are actually musical instruments and not wooden weapons of mass destruction, or whatever he was thinking. Odd as it may seem, this is not a particularly unusual experience for me. Just another reminder, as if I needed one, that for many in the dominant culture, Native American ways don’t even seem real, let alone meaningful.

Nationals Ballpark is packed to capacity. Tens of thousands of people fill the stadium seats. Thousands more, mostly priests and church officials in full regalia, are organized on the playing field. The Pope has arrived in his Popemobile and has begun saying Mass from a stage set up on the outfield grass. Our large, diverse and boisterous group is on a platform in the left field bleachers. Guitarist and bass player from Brazil. Drummer from Cameroon. Singers who will be delivering lyrics in the languages of their People - Korean, Gaelic, Spanish and many other

We have been given the special task of providing music while the Pope blesses the bread and wine just before Communion is served to all those gathered. For Catholics, this is the high point of the Mass. In addition to the packed stadium, this event is being seen and heard by millions of people around the planet via Network broadcasts and Internet Live Streams. Because of Network schedules, activities have been timed to the second. We must stop playing on the TV Director’s cue as the Pope finishes praying.

Our music is going beautifully when the moment arrives and the TV Director cues us to stop. We stop. The Pope doesn’t. He has not finished his prayer over the communion elements. The TV guys can’t have dead air, so the Music Director points to me and gives the sign to keep playing. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I am improvising a Native Flute solo while the Pope finishes his prayer. As the sound of my flute carries through the stadium, I know that Great Mystery is working something special on this day. At the most sacred moment of a Papal Mass, in the capitol of the United States, with tens of thousands present and millions more watching and listening worldwide, the only sound echoing through this concrete and steel canyon is from a Native American Flute.

As hard as you tried to change us, even get rid of us, we are still here, still playing our flutes and drums, still dancing our hearts out in the Circle. Siyu, Pope. Welcome to NDN Country.

photo credits:
Washington National Baseball Park by Sung Chin at Unsplash
Spanish Mission by James Lee on Unsplash
The Pope Greeting the Crowd by Kai Pilger on Unsplash
Raven Head Flute by Ron Warren
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