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Cloud-Morgan, Catholic activist, buried with his peace pipe

Special Report Writer

I’m told they buried Larry Cloud-Morgan in his ribbon shirt, beaded medallion and new beaded moccasins, even though he’d lost a foot and some toes to diabetes. The mourners wrapped him in his Four Direction Pendleton blanket holding his carved walking stick.

Those attending Cloud-Morgan’s wake at the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocesan Office of Indian Ministry reported that his peace pipe lay next to his right arm. In addition, his casket held an Indian doll, a china plate with a picture of a horse, various medicine bundles and a stuffed black bear cub, representing the mother bear and cubs that so delighted him at his Ball Club Reservation cabin in Northern Minnesota.

When I first met Cloud-Morgan in November 1984 in the Jackson County jail in Kansas City, Mo., it was just days after he and Oblate Frs. Paul and Carl Kabot, along with Helen Woodson, had symbolically spilled their blood and hammered on a missile silo in Missouri.

For someone destined to spend the next few years in federal prisons, Cloud-Morgan appeared as at home in jail as I found him years later at a summer picnic or Sunday Mass in Minneapolis.

The hundreds who bade farewell in June to this social justice activist, poet, playwright, artist, liturgist, translator, peacemaker and spiritual leader did so with ceremony and a Native American Catholic ritual, scripted and choreographed by Cloud-Morgan. The mourners included white, red and black Americans, street people, a U.S. senator, an Orthodox rabbi, and clergy from every denomination who serve the Indian community.

In his days at Marquette University in Milwaukee and later at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., Cloud-Morgan was encouraged to become a priest, an invitation he rejected, friends said, because he felt it would take him away from his Native American people and make him an official spokesman on “Indian” affairs.

He asked to be laid in a casket without a cover on it. He wanted it placed in the middle of the room on a bed of cedar. Chairs were arranged around it to form a natural talking circle so that no one could ignore the others and all would be in community.

The circle of diverse friends was symbolic of Cloud-Morgan’s life, said mourner Catherine Mamer of Minneapolis, who had known him through 15 years of social activism and spiritual ministering to the poor. Mamer had also appeared in his plays, attended his sweatlodge and was one of the group of friends and family surrounding his hospital bed when he died June 10 at age 61.

Fr. James Notebaart, director of Indian Ministry in the archdiocese, officiated at Cloud-Morgan’s wake and transported his body to the funeral in Cass Lake, Minn., stopping en route at Larry’s favorite Dairy Queen. Notebaart, a friend for 10 years, is fluent in Ojibway, the language that Cloud-Morgan spoke in his home and helped preserve on recorded tapes at Harvard.

The priest recalled Cloud-Morgan earlier this decade as he led a grass-roots reform movement against corruption and nepotism at his own White Earth Reservation. His protests led to the indictment and ouster of tribal officers.

He also led demonstrations on behalf of tribal fishing rights, and he opposed Indian casinos. “Larry had a soft presence; he was not an activist in an accusatory way, nor one with invective. He stood by what he believed. He stayed by the fire at White Earth, talking to the people, praying with them,” Notebaart said.

This son of a pietistic Catholic father and an Episcopalian mother — who had her mouth taped shut by nuns for speaking Ojibway in public — grew up loving Joan of Arc. The adolescent French warrior was Cloud-Morgan’s first heroine, and he read her story, the first book he’d ever received, over and over again to his dog, said scholar Chris Vecsey.

Many other Catholic heroes followed: Thomas Merton, the Berrigan brothers and Matthew Fox, his roommate at St. John’s. Vecsey, who directs humanities at Colgate University, has included Cloud-Morgan in Volumes 2 and 3 of his trilogy on the history of Native American Catholicism from 1492 to the present.

Vecsey told NCR that Cloud-Morgan will live on in Native American and Catholic history. “Larry looked beyond his own community to the universe. He stands apart by his devotion to other movements and his activist spirituality,” he said. Vecsey regretted that his translation of the Catholic liturgy into Ojibway remains incomplete.

Cloud-Morgan’s spirituality “didn’t acknowledge the boundaries that most of us see,” said Michael McNally, who teaches religion at Eastern Michigan University in Yipsilanti and who met him at Harvard during McNally’s graduate studies. “Larry could go into the spaces where people feel most under siege and he could articulate the mystery and beauty of the Catholic tradition so that it could serve as a resource to people,” he said.

McNally found Cloud-Morgan’s greatest gift to be his ability to be present in the moment with people. He had equal rapport with a Harvard anthropologist or an abused woman, with a wealthy hostess or her Hispanic maid, McNally noted. It was just such a band of admirers who placed the items in his coffin, told stories and sang hymns for Cloud-Morgan’s journey to his ancestors in Ishpeming (Ojibway for “heaven”).

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999