Catholic Doctor Explains Native American Prayer He Delivered at Arizona Memorial

Pete Winn | January 14, 2011 | 9:30am EST
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Dr. Carlos Gonzales delivering a Native American blessing at Wednesday's memorial service at the University of Arizona.

( - Wednesday night’s memorial service for the shooting victims in Tucson did not open with a prayer from a Jewish rabbi, a Protestant minister or a Catholic priest--it began with a Native American “blessing” that left many puzzled about what it meant and why it was performed.

The prayer, which did not use the word "God" and did not make the traditional request for God’s comfort for the bereaved that many might have expected, did mention the Creator and called for "honoring" the Seven Directions, including “Father Sky” and "Mother Earth”--and remembering our "fellow creatures" who "crawl on the earth” and “slither on the earth.”

The blessing was presented by Dr. Carlos Gonzales, an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

“I was asked by the university to give a traditional Native American blessing,” Gonzales told late Thursday. “This is the type of blessing that we give at memorial services to open up a ceremony. A medicine man will do a variation of it to open up a pow-wow. It’s basically a recognition of the powers of the seven directions and how they influence human beings--and how each direction has a certain characteristic; that when you pray to that direction, you ask for the inspiration that comes from that direction.”

The eight-minute oration Gonzales prayed Wednesday night before a crowd of more than 14,000 at the University of Arizona’s McKaleMemorialCenter may have sounded strange to many Americans.

Holding an eagle feather, the physician and professor began by introducing himself--at length.

“On my mother’s side I am Mexican, a child of the descendents of a pioneer family from Mejico, that came in the 1800s. On my father’s side, I’m Yaqui, refugees from Mexico that escaped the genocide of the Pascua Yaqui in the 1800s. For myself, I am fifth generation in the valley of Tucson.”

Gonzales then gave honor to the various directions of the compass: “Let’s begin by honoring the eastern door, from where we get visions and guidance. May each of us get the vision and guidance to proceed in a good way,” Gonzales prayed.

He also asked for strength from “Father Sky,” which he called the “masculine energy,” and “Mother Earth,” the “feminine energy.”

“O Creator, may the two energies, the masculine energy and the feminine energy, come together in our center where the Creator exists. For each of us has a piece of the Creator. Please, you have given each of us a gift. May we use these gifts to help our fellow human beings,” he prayed.

Gonzales' prayer also mentioned ancestors and said "let us not forget our fellow creatures," including “those that stand,” “those that blow in the wind,” “those that are tall and stately,” “those that crawl on the earth,” and “those that slither on the earth” and “those that live under the Earth,” as well as two those who swim in water and fly in the sky.

In an interview Thursday with, Gonzales explained the meaning behind what he was doing in the blessing.

“The seven directions are basically the cardinal directions, Father Sky, which is up above us, and Mother Earth, which is down below us, and the seventh direction, which is the center, where the Creator exists,” he told

“It’s basically a way of acknowledging God’s Creation, and it’s a way of acknowledging by honoring those cardinal directions and what they have to say to us,” he added. “For example, the east is where the sun comes up in the morning, and as the sun comes up, it lights the path of the world, therefore the East is seen as having the power to guide us and to give us vision and to help us through as we walk on this earth.”

It would be a mistake, however, to call the Native American beliefs he was expressing a religion, Gonzales said.

“It’s not truly a religion, it’s more of a way of appreciating spirituality,” Gonzales told “I’m Yaqui and Yaquis have been Roman Catholics since 1650. We were one of the first tribes in Mexico to actually peacefully absorb Catholicism; however we have always practiced Catholicism in our own unique manner, incorporating traditional beliefs, and so I grew up as a Roman Catholic with a Yaqui variation.”

“In reality, I’m Catholic, but the spirituality I’ve come across with traditional healers is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen, and it’s a way of approaching people and it’s an additional way of healing that has actually helped me to be a better family doc.”

None of the victims of the Tucson massacre were known to be Yaqui.  Moreover, no rabbi, Catholic priest or Protestant minister, the known religions of the victims, was included in the memorial program.

Gonzales said the idea for a Native American blessing came from University of Arizona President Robert Shelton.

“President Shelton has a Native American advisor here at the university to deal with American Indian health policies in Arizona, and he asked her if someone could come and do a traditional blessing,” Gonzales told “She’s heard me do these blessings before in other places, and so she recommended my name.”

The invitation to pray came late Tuesday, and he accepted. “The way we believe, and the traditional way, is that if somebody asks, you cannot refuse, so I accepted.”

Gonzales repeated that he is not a shaman or medicine man, and had to obtain permission from tribal elders to do what he did

“I’m just a regular MD. I teach family medicine here at the College of Medicine, but what’s happened is that in my path towards getting a better appreciation of healing and healing knowledge, I’ve actually interacted with medicine men to see how they approach people who are ill and unwell. So I’ve learned a lot of their philosophy of healing and their philosophy of life,” he said.

Gonzales, meanwhile, said the “Creator” he mentioned in the prayer is “whoever your particular denomination deems to be the important entity.”

“For Native Americans, it’s the Creator of the Universe,” Gonzales said. “In Christian denominations, it would be God.”

A Different Reality

Dr. Angela Tarango, a religious studies scholar at TrinityUniversity in San Antonio, Texas, explained that Gonzales’ prayer may have sounded strange to the uninitiated, but was actually very much in keeping with traditional Indian blessings.

“In traditional native religion, there is a sense that the world needs to be balanced,” she told “It needs to be in sync with everything. And when something terrible happens, it needs to be rebalanced properly.”

Tarango also defended Gonzales' lengthy autobiographical introduction by saying that traditional Native American culture demanded it.

“You have to do that in native culture. When you come in, you don’t just come in, not saying who you are. You have to say where you come from. Outsiders who work with native people understand this. They have to say, ‘I am so and so, and I am from so and so people.’ It’s a sense of what peoples you are from.

There is no question, she said, that Native American spirituality is different. In it, one opens spiritual “doors” to go through to different “realities” in the natural world.

“In the native view of the world there is no heaven and no hell. So when you die, you go on to be with your ancestors in the next world, which is a lot like the world that you leave, but it’s a lot nicer, and you’re there with the spirits of your ancestors. That’s what he’s saying, that in some sense that the ancestors greeted the spirits of these people that passed away and have taken them into the spirit world,” she added.

Gonzales, meanwhile, said his invocation was simply a way “to bring positive energy into a gathering of that type.”

“I wasn’t trying to give a lecture to anybody,” he said. “It was a prayer. It was simply a prayer.”

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