When Pope Benedict XVI canonizes Kateri Tekawitha (1656-1680) this month, she will be declared the Catholic Church’s first American Indian saint. What is the historical context of her beatification? It is the more than 500 year crusade for the spiritual conquest and domination of Indigenous nations and peoples.
Kateri Tekawitha’s canonization event will be a crowning achievement in what the Church now euphemistically calls “the evangelization of the Americas.” The true nature of the Catholic missionary process is revealed, however, in Pope Alexander VI’s call for “barbarous nations” to be overthrown (deprimantur) and reduced (reducere) for the propagation of the Christian empire (christiani emperii).
Another document issued by Pope Alexander VI declared that such dominating actions were to be applied to lands that were “not under the actual temporal domination of any Christian dominator” (sub dominio actuali temporali aliquorum dominorum christianorum constitute non sinct).
Additional insight into the Catholic Church’s mission during the time of Kateri’s life is revealed through the story of Juan María Salvatierra (1648-1717), a Jesuit missionary who was a major personality in the mission process. He exerted tremendous energy in Mexico City, where he was president of a university, and in Baja California where he dedicated himself to a vision of building a theocratic state.
Some may say that it makes little sense to use the life of a Jesuit missionary in Mexico to shed light on the historical context of the canonization of Kateri Tekawitha. After all, she lived her life in the Mohawk territory of North America (a region now commonly called “New York” or “Ontario”). However, during Kateri’s life, the French Jesuits were working toward temporal and spiritual conquest in the Haudenosaunee region of North America where France had laid claim. Their Jesuit brother Salvatierra was doing the same in Mexico, where Spain had laid claim.
In every geographical region of this hemisphere (North, Central, and South America), evidence shows that the campaign for the Catholic evangelization of the Americas was premised on a religious ideology of temporal and spiritual conquista and dominacíon.
In the Kumeyaay archives at the Kumeyaay Community College at Sycuan, we have a biography of Salvatierra, originally published in 1754, under the authorship of Miguel Venegas. The title page of the biography provides insight into the mission of the Catholic Church during Kateri Tekawitha’s life.
The English verison of the title page refers to Salvatierra as an “Apostolic Conqueror of the Californias” (“Conquistador Apostolico de las Californias”). Salvatierra was regarded as a spiritual conquistador of the Church, an agent of the temporal (worldly) and spiritual conquest of Indian nations. This is the historical context that the Vatican is commemorating through the life of Tekawitha.
The Salvatierra biography is dedicated to “Mother Mary.” The English version of the title page reads: “To the Most Holy Mary Mother of God, Queen of all the Saints, Lady of Armies, and Conqueress of new Kingdoms in her Holy Image Of Loreto” (The Spanish version reads: “A Maria Santissima Madre de Dios, Reyna de todos los Santos, Senora de los Exercitios, y Conquistadora de nuevos Reynos en su Sagrada Imagine De Loreto.”) The Church and the missionaries regarded her as a female spiritual conqueror of the Indians.
A subtitle of the Salvatierra biography provides further evidence that the Catholic “evangelization” was a process that the Church itself described as “spiritual conquest.” In Spanish, it is accurately termed spiritual conquista y dominacíon. The section is titled: “Describing the Many Prudent Means Which Father Juan Maria Employed to Assure and Further the Conquest of California.”
In his book How America’s First Settlers Invented Chattel Slavery, Father David O’Rourke, who is a Dominican priest, tells the story of how the life of Juan María Salvatierra intersected with that of Don Estevan Rodriguez Lorenzo. O’Rourke quotes the Salvatierra biography as stating that Rodriguez’s “prudence, valor and Christian zeal were due the later military successes which marked this conquest.”
Military force was a key part of the persuasive campaign for dominacíon waged by the Catholic Church, the Spanish crown, and other monarchies. O’Rourke points out that Salvatierra’s “entrada into California was seen as a conquista which was based on military successes.” Conquista, or conquest, is defined as “having achieved a victory over or triumphed over an enemy.” To triumph or surmount is “to gain the upper hand over, to have won mastery or dominance over.”
The historical context of Ketari Tekawitha’s canonization is well summarized by René Maunier in his The Sociology of Colonies (1949): “…if you are to organize and civilize the world you must dominate it.”
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008), and Kumeyaay and indigenous research coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.