When it was announced that Kateri Tekakwitha would be declared a saint by Pope Benedict, a British journalist asked me, “What does the canonization of a 17th century Mohawk woman mean in this cynical, godless age?”
The cynical, godless part of me wanted to answer, “The book I just wrote about her will make me more money!”
But after some time has passed, and I have had time to ponder the question, I now realize that cynicism and godlessness no longer have as much of a hold on me as they used to. That’s because something truly remarkable happened here three centuries ago, right in our own back yard—something much more intriguing than all of the Harry Potters and Lords of the Ring combined.
The story of Kateri Tekakwitha is an epic of biblical proportions. Complete with warfare, plagues, an exodus, and supernatural occurrences—the difference being is, it actually took place.
In fact, her life may be one of the most well-documented of any aboriginal person in history.
The documentary record was written by French missionaries who knew her personally. They provide a window into a critical period of Mohawk history, when French, Dutch, and English colonists brought their special blend of trade goods, religion, war and epidemic disease to North America.
Kateri Tekakwitha experienced the best and worst that European colonization had to offer. At six years old, she was scarred and nearly blinded in a smallpox outbreak that killed her family. Her people’s villages were burned to the ground by a French army when she was ten yrs old.
When French Jesuit missionaries were allowed into Mohawk country, she became one of their most fervent converts. This put her at odds with her adoptive family, the head of which was a traditional Turtle Clan chief. She eventually joined the mass migration of Mohawks to the valley of what is now called the St. Lawrence River. Our northern hunting grounds and the site of a new mission, Saint Francois Xavier du Sault. We know this community today as Kahnawake, or “At the Rapids.”
It has been said that the depopulation of the Mohawk Valley homeland weakened the Haudenosaunee Confederacy as a political and military force. The northern Mohawk migration led to the creation of a native alliance in the St. Lawrence River valley that would come to be known as the Seven Nations of Canada, with Kahnawake serving as its “Great Council Fire.” The strength of this alliance allowed the northern Mohawks to avoid the catastrophic events that befell the Iroquois Confederacy in the late 18th century.
When Kateri arrived in 1677, Kahnawake was full of fresh converts eager to prove their devotion to the new faith. Taking their cue from the Jesuits, many of them began to engage in harsh acts of penance that one could characterize as self-torture. Kateri was one of the extreme cases. Already sickly and of diminutive stature, her acts of mortification contributed to her death. She died in the odor of sanctity at the age of 24, surrounded by close friends and her Jesuit confessor, Father Claude Chauchetiere.
Minutes after she took her last breath, her face, which had been disfigured by smallpox, suddenly became “smiling and white.” This startled Chauchetiere, who later had a spectacular vision of Kateri while praying in the chapel. He struggled with the realization that he had been in the presence of a saint. What troubled him was the fear that nobody would believe that an aboriginal could be capable of such holiness. He eventually overcame his doubts by praying over sick colonists with Kateri’s personal possessions; these relics cured them of their ailments. He went on to paint her portrait and write her biography, compelled by the same “holy fire” that had illuminated Kateri herself.
Kateri also appeared to the Mohawk women who were closest to her. The reverence for her memory continues among her people to this day, a parallel to the following she has inspired throughout the world. The visions and healings have also continued. In recent years, a young native boy on the west coast was healed of the flesh-eating disease through her intercession. This was the miracle that the Vatican was waiting for to announce Kateri’s canonization as a saint.
For the Roman Catholic Church, which has never overcome the negative residue of the Doctrine of Discovery and native residential schools, the resurgence in interest in Kateri Tekakwitha is a shining example of missionary success in the New World.
For aboriginal Catholics, of which there are millions in the western hemisphere, it is a rare moment of acknowledgment in a world that has paid much more interest to their traditional, non-Christian counterparts.
For the typical American and Canadian, the story of the “Lily of the Mohawks” is like a tiny sprout that has somehow broken through the paved parking lot of the modern world, a resilient reminder that something important happened here in a long ago time they have found so easy to forget.
For the truly cynical and godless, of course, the story of this Mohawk Joan of Arc probably means nothing, but then again, I am no longer their self-appointed spokesman, and can only imagine how they must feel.
Darren Bonaparte, a Mohawk historian from Akwesasne, is the author of Creation & Confederation: The Living History of the Iroquois and A Lily Among Thorns: The Mohawk Repatriation of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha. Both books are available from Amazon.com.