As the Catholic faithful prepare to see the first aboriginal saint canonized, two nations that did not even exist during her lifetime are vying to call her their own. The U.S.–Canadian border, established on June 15, 1846, long after Kateri’s death, is laid along the 49th parallel, slicing arbitrarily through Mohawk territory that had been delineated for thousands of years before European settlers came through.
Kateri Tekakwitha, who lived from 1656–1680, was Mohawk, pure and simple, as McGill University history professor Allan Greer explained to CTV News in a January 4 interview. He should know: He wrote the book Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuit (Oxford University Press, 2004).
“Because she lived in a time long before Canada or the United States as we know it existed, there are ways that different groups can kind of identify with her. But really I think probably the most plausible claim is that of First Nations. The salient fact about Kateri Tekakwitha was she was a Mohawk through and through,” Greer said. “And I think particularly First Nations people in the United States and Canada see her really as a symbol of them as a collective symbol. For me they’ve got the most plausible claim, because they were here long before there were these nation-states that we identify with.”
In December the Vatican announced that the more than 100-year-long process to clear Tekakwitha for sainthood had ended, and that she was slated for canonization.
Tekakwitha, or “Lily of the Mohawks,” was born in what would become New York State in 1776, one of the original 13 United States. She moved to Kahnawake at age 19, accomplished her most religious work, and died at 24. Dubbed the Protectress of Canada, among other epithets, Tekakwitha’s remains are interred in a marble tomb at St. Francis Xavier Church in Kahnawake, Quebec. Three national shrines also pay homage: the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, New York, the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. A statue of Kateri is on the outside of the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec as well.
“All kinds of people can say, ‘She’s our saint,’ and mean it sincerely. The actual historical facts give them all some plausibility,” Greer told the Toronto Star. “There’s no way of adjudicating today who is right, because, in a certain sense, they all are.”