Native Village 
Youth and Education News

November, 2012

1st Native American saint stirs pride, skepticism
Condensed by Native Village


Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha is now Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Pope Benedict XVI canonized her as the first Native American saint last month before 80,000 people in St. Peter’s Square.

According to the Vatican press office, the pope addressed the “life and example” of seven new saints in his homily. He looked to St. Kateri for the “renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America.”

New York: Some traditional Mohawks are skeptical about the naming Kateri Tekakwitha as America's first Native American saint. They fear the Roman Catholic Church is using her to improve its image and marginalize Native spiritual practices.

They see Kateri's story as yet another reminder of colonial atrocities and religious oppression.

"I was a recipient of these historical profanities and want to ensure this does not happen again," said Doug George-Kanentiio, a Mohawk writer who left Catholicism to follow traditional longhouse spiritual practices.

Kateri was born in 1656 near Albany, NY in the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy, to which the Mohawk belong. Her father was a Mohawk chief; her mother was a Catholic Algonquin woman.

Kateri was orphaned at age 4 when smallpox wiped out her family and much of her village.  Kateri survived, but was blinded and disfigured.

At age 20, Kateri converted to Catholicism. She settled in Kahnawake, a Mohawk settlement near Montreal where the Jesuits had a mission. There, she with other women practiced religious self-mutilation using whips, thorns and hot coals.

At her death at age of 24, Kateri's smallpox scars reportedly vanished and later she was reported to appear before several people. She is buried at a shrine on Kahnawake.

Pope Benedict XVI noted how unusual it was in Kateri's culture for her to devote herself to her Catholic faith.

"She's seen very much as a bridge" between native culture and Christianity, said the Rev. Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest. He said the Jesuit missionaries "took great pains to learn the native languages and tried their best to present the Christian faith using words, phrases and ideas from the native cultures."

Traditional Mohawks recognize the reverence their Catholic relatives and friends have for Kateri. But many remain troubled by how the church portrays her life. Various church writings describe Kateri as maintaining her faith despite ostracism and persecution from her own tribe.

"I disagree with the characterizations of the 'other Mohawks' in the Jesuit accounts of Kateri," said Chaz Kader, a Mohawk journalist raised Catholic but who now follows the ancient longhouse traditions. "The contrast of good Mohawks and bad Mohawks still is affecting our people."

Traditional Mohawks struggle to keep their spiritual traditions and ancient language alive despite pressure from non-Indians to adopt European ways. These traditionalists have established Mohawk language-immersion schools. They also follow a clan-based government separate from the elected tribal government recognized by NY and the U.S.

Kader says many outsiders associate them with "bad Mohawks"-- those who smuggle goods across the border and refuse to collect taxes on cigarette sales. The "good Mohawks" are those who "went to Rome to celebrate Kateri," he added.

Other Mohawks downplay the Kateri controversy. They see her as a uniting figure whose elevation to sainthood may help heal old wounds.  Russell Roundpoint directs the Mohawk history and cultural center at Akwesasne. He says Kateri's sainthood is "not a contentious issue by any stretch of the imagination.

"The Mohawk people are very proud of the fact that she has attained such a high level," he said.

Sister Jennifer Votraw is from the Ogdensburg Diocese where the Mohawk reservation is located. She belongs to the order the Sisters of St. Joseph,  nuns who aid priests ministering to the tribe. Votraw says the church and tribe share a mutual respect. However, she realizes that traditional Mohawks may never change their views about the church or
that Kateri's canonization was a ploy.

"They believe very firmly in their religion, which is Mohawk," Sister Votraw said. "You just have to respect that.

Orenda Boucher, Mohawk, is a professor at Kiana Institution, a Native American college near Montreal. She says  there are "mixed feelings" and no easy answer to the question of what Kateri represents to Mohawks or the world.

"A lot of my friends who are traditionalists see Kateri as tied into the story of colonization that has deeply affected Kahnawake, and to the atrocities of the church," she said. Boucher said to understand Kateri's life, one must look beyond the biographies written by clergymen.

George-Kanentiio said traditional Iroquois worry about Kateri's sainthood being used to encourage Native Americans to change their ancestral values for Catholic dogma.

"It should never obscure the best elements of our aboriginal spirituality ..." he said, then referred to her self-mutilation. "Women in particular need not kneel in supplication to any man or any god but to rise to dance and sing in true joy. We can never accept any institution which actively suppresses women or qualifies their potential."

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