1st Native American saint stirs pride, skepticism
Some traditional Mohawks are treating the naming of the nation’s first Native American saint with skepticism and fear that the Roman Catholic Church is using it to shore up its image and marginalize traditional spiritual practices.
They see the story of Kateri Tekakwitha 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.
The daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Catholic Algonquin woman, Kateri was born in 1656 about 40 miles northwest of Albany and in the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy to which the Mohawks belong. She was orphaned at age 4 when smallpox wiped out her family and much of her village and left her blinded and disfigured.
A Catholic convert at 20, she settled in Kahnawake, a Mohawk settlement south of Montreal where Jesuits had a mission and where she and other women performed mortification rituals such as self-flogging as part of their faith. At her death at the 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.
Speaking in English and French at her canonization last Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI noted how unusual it was in Kateri’s culture for her to choose 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, said Chaz Kader, a Mohawk journalist who was raised Catholic but follows ancient longhouse traditions now. But many remain troubled by how the church portrays her life.
The story of Kateri told in various church writings describes her as maintaining her faith despite torment by her people, suffering ostracism and persecution at the hands of her own tribe and eventually fleeing to Canada.
“I disagree with the characterizations of the ‘other Mohawks’ in the Jesuit accounts of Kateri,” Kader said. “The contrast of good Mohawks and bad Mohawks still is affecting our people.”
Traditional Mohawks have struggled to keep their spiritual traditions and ancient language alive despite pressure from non-Indians to adopt European religion, culture and language.
These traditionalists have established Mohawk language-immersion schools and follow a clan-based government separate from the elected tribal government recognized by the U.S., Canada and New York state. To outsiders, they are associated with an image of “bad Mohawks” who smuggle goods across the border and refuse to collect state taxes on cigarette sales, Kader said, and the “good Mohawks” are the ones who “went to Rome to celebrate Kateri,” he added. [More]