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Kateri Tekakwitha: Native American Sainthhood Or A Tale Of Crass Hagiography?

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Message Kevin Tully
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I am a Catholic. I love Mass. I love Catholic iconography because it very powerfully identifies with the human condition; if you see it as Jesus and people-centric and not dogmatic or institutional. I don't go to mass anymore.

Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was a Mohawk woman born in, what is now, New York State. She is becoming a Catholic Saint.

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"At the age of four, smallpox attacked Tekakwitha's village, taking the lives of her parents and baby brother, leaving Tekakwitha an orphan. Although forever weakened, scarred, and partially blind, Tekakwitha survived. The brightness of the sun blinded her and she would feel her way around as she walked...Father de Lamberville persuaded her uncle to allow Tekakwitha to attend religious instructions. The following Easter, twenty-year old Tekakwitha was baptized. Radiant with joy, she was given the name of Kateri, which is Mohawk for Catherine. Kateri's family did not except her choice to embrace Christ. After her baptism, Kateri became the village outcast. Her family refused her food on Sundays because she wouldn't work. Children would taunt her and throw stones. She was threatened with torture or death if she did not renounce her religion...Because of increasing hostility from her people and because she wanted to devote her life to working for God, in July of 1677, Kateri left her village and fled more than 200 miles through woods, rivers, and swamps to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis, near Montreal...On March 25, 1679, Kateri made a vow of perpetual virginity, meaning that she would remain unmarried and totally devoted to Christ for the rest of her life...Kateri's health, never good, was deteriorating rapidly due in part to the penances she inflicted on herself...The poor health which plagued her throughout her life led to her death in 1680 at the age of 24. Her last words were, "Jesus I love you." Most Reverend Howard J. Hubbard, DD, Bishop of Albany, N.Y.

The above was posted on the Catholic Conservation website as a devotional biography - it could be interpreted as another Native American horror story.

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Europeans brought smallpox to Kateri and her people which scarred her, almost blinded her and weakened her physically. Her village was burned to the ground in 1666 by the French general Alexander de Prouville -- He set out on his mission with the blessing of the Bishop of New France. She was made an outcast child in her community which led to her being humiliated and abused. She was propagandized into extreme acts of penance which hastened her early death. "Tekakwitha's penances were many and varied. She walked barefoot in ice and snow, burned her feet "with a hot brand", very much in the same way that the indians mark their slaves [war captives]," put coals and burning cinders between her toes, whipped her friends and was whipped by them in secret meetings in the woods, fasted, mixed ashes with her food, and slept for three nights on a bed of thorns after hearing of the life story of Saint Louis de Gonzaque." *

She was proselytized into self-imposed virginity. The population of her people was in rapid decline because of the depredations of the Europeans and smallpox -- she consequently would not contribute to the future prosperity of her tribe. This could be construed as an indirect act of genocide.

And most sadly, to me, is that she died so young, because of her suffering, and the Iroquois Confederacy lost an amazing individual. However, the Catholic Church is getting another Saint.

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Why can't we have Saint Kateri, who did the miraculous, altruistic, wonderful things that she did, as a Native American, who was empowered and touched by Christianity, but, maintained her Mohawk identity and spirituality? In other words - a spiritual hybrid. Maybe this wouldn't be the truth, and, this is not historically the Catholic way. Catholicism conquered, tortured, appropriated, coerced, enslaved, obsfucated, diminished, denied, humiliated...I have often wondered where we would be right now if Christians and Native Americans could have somehow managed to join, Physically and spiritually, before the North American Holocaust? Oh well, maybe she was a Saint...However, we know for sure that she was a Kanienkehaka born Te-kak-wee-da at Gandaouague to an Algonquin mother and a Kanienkehaka father.

The above painting was painted in the 1690's, not long after her death.  Notice the European features of the Mohawk woman represented in the piece.

*Nancy Shoemaker, ed. Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women (NY: Routledge, 1995) pg.. 49-71


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Kevin is (writing about yourself in the third person (illeism) is a trip) an artist/writer/carpenter and frustrated songwriter living in Johnson City, Texas. His latest frustrating songwriting attempt is titled, "I Touched the Hand That Touched (more...)

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