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Kateri Tekakwitha shrine in Fonda, NY. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmcordell/">Diane Cordell</a>, CC <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">some rights reserved</a>
Kateri Tekakwitha shrine in Fonda, NY. Photo: Diane Cordell, CC some rights reserved

First Native saint "beacon of empowerment"

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Catholics across Upstate New York and Canada are celebrating the canonization of a 17th century Mohawk woman. She'll become the first Native American saint in a ceremony this Sunday at the Vatican.

Kateri Tekakwitha (pronounced "gah-deh-LEE de-gah-GWEE-tah") was born in the Mohawk Valley, near what is today Albany. Smallpox killed her parents and partially blinded her when she was six. She fled her village and devoted her life to the Catholic Church at the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve near Montreal. She died when she was just 24 years old.

That church, St. Francis Xavier in Kahnawake, is holding vigils, masses, and other special events throughout the weekend.

Hundreds of faithful are travelling to Rome to witness the canonization in person. Among them is the mother of Darren Bonaparte, a Mohawk historian and author of a book called A Lily Among Thorns: the Mohawk Repatriation of Takeri Tekakwitha.

Bonaparte told David Sommerstein Kateri Tekakwitha's story needs to be seen in its historical context. He says the Dutch and the French were vying for Mohawk lands in the 17th century, spreading smallpox to the native people as they went.

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1690 portrait of Kateri Tekakwitha by Father Claude Chauchetiere, S.J.

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[Bonaparte] So it was really one of the darker times of our history.

And why do you think it’s important to mention that?

Her whole background, and the historical context of her life, is critical. A lot of times previous writers would just kind of isolate her and treat her as though she’s a fawn walking through the wilderness, her story doesn’t begin until she meets the missionaries. But my perspective is you have to look at her culture where she came from and understand that her culture kind of paved the way for the new teachings the Jesuits brought in. Because the Jesuits were very clever, and they sat and studied our languages, our creation stories, and they looked for things that were common, that they could link to their teachings.

Because of the complicated history between the native peoples, certainly the Mohawks on one hand and the Catholic Church on the other, there’s been a lot of debate over whether this first canonization of a Native American person in the Catholic Church is something to be celebrated, or because of the history of the boarding schools, that we shouldn’t be celebrating the Catholic Church recognizing a Native American person?

For me that’s just somebody speaking out of their you-know-what, because my father went through the residential school, and got the worst treatment of anybody, and it took him 50 years to be able to talk about it and my mother on the other hand is in Rome right now to celebrate the canonization.

So there is that negative history of the church, but the thing about Kateri Tekakwitha is that she’s accepted by people for her own holiness, and her own spiritual power, and that’s what people are drawn to. The things with the church and the residential school…there’s a whole darkness to it. And I totally understand that, that’s always going to be there, it’s not resolved. It needs to be looked it. But this is not to say, “Oh, the Catholic church gets a pass, because we got one of our own in there.” No, it’s a good opportunity for people to look at the events of colonization and to explore it, but also to know that the native people aren’t just pure victims of history.

That seems to be a constant theme with a lot of our own activists and a lot of people who get to the podium, is they like to paint a picture of, “we’ve just been holocausted, we’re barely hanging on!” and I think Kateri Tekakwitha’s story is a contrast to that, that she’s a beacon of empowerment, especially for native women, because she didn’t just sit around waiting for somebody to give her permission, she never sought anyone’s approval, she charted her own course, and she chose the spiritual path, and I think a lot of people respond to that.

It’s amazing to see news reports of people from all over, native peoples from South America, Central America going to Rome for this canonization. This is a very important event for really all of the Native American populations across North and South America.

Well that’s the thing--people from all over, not just native people--but she’s really, really popular with the native people. And I think what it is, is something that she connects to people when they hear her story it registers deep within them. And so that’s why I say she’s spiritual…

Why do you think that?

Well I think a lot of people struggle. Native people have a hard road to hoe. And Kateri Tekakwitha, through her illnesses early in life, and the trials that she went through throughout her life, suffered through a lot of grief and pain. And yet she had her eyes on the prize, she was always consumed with the holy fire. And so when people her that story, it lifts them up when they hear here story and they feel like, “Hey, there is somebody up there who identifies with me and my life.”

Darren Bonaparte writes the Mohawk history blog, wampumchronicles.com.

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