“Who can tell me what is most pleasing to God that I may do it?”
St. Kateri Tekakwitha
Rarely if ever in the many millennia of human civilization has there been a people group
who has not committed some atrocity.
American Indians are no exception
Casey Chalk, The Federalist
Her feast day was July 14th and yet I just recently learned about her and her life.
She was of Algonquin and Mohawk roots.
Kateri’s baptismal name is “Catherine,” which in the Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”)
language is “Kateri.” Kateri’s Haudenosaunee name, “Tekakwitha,”
can be translated as “One who places things in order” or “To put all into place.”
Other translations include, “she pushes with her hands” and
“one who walks groping for her way” (because of her faulty eyesight).
Kateri was born in 1656 at the Kanienkehaka (“Mohawk”) village of Ossernenon,
which is near the present-day Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, New York.
Kateri’s father was a Kanienkehaka chief and her mother was an Algonquin Catholic.
At the age of four, smallpox attacked Kateri’s village, taking the lives of her parents and baby brother,
and leaving Kateri an orphan. Although forever weakened, scarred, and partially blind,
Kateri was adopted by her two aunts and her uncle, also a Kanienkehaka chief.
History teaches us that many of the Native Americans contracted smallpox from the Europeans
with some Europeans purposefully infecting resident tribes.
Yet history also teaches us that tribal violence and attacks upon other tribes was
a constant threat to a tribe’s way of life.
A Mohawk war party in 1647 attacked and practically exterminated an Algonquin community.
The Iroquois, who practiced both slavery and cannibalism,
routinely tortured to death captured enemy warriors.
Kateri witnessed the torturing of Mohican warriors who had attacked her Mohawk village in 1669.
Kateri, upon meeting Jesus, put all of the difficulties of her past behind her.
Her sole focus became Christ.
Kateri often went to the woods alone to speak to God and to listen to him in her heart
and in the voice of nature.
When Kateri was eighteen years old, Father de Lamberville, a Jesuit missionary,
came to Caughnawaga and established a chapel.
Kateri was fascinated by the stories she heard about Jesus Christ.
She wanted to learn more about him and to become a Christian.
Father de Lamberville asked her uncle to allow Kateri to attend religious instructions.
The following Easter of 1676, twenty-year-old Kateri was baptized.
Not everyone in Kateri’s village accepted her choice to fully embrace Jesus,
which for her meant refusing the marriage that had been planned for her.
Kateri became a village outcast. Some members of her family refused her food on Sundays
because she would not work.
She suffered bullying, as some children would taunt her and throw stones.
She was threatened by some with torture or death if she did not renounce her religion.
Because of increasing hostility from some of her people, and because she wanted to be free
to devote her life completely to Jesus, in July of 1677,
Kateri left her village and traveled more than 200 miles through woods and rivers
to the Catholic mission of St. Francis Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis,
Kateri’s journey through the wilderness took more than two months.
At the mission, Kateri lived with other Indigenous Catholics.
Katei lived a life dedicated to serving Christ and Christ alone– because of
her virtue, modesty and humility, many Native Americans who knew her referred to
to her as a “Holy Woman.”
Kateri died on April 17, 1680, at the age of 24.
Her last words were, “Jesus, I love You.” Like the flower she was named for,
the lily, Kateri’s life was short and beautiful.
Moments after dying, her scarred face miraculously cleared and was made beautiful by God.
This miracle was witnessed by two Jesuit priests and all the others
able to fit into the room. Many miracles were to follow.
Three people had visions of her in the week following her death.
A chapel was built near her grave, and soon pilgrims began to visit,
coming to thank God for this Holy Woman.
Kateri is known as the “Lily of the Mohawks” and the “Beautiful Flower Among True Men.”
She is recognized for her heroic faith, virtue, and love of Jesus,
in the face of great adversity and rejection.
I learned about Saint Kateri when I read an article by Casey Chalk, a columnist for
The American Conservative, Crisis Magazine, and The New Oxford Review.
The article, Saint Kateri’s Story Dispels The Myth Of White People As Uniquely Evil,
brought to light the story of St. Kateri but it also highlighted the complexities of
early Native American tribes.
Indeed, tribes in the American southeast in the 18th and 19th centuries managed plantations
that “rivaled those of their white neighbors.”
In 1860, citizens of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Cree, and Chickasaw tribes owned more
than 5,000 black slaves.
So much for simplistic narratives about the white,
European oppression of American Indians and people of color.
And whereas our past, be it black, white, red, brown, yellow—slave, freeman or tribal member…
the one underlying thread is a single, yet deeply important component—
it is single fact that we are all the children of one God, one Father,
and as those children we have but one Savior found in Jesus Christ.
Mr. Chalk’s article reminds us that history is complicated—
and that man is perhaps even more complicated than his own history.
Certainly, the United States has an obligation to right past wrongs,
of which there are many, against indigenous peoples.
But we also have an obligation to avoid superficial,
Manichean portrayals of history that unnecessarily divide our nation and
inflame ignorant ideologies of hatred and outrage.
“There can never be peace between nations until there is first known that
true peace which is within the souls of men,” said Black Elk,
a Lakota medicine man who was present at both the Battle of the Little Bighorn
and the massacre at Wounded Knee. Later in life,
he converted to Catholicism and became a renowned catechist.
He, too, is being considered for sainthood.
The humble, pious, and patient witness of St. Kateri Tekakwitha
and Black Elk offer a better way of overcoming our national distemper,
one marked by love, forgiveness, and truth.