“Recognizing a Saint: The Politics of Identity within the Canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha,” by Erin Routon

In 2006, a young boy in Washington State named Jake Finkbonner was playing basketball when he hit his face on the rim.  As a result of that injury, Jake caught a flesh-eating bacteria that nearly took his life. Because of Jake’s Native American ancestry, his family’s Roman Catholic priest informed them of a particularly relevant historical figure to whom they should pray for intercessory healing.  That figure was a Native American woman named Kateri Tekakwitha.  On Monday, December 19, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced the intention to make Kateri Tekakwitha a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, and on October 21, 2012, she was made the Church’s first Native American saint.[1]  What does this mean for Catholics or Catholic women? What does this mean for Native Americans? As evidenced already, this analysis will more often offer questions rather than answers. Ultimately, this article will explore particular historical significances in the “life” of this saint as well as some of the variant responses to this announcement, and, through the application of specific theoretical framings, it will critically examine the ways in which conceptions of “identity” and “recognition” play important roles in this story.

Kateri Tekakwitha, also popularly referred to as “Lily of the Mohawks”, was a Native American woman of both Algonquin and Iroquois ancestry. She was born in 1656 in a Mohawk community near present-day Auriesville, New York. Her mother was a Roman Catholic Algonquin woman, baptized by French missionaries, and her father was a Mohawk chief. When Kateri was four years of age, a smallpox epidemic swept through her village, killing both of her parents as well as her brother.  While she survived, she was left with noticeable scarring on her face and heavily damaged eyesight. In 1676, Jesuit Father Lamberville baptized her when she was approximately twenty years old, which is also when she took the name “Kateri”, a supposed Iroquois pronunciation of the name “Catherine”, in honor of Saint Catherine of Siena, the ascetic Italian tertiary from the fourteenth century.[2] This was a particularly unique act on behalf of Father Lamberville, given the common practice of “withholding baptism to Indians until the moment of death or until the Jesuits were certain no relapse was likely.”[3]  As a result of her Catholic baptism, Kateri experienced severe chastisement and harassment from her Mohawk community, particularly from her aunt and uncle whom she had lived with since the death of her parents.  In response, she fled in 1677 to the St. Francois Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, a territory of the Mohawk nation located in Quebec.

It was at the mission that Kateri began practices of bodily self-mortification and penances, and developed close relationships with two other Indian converts, Marie-Theresa Tegaiguenta and Marie Skarichions. She additionally undertook a vow of chastity, and one of her spiritual advisors, Father Cholenec, “presided over a ceremony in which she pledged perpetual virginity and gave herself to Christ as his wife”.[4] This particular form of devotion, a ceremonial marriage to Christ, was certainly not uncommon for Catholic nuns as well as penitent laywomen, as in fact Saint Catherine of Siena performed such a commitment, although this act was uncommon for Native American converts. Indeed, as noted by Elizabeth Abbott in her A History of Celibacy, “in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, Kateri Tekakwitha had become the first Iroquois sacred virgin”.[5]  She died at the mission in 1680, at the young age of twenty-four, with her spiritual advisors Fathers Cholenec and Chauchetiere nearby. Kateri’s last uttered words professed her love for Jesus Christ.

The process towards Kateri’s beatification began in 1884 in Baltimore during a meeting of American Catholic bishops. In his book, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, author Allan Greer notes that this group of bishops had joined at this time to work to establish the “church’s position in a predominantly Protestant society with pronounced anti-Papist traditions.”[6] Greer argues that it was through this effort that they eventually arrived at Kateri:

So began the search for an American saint that could symbolically root the church in American soil. By the time the bishops gathered at Baltimore, they had identified a perfect candidate: an innocent Indian from the distant colonial past, the embodiment of nature and the land, and the antithesis of immigration, urban grime, and industrial conflict.[7]

However, it was not until approximately half a century later that the first step in the process of canonization was completed. In accordance with this process, she was first declared “venerable” in 1943 by Pope Pius XII. After this, beatification was officially completed in 1980 following Pope John Paul II’s pronouncement that “her numerous unverified miracles [equaled] one certified miracle.”[8]

Greer further attributes central roles in the canonization campaign for Kateri to Father Clarence Walworth and his niece, Ellen (Nelly) Walworth. Nelly Walworth not only officially published Father Chauchetiere’s hagiographical manuscript of Kateri’s life, she also published her own biography of Kateri entitled The Life and Times of Kateri Tekakwitha. Although her text is non-hagiographical, and therefore written in a completely separate vein, and “native identity” appears to be of much greater concern, Greer notes that Walworth does express a simplified, primitivized image of “Indianness”: “Walworth’s heroine nevertheless carried markers of an essentialized Indian identity: pure otherness beyond the reach of historical progress.”[9]

In an apparent effort to express the sort of monumental, lasting effect that Walworth’s biography has had upon continued understandings of the saint, Greer offers his reader the historical significance of Kateri’s name as it is contemporarily known:

Nelly Walworth, anxious to eliminate the blatantly European ‘Catherine’ from her title, was using a Mohawk mispronunciation of an Italian saint’s name, linked to a French approximation of a Mohawk name, to clothe her heroine in an identity designed to look immaculately aboriginal. The gambit was a complete success; ever since, Tekakwitha/Catherine has been known around the world as ‘Kateri Tekakwitha’.[10]

Beyond the efforts of Father Clarence and Nelly Walworth, as well as the group of bishops that met in Baltimore in 1884, various disparate groups and individuals continued to work to accomplish canonization for Kateri. Jesuit Father Paolo Molinari, the Tekakwitha Conference, and the Blessed Kateri Committee are just a few of the groups that worked to promote the sainthood of Kateri.

The timing of the beginning of the process for Kateri’s “recognition,” the ending of the nineteenth century, was one that, Greer argues, supported the facilitation of this project. He suggests that this period of time in the United States was one in which a certain nostalgia or sentimentality was becoming popularized towards the “primitive” Native Americans, “associating them with nature and with the picturesque and the exotic.”[11] The rise of an “updated and Americanized” devotion to Kateri, Greer suggests, originates from a “primitivism” that not only serves to identify the “other,” but also to locate a reminiscent dimension of the self as within the emergent modernism of the time: “The ‘primitive’ was fascinating not because it negated modernity but because it gave definition through contrast to the progressive and the modern, while providing a focus for nostalgic fantasies generated by the anxieties inherent in modern life.”[12] The notion of “identity through contrast” will be discussed further in this article.

The rest of the article is located here.

The image is from Claude Chauchetiere, S.J.


[1] This article, at times, uses the terms “Native American,” “Native,” and “Indian” interchangeably, except when specifically referencing work by Vijay Prashad, which discusses Indian-Americans and not American Indians.

[2] The ascetic practices connecting Saint Catherine of Siena with Kateri Tekakwitha are significant and will be discussed further in this article.

[3] Elizabeth Abbott, A History of Celibacy (New York: Scribner, 2000), 129

[4] Ibid,130

[5] Ibid,130

[6] Allan Greer, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005), 193

[7] Greer, Mohawk Saint, 194

[8] Ibid, 195

[9] Greer, Mohawk Saint, 197

[10] Ibid, 197

[11] Greer, Mohawk Saint, 195

[12] Ibid, 195

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