ALBANY, N.Y. — 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 electe d 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.
It’s difficult to gauge just how widespread the feelings are given the factionalism that pervades the nation and the circumspection they favor when dealing with the media. But many Mohawks interviewed downplayed any controversy and joined Catholics who see Kateri as a uniting figure and hope her elevation to sainthood will help heal old wounds.
“It’s so nice to see God showing all the flavors of the world,” said Gene Caldwell, a Native American member of the Menominee reservation in Neopit, Wis., who attended Kateri’s canonization with his wife, Linda. “The Native Americans are enthralled” to have Kateri attain sainthood, he said.
Russell Roundpoint, director of the Mohawk history and cultural center at Akwesasne, said her sainthood is “not a contentious issue by any stretch of the imagination.
“The Mohawk people are very proud of the fact that she has attained such a high level,” he said.
Sister Jennifer Votraw is director of communications for the Ogdensburg Diocese in northern New York, where the Mohawk reservation is located. While the diocese doesn’t provide direct pastoral care to the Mohawks, Votraw belongs to the order the Sisters of St. Joseph, nuns who regularly aid the priests who minister to the tribe.
She said years of successful interactions between the church and the tribe demonstrate a mutual respect for each other.
Still, she knows there are traditional Mohawks who will never be swayed in their view of the church and may resent Kateri’s canonization as a ploy to improve the church’s image among Native Americans.
“They believe very firmly in their religion, which is Mohawk,” she said. “You just have to respect that.”
Orenda Boucher, a Mohawk humanities professor at Kiana Institution, a Native American college near Montreal, said there are “mixed feelings” and no easy answer to the question of what Kateri represents to Mohawks or the rest of the world.
“A lot of my friends who are traditionalists see Kateri as tied into the story of colonization that has deeply affected Kahnawake, and to the atrocities of the church,” she said.
Boucher said to understand the complexities of Kateri’s life, it’s important for people to look beyond the biographies written by clergymen who focus on what they consider her Christian virtues.