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A Lily Among Thorns: St. Kateri Tekakwitha
February 10, 2012 9:52 PM   Subscribe

Later this year, the Vatican will canonize Káteri Tekahkwí:the, a/k/a Catherine Tekakwitha, a/k/a "Lily of the Mohawks." Born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and Algonquin mother, some are celebrating the canonization of the first North American indigenous saint. For others, the news is bittersweet, inciting mixed reactions derived from complex emotions, especially to those of American and Canadian Native ancestry, for whom the news represents a painful reminder of the dark history of European colonization of North America. The compelling survival story of Tekakwitha (or "the Clumsy One") has long been cherished as a religious conversion story by non-Natives of European descent, particularly Catholics, who claimed her as one of their own and held her out to the world as a model of piety and Christian values. In her classic 1890 biography of Kateri, The Life and Times of Kateri Tekakwitha, The Lily of the Mohawks, 1656-1680, Ellen Walworth documents Kateri's ascetic lifestyle - which included self-flagellation, frequent fasting and even sleeping on a bed of thorns - in vivid detail. Describing her interest in Tekakwitha as sparked by "the thought of a mere Indian girl reared in the forest among barbarians," Walworth's spin on Kateri's tragic life seems to echo the pro-Indian assimilation line which was typical of the Assimilation era of federal Indian policy. However, in more recent years, some authors have attempted to reclaim her story by digging deeper into her dark history from more diverse secular and non-secular perspectives. For example, Mohawk author and biographer Darren Bonaparte argues for painting a more complex portrait of a future saint which more fully incorporates and appreciates her Mohawk roots.
posted by Dr. Zira (39 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
As usual, Dr. Zira, an excellent post, thank you.
posted by HuronBob at 10:04 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I concur...excellent post indeed!
posted by Quasimike at 10:06 PM on February 10, 2012


I like to think I have a pretty broad cultural radar, but she was not even on it. Thank you for the fascinating post.
posted by mykescipark at 10:07 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am fond of Kateri, because she is such a Canadian example of forced intergration, and attempting to make due with a culture that has been taken from you--it's the story of first nations, it is to a lesser extent the story of Quebec and of Newfoundland--her connection to Quebec identity is discussed in a very personal, and quite eccentric way by Cohen's only novel Beautiful Losers. I am curious why now, though?
posted by PinkMoose at 10:08 PM on February 10, 2012


Cohen had another novel, The Most Beautiful Game /pedant

But yes, Cohen's novel is the only way I knew about her for a long time, until I taught Sunday school for a while and there was a lesson on her.
posted by ifjuly at 10:10 PM on February 10, 2012


I too expected this to end up being a Beautiful Losers post.
posted by 256 at 10:14 PM on February 10, 2012


Good heavens, thanks, PinkMoose, for the Cohen connection. I had no idea.

I often amazed about the connections we find in this world/life, how convoluted and fascinating it is. And, just as often, I'm amazed by the knowledge, insight, and intelligence here at Metafilter. A general "thanks" to those that contribute to this.
posted by HuronBob at 10:14 PM on February 10, 2012


Beautiful Losers is such a fantastic piece of writing. Funny, wicked, just brilliant. And I like the way Katherine Tekakwitha plays such a significant part in it.
posted by Skygazer at 10:15 PM on February 10, 2012


I love Kateri. She's my homegirl.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:16 PM on February 10, 2012


I both realised about the beautiful game, and realised that beautiful loser might not be a novel, at the same time...sorry, yr right.

i only knew about the novel until i turned catholic.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:18 PM on February 10, 2012


PinkMoose: "I am curious why now, though?"

It has to do with a very sweet 11 y/o Lummi boy named Jake Finkbonner.
posted by Dr. Zira at 10:24 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, Darren Bonaparte's paper should be REQUIRED READING. For the WORLD. What a great history.

Thanks so much for this post, Dr. Zira.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:24 PM on February 10, 2012


We can talk about Kateri (I am curious about how for example, her mortifcation of the flesh is closer to mohawk than catholic, or the problems of the obsession with purity, or how it seems symoblic that her first miracle was the small pox being removed from her flesh--that idea, the small pox as an example of european plague that marked the mohawk, and the european influence of xianity being the import that erased this first import, but also replaced her culture--and how complicated that miracle is, or how the last miracle, the one that made her a saint featured disfigured flesh again, and lacrosse, which seems odd and proper and impossible), or how her shrine in Northern Ontario, has lillies, and sage and sweetgrass, and how her symbol is the lily and the feather, and all of that complicated stuff) but i love how in the novel--all of that is addressed, her being a symbol of montreal, and what that means, and her as a kind of trickster, and her with a body that functions, and like most great pornographers in Catholic places, how it understands the problems of the sublimation of the flesh.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:25 PM on February 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thats the offical story, and it's a good one, but i'm wondering about the politics of streamlining this.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:30 PM on February 10, 2012


A link to an NPR piece about Jake Finkbonner.
posted by HuronBob at 10:31 PM on February 10, 2012


Of interest: Vollmann, Fathers and Crows, and also Black Robe, which is about the mission to the Huron.
posted by mwhybark at 10:35 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just curious -- in the FPP, Dr. Zira, you note that she was called
Tekakwitha (or "the Clumsy One")
...but the Wikipedia article in the first link implies that Tekakwitha translates to "one who puts things in order." Was "The Clumsy One" a nickname?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:12 AM on February 11, 2012


to a lesser extent the story of Quebec and of Newfoundland

Quebecois culture being distinctly non-Anglophone, I get that, and while I know that Newfoundland wasn't subsumed into the Confederation until 1949, couldn't you really say that any given province of Canada endured the same thing? What makes Newfoundland peacefully voting for joining the Canadians any different than when Nova Scotians or Prince Edward Island did the same?
posted by Apocryphon at 1:25 AM on February 11, 2012


The articles of confedreation re:Newfoundland are complex, but i meant mostly, that Newfoundland and Quebec construct their otherness more explicitly than other provinces.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:34 AM on February 11, 2012


That's what I'm asking- Quebec I understand, but why Newfoundland? What is the root of its otherness?
posted by Apocryphon at 1:47 AM on February 11, 2012


No different than the Mormons baptizing Holocaust victims, in my opinion. Among the Catholic Church's uncountable sins, their direct agency in New World genocide of Native peoples is staggering and shameful.
posted by spitbull at 6:09 AM on February 11, 2012


True, but Kateri did consider herself Catholic
posted by PinkMoose at 6:56 AM on February 11, 2012


No different than the Mormons baptizing Holocaust victims, in my opinion.

Except, you know, she was alive and chose to be baptized. But good job Godwinning the thread!
posted by Jahaza at 7:07 AM on February 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


some are celebrating the canonization of the first North American indigenous saint.

I know what you were trying to say, but Juan Diego was both indigenous and North American.

Thanks for posting this; it's a fascinating story and not one I had ever encountered before.
posted by Forktine at 7:08 AM on February 11, 2012


Actually, let me be pedantic about my pedantry; upon waking I think it's actually The Favourite Game. Loved it when I was younger, so shame on me.
posted by ifjuly at 7:11 AM on February 11, 2012


I know what you were trying to say, but Juan Diego was both indigenous and North American.

I was coming in here to say the same thing.

I didn't know Kateri's story. Thanks for the post.
posted by Stynxno at 7:13 AM on February 11, 2012


I had no idea. Thank you for this post!
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:19 AM on February 11, 2012


Tremendous post and it's not even December. Thanks Dr. Zira.

So I immediately thought - OK with what miracle is she credited? This is always the challenge in the process. The Roman Catholic Church has rules you know: no miracle, no sainthood.

The Vatican needed a certified miracle from the three-centuries-dead tribeswoman and so followers submitted reports of dozens: everything from healing the sick to levitating a man off the ground and appearing herself, hovering in deerskin clothes.

None of these passed muster. But then in 2006 doctors in Seattle confirmed an astonishing event.

Against all medical expectations, an 11-year-old Native American boy fatally ill with a flesh-eating bacteria made a full recovery. His parents had been praying to Kateri.

Although needing another five years, this one convinced the Vatican, and last month Pope Benedict XVI cleared Kateri for canonization.


*rolls eyes* "Against all medical expectations" is not the same thing as magic having occurred.

Nice to see this woman getting recognition that she deserves, but she was a human being, she shows what human beings are capable of - and it is sad that the church always has to attribute extraordinary human achievement to a supernatural being. In elevating their God they diminish humanity and there's nothing good about that.
posted by three blind mice at 8:00 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Except, you know, she was alive and chose to be baptized. But good job Godwinning the thread!

I mean canonizing people who participated in the genocide. Given the history of the current Pope, I think the Catholic Church Godwinned the world when he was selected to lead that worm-eaten institution.
posted by spitbull at 9:54 AM on February 11, 2012


And by that, I mean not Lily of the Mohawks herself, but everything her story (which is 95% Church propaganda bullshit) symbolizes, which is what is really being canonized here.
posted by spitbull at 9:56 AM on February 11, 2012


The things that make a person qualify for sainthood tend to require, shall we say, a good deal of faith. Dubious miracles are par for the course. In the case of Juan Diego, it took a curiously newly discovered codex just to support the idea that he even existed. Upon close observation, history is full of canonizations and beatifications that look like instances where the proof was tailored to fit the desire for a saint.

Interesting post!
posted by 2N2222 at 9:58 AM on February 11, 2012


EmpressCallipygos: "Was "The Clumsy One" a nickname?"

The reference was from the Sebastian Smith article, but I would love to find a more direct explanation of original Mohawk meaning to link to; unfortunately there's no footnote referenced in that Wikipedia article to track down the source of the "puts things in order" translation. From everything I read, the translation of her name was a reference to her tendency to bump into things in her early years as a result of her being nearly blinded from the smallpox outbreak that killed her parents when she was four years old. The Bonaparte article I linked to above doesn't explain the translation, but states "The name Tekahkwí:tha, in fact, is a reference to the way she used her hands to feel her way."
posted by Dr. Zira at 10:10 AM on February 11, 2012


Huh. Kateri is on one of the tapestries hanging around our church, put up there along with all the other saints who were voted up by the congregation. I had been made aware of her story but I had assumed she had been sainted already.

Now if they just give Gandhi sainthood everyone up there will be a saint!
posted by charred husk at 10:41 AM on February 11, 2012


Huh. Kateri is on one of the tapestries hanging around our church, put up there along with all the other saints who were voted up by the congregation. I had been made aware of her story but I had assumed she had been sainted already.

She had already been beatified (declared a "Blessed"), now she is being canonized (declared a saint.)
posted by Jahaza at 12:13 PM on February 11, 2012


Quebec I understand, but why Newfoundland? What is the root of its otherness?

Francophone Quebec claims to be a nation; Newfoundland was a nation.

(To contrast with the other Maritimes: these -- especially Nova Scotia -- were involved in Confederation talks from the getgo. They joined Canada as important strong partners. If their strength diminished vis-a-vis Quebec and Ontario over the years, their sense of partnership did not. Newfoundland was independent, a separate country, an impoverished country no longer wanted by Britain which ate up its population in WWI. So Newfoundland came to the Confederation table as a member below the salt with only memories of a pround past to sustain it.)
posted by CCBC at 2:31 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Us Episcopalians already have an indigenous saint, nyah nyah! His story is really quite interesting.
posted by Biblio at 2:37 PM on February 11, 2012


Kateri Tekakwitha is part of my name. My baptismal name, as a matter of fact. My mother chose this to reflect my father's native/catholic heritage. I grew up knowing her story very, very well. As I approached my teenage years, however, I always thought that my mother's choice of using Kateri to reflect (partly) my Native background was ironic. I felt that in becoming Catholic she lost some of her native culture.

Of course there's a lot about native culture and catholicism that I find odd and ironic. FOr example, my father's parish church while he was growing up was Martyr's Shrine. I remember remarking to my mother that going to church there every sunday must have made him feel very....odd. She didn't understand why I thought that.
posted by aclevername at 3:02 PM on February 11, 2012


You didn't have to add that second comment, Spitbull, I think we're all pretty clear on your opinion.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:56 PM on February 11, 2012


Oh good, this will go a helluva long way in healing all the injustices perpetrated on indians.

some are celebrating

And some are replacing the handles on the warclubs.
posted by Twang at 6:06 PM on February 11, 2012


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