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Catherine Tekakwitha

Sometimes John Bevis our interpreter will try to give school tours a reference point by telling kids that the wéyekin is a lot like the guardian angel.  Guess what, not many are acquainted with the concept.  The lives of religious holy people may not seem relevant to Indian people’s lives today.  The July 14 feast day of Kateri usually elapses without much notice on the Umatilla Indian reservation. 

Yet Catherine Tekakwitha, beatified  Mohawk, may be on her way to sainthood under the Roman Catholic Church process of certifying miracles.  In 2006, a six-year old Lummi boy, Jake Finkbonner, nearly died of necrotizing fasciitis of the face, aka flesh-eating bacteria.  As his family prepared for his imminent death, the attending priest had the family pray for the intercession of Catherine Tekakwitha, because her face too had been disfigured by smallpox in her lifetime in the 17th century.  Medical specialists gave up on Jake, yet his life was saved, and so may provide the last evidence needed to make Catherine Tekakwitha an official saint.

But she won’t be the first indigenous saint of the Americas, because St. Juan Diego of the Chichimeca of Mexico was canonized in 2002. Juan Diego’s Indian name was Cuauhtlatoatzin, Talking Eagle.  The apparition at Tepeyac, the Lady of Guadalupe, spoke to him in his Nahuatl tongue and called him Xocoyte, her little son.   Juan Diego purportedly responded, “I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf.” (Wikipedia)  Some historians argued that Juan Diego’s existence can’t be proven but in matters of holiness that’s neither here nor there. 

Just about every town in Italy has one or more resident saints, almost like religious tourism entitlements.  Sometimes the towns would claim the sainted person was not embalmed, yet the body never decayed. Or they would claim the saint subsisted on nothing but communion wafers.  Those claims were not always true.  Nevertheless, there are a zillion Italian saints.  Relevant or not, why can’t American Indians attain a couple of sainthoods?

Literature made it seem like Catherine Tekakwitha rejected the tribal culture, and that her tribespeople persecuted her for her religion.  Not so, according to author Allan Greer in the book, Mohawk Saint.  Catherine did not speak French as her pastors did, and the priests in turn struggled with her language.  How did she learn about Christianity? –from her women friends in their own language and their own terms.  The Mohawks believed that sexual abstinence stored up a person’s powers. Women were intrinsically powerful in Iroquoian society.  The Indians observed that Catholic nuns were likewise “spiritually potent. “  The Indian devotees emulated the nuns by mortifying their bodies by flagellation, wearing hair shirts, etc.   Greer writes that it was tribal beliefs and values that constructed Tekakwitha’s form of holiness as much as Catholic influence.  Tekakwitha lived in a broken world and did her best to reconstruct her world according to new rules. 

After Tekakwitha died in 1680, she was credited with curing many sick or injured Catholic believers in Canada but none among her own people.  The writer speculated that she preferred that her own people should journey to the afterlife rather than remain in the present world.

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