Kateri (Catherine) Tekakwitha, a seventeenth-century Mohawk, is the only Native American to have been beatified (acclaimed at one step from sainthood) by the Roman Catholic Church. Her life also reflects the tensions between Christians and the Mohawks who refused to be converted.
Tekakwitha, who became known as the Lily of the Mohawks, was born in 1656 in Ossernenon (also known as Auriesville), New York, to a Mohawk father and an Algonquian mother who had been Christianized, then taken captive by the Mohawks a few years before Kateri's birth. She was born into a world of deadly tension between Native peoples and immigrant Jesuit priests. During the 1640s, eight Jesuits were tortured and killed in Ossernenon, after which, in 1667, the French sent troops to avenge the murders. Kateri thus spent much of her youth in a village under French military and religious occupation; the Mohawks had been compelled to accept Jesuits in their midst under duress.
Some of the priests had done their best to convince Mohawks in Ossernenon and the vicinity that their God would punish Natives who did not adopt their faith. After a deadly smallpox epidemic swept the area during Tekakwitha's youth (killing her younger brother, mother, and father), the priests were marked men. Catherine contracted smallpox and her face was disfigured by it, but she didn't die. Orphaned at the age of four, an uncle took responsibility for her.
Despite the fact that the uncle detested the Jesuits, he was ordered to lodge three of them in his home following the occupation of the village in 1667. Kateri became their hostess at the age of eleven. In subsequent years, she continued to bond with the missionaries to the point of refusing to marry in order to maintain her virginity. In retaliation, some of Kateri's relatives withheld food and threatened her life. Resisting these pressures, however, Tekakwitha continued to befriend the priests as several of her neighbors were converted gradually to Catholicism. She was baptized with the name Catherine in 1676. After that, she was harassed as she walked to the village chapel; on one occasion, a warrior taunted Kateri with a wax axe. Others accused Tekakwitha of inviting her uncle into bed to compromise her purported Christian virginity.
Shortly after the sexual rumors, Kateri moved to the Saint Francis Xavier mission in Kahnawake, near Montreal. Her uncle is said to have followed her, threatening to kill Kateri and family members who had accompanied her to Kahnawake; He was not successful. At the mission, she studied Christian theology intensively. Kateri continued to resist pressure to marry, eventually becoming associated with the nuns at the Hotel Dieu hospital in Ville Marie (Montreal). In 1679, Tekakwitha took a formal vow of chastity under Catholic auspices, the first Iroquois to do so.
Controversy attended her vow, however. Kateri stopped participating in hunting expeditions after her half-sister alleged that her husband had been seduced by the purported virgin. Instead, Kateri remained at the mission, practicing penance to the point of self-punishment, saying the Rosary for long periods of time barefoot at the foot of a cross planted in snow, eating food laced with ashes, and sometimes sleeping on a bed of thorns. The mission's priests did not dissuade her. Instead, they acclaimed her reverence and dedication to God.
On April 17, 1680, at the end of a long winter of self-inflicted suffering, Kateri fell ill and died during Holy Week. Since that time, a body of myth has grown up around her life and premature death. It is said, for example, that as Kateri died her face radiated light and lost all the scars inflicted on her by smallpox. Some people who pray in her memory are said to have experienced miracle cures.
In 1884, the Jesuits petitioned the Vatican for her canonization as a saint. In 1943, she was venerated by the Vatican, and, in 1980, she was declared beatified, another step toward sainthood. At least 300 full or partial biographies of Kateri's life have been published, in twenty languages, the most recent in 2005 (Greer, 2005, xi). She also has been the subject of several plays, operas, and films; places where she was known to have lived have become pilgrimage sites for devout Catholics.
Despite all of her postmortem acclaim, at least one ethnohistorian, K. I. Koppedrayer, asserts, based on his examination of historical records, that the Jesuits invented Kateri Tekakwitha to provide an exemplary model for conversions of Native Americans to Catholicism. He points to a lack of independent oral history as an indication that she was an entirely fabricated figure.
Bruce E. Johansen
Greer, Allan. 2005. Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.; Koppedrayer, K. I. 1993. "The Making of the First Iroquois Virgin: Early Jesuit Biographies of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha." Ethnohistory 40 (Spring): 277–306.