Kateri Tekakwitha, who emigrated from the Mohawk valley to Quebec after her conversion to Catholicism, was recently canonized by Pope Benedict. But her canonization raises some troubling questions of faith, race, and gender.

I just read a Times Union piece by Cathleen Crowley about the canonization of Kateri, a 17th Century convert to Catholicism who is being put on the fast-track to Sainthood after an alleged miracle out West.

Kateri Tekakwitha was born out of conflict. Her mother was an Algonquin and a Christian; her father  a chief in the Mohawk tribe who did not make the conversion. But when she was only four years old, the entire family was stricken with a wholly different and far less glamorous European import: the smallpox virus. It took the lives of both parents and left the young Kateri with permanently impaired vision (her surname was adopted from her Mohawk name which loosely translates to “she who walks into things”) and scars.

When she was twenty years old she converted to Catholicism and, after refusing to marry due to her newfound faith (or was it the other way around?), escaped across the border to Canada. She found refuge in a settlement near Montreal consisting of converted Natives from the region, assisting with aid for the sick, poor, and dying while also dabbling in missionary work. Yet while engaged in the social aspects of her faith, she was also a bit of a recluse. She lived in the woods and was considered a mystic, which would have been acceptable to converts but I’m sure did not endear her to white, European Catholics which while more pagan than their Protestant counterparts still frowned upon the retention of Native customs.

Kateri died when she was only twenty-four. Believers claim that when she died, her body became engulfed in a spiritual aura and the scars from her childhood illness disappeared from her face.

Here’s where things get a little murky.

The first troubling aspect comes when discussing the history of Kateri and her status as an outcast, which while true is easily misconstrued. From the article:

“There was a streak of feminism in her,” said Jack Casey, a Troy lawyer who wrote “Lily of the Mohawks,” a historical novel about Kateri.
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My initial  reaction to this comment was negative. I thought it reeked of patronization and invoked feminism in a context that seemed to reflect at best a complete ignorance of what feminism actually means. After some thought, though, I get what he was actually trying to say by implying her streak of feminism. I don’t think (or rather I hope) he was not trying to paint her as a potential icon for gender equality in pursuit of an agenda.

That said, it’s still a strange thing to say in light of the Catholic Church’s troublesome history in regards to  women’s rights, from the writings of Thomas Aquinas that categorize women as “misbegotten males” to the present day with their continued campaign against reproductive rights, assertions by Pope John Paul II of the two primary roles of women being “virgins and mothers,” and the deplorable statement the Vatican released just a year and a half ago that compared the ordination of women into the preisthood to the rape of children. That last one, in fairness, threw even some Bishops into a tizzy. But not enough to change the minds or the attitudes of what remains a very patriarchal institution, which goes against the majority of its faithful who would like to see women able to lead congregations rather than be relegated to apologetic servitude.

Even without the political and social quandaries, I think it’s a bit of a miscategorization to even infer a feminist attitude in Kateri. The primary motivational factor for her refusal to marry seems to be religious, not political. She gravitated towards service to the Church. It certainly wasn’t the Church that empowered or liberated her from her tribe’s social mores.

Then there’s the alleged miracle that led to her canonization on Monday. From the article:

…in 2006, a 6-year-old boy cut his lip during a basketball game in Washington state. Overnight, Jake Finkbonner’s face swelled up and he developed a high fever, according to an NPR report. Doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital said a flesh-eating bacterium called Strep A was attacking the boy’s face. Over the next few weeks, it destroyed his lips, cheeks and forehead. Doctors told the family the boy was going to die.

The family’s priest asked his congregation to pray to Kateri on Jake’s behalf. The priest chose Kateri because of her facial scars and Indian heritage – Jake is half Lummi Indian.

The prayers started coming in from around the world, and a representative from the Society of the Blessed Kateri went to the hospital to place a pendant of Kateri on the boy’s pillow. The next day, the infection stopped progressing and Jake recovered.

- read more

The implication here is a bit more complicated and, perhaps, more troublesome.

Certainly there were nothing but the best of intentions when the faithful asked the now canonized Kateri to assist in bringing the boy back to health. However, it was based on an antiquated European view of Native Americans as one large group of people with different subsects. Yet the Lummi have about the same claim of kinship to Algonquins or Mohawks as a Spaniard would to a Russian. While it is true that some tribes interacted in commerce and trade and at points intermingled (re: bred), it is not true that all Native Americans are the same peoples. While once again I do not fault those who were blinded by desperation and faith, the confirmation of the event as a miracle (rather than crediting it to medical science and the fact that while potentially causing permanent damage the disease is rarely fatal unless it isn’t treated) only serves to further reinforce a very narrow view of Native Americans as a single culture and ethnicity. This, however, was not true in history and is not true today save for their shared experience of subjugation and loss of identity through Western colonial expansion and outright genocide (a word rarely invoked because we think of Native Americans as one people rather than as different ethnicities, cultures, and/or societies, most of which were eradicated by European settlers).

I will give credit to the Vatican for its eagerness to downplay the supernatural element often associated with claims of “miracles.” In a very real way, the lifting of extraordinary requirements and acceptance of circumstance as evidence has helped modernize the church and eliminated some of the stigma of superstitious nonsense that has weighed it down for centuries. Still, it’s troubling that an organization that still refuses to give women position, prominence, or equal footing with men would canonize a woman they would not allow to become a nun because of her ethnicity and, furthermore, use a racist set of criteria for determining its validity.


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5 Responses to Kateri and the Cross: the Catholic Church uses racism to canonize a convert

  1. Roz Nella Cucina says:

    However one may feel about Kateri’s canonization, it is all overshadowed by the fact that the Church continues to let foxes guard henhouses, and then cover for those same foxes when they attack the hens. 

  2. Ed Lass says:

    Kev, I don’t think you really know what you’re talking about here. A lot of American Indians who are Catholic do make devotions to Kateri Tekakwitha. They know she’s Mohawk/Algonquin and they’re not, but it’s still relevant to them. It’s not really my place to tell them if it *should* be relevant to them, and it’s not really your place to tell them that it *shouldn’t* be. If you do some Googling for things like “Kateri parish,” you’ll find a bunch of them all around the country — California, Arizona, Wisconsin, etc. — and a lot of those with ties to indigenous communities. I don’t think very many of their parishioners would appreciate it if they thought you were suggesting they’re motivated by “racism.” That’s a really strong word, and I don’t see how it applies here. I think you may have overstepped your own cleverness on this one.

    • Anonymous says:

      So are we supposed to discount the inherent racism of displaying the Confederate flag or otherwise revising history so as to downplay the evils of slavery and its role in the Civil War because there are black Americans who are not offended by it or similar trespasses? Because there are those people – there’s a video highly revered by racists in denial that features a black man performing a spoken word treatise on the greatness of the confederacy (link). But they do not negate the point or excuse the perpetuation of ignorance and stripping of culture and identity that those who do identify as, say, Algonquin or Lummi would take offense to.

      Thing is, you do have a point. Those American Indians now identify primarily as Catholic first and foremost, just as Kateri did. But that is now their heritage and history. If you went to a reservation, called someone a Yapipi and then said “oh well, you’re all Indians anyway” when they corrected you, you’d get at best some…interesting reactions. That others as you mentioned willingly enter and embrace subjugation under the Roman Catholic diocese (which is not inherently a bad thing; by that I mean they choose to identify asatholic first and adhere to that specific value system which is their right) does not excuse the perpetuation of ignorance by saying she helped this kid because he was something her own people would not, under any circumstances, have identified themselves as belonging to. It would be one thing to say she assisted in the miracle because he, too, is Catholic. But the ignorance of setting them into the same group with the permission of those who might otherwise identify as a different tribe does not excuse the ignorance of the action. And even barring that, if they do lump themselves into one singular ethnic group, it speaks more to the subjugation and European reassignment of heritage than it does the appropriateness of saying all Indians are Indians, so deal with and celebrate it.


      ADDENDUM: I wrote the above on my phone and e-mailed it to myself so that I could give it further consideration, owing to the fairness and validity of your points and keeping respect for your values (which are certainly not yours alone and likely will be shared by the vast majority reading this). But after giving it all due consideration, I feel like the absolute best I can concede is that you’re right, those American Indians who have long ago converted to Catholicism identify as one large group. But that is still because, historically speaking, their ancestors were wiped out, their ethnic identities transposed with European values (in some cases by force), and their cultural heritage lost. And that to me – and I have to apologize because this is coming from a non-Catholic standpoint – I find first and foremost to be tragic and a bit heartbreaking.

  3. Anonymous says:


    The following is a response I received in a message that I want to share but, owing to the privacy of the individual, I will maintain as anonymous:

    Hi Kevin,I hope you are doing well. I just wanted to comment about the article you wrote on your blog regarding Blessed Kateri. I don’t want to make big deal out of this because I don’t think it deserves it but there are a few things that I take exception to. First, you commented that the Catholics would not have liked her “mystic” experiences because they didn’t want her to keep those “native” traditions. This is untrue. While some of the Franciscans did treat these traditions with contempt, the Jesuits who came and evangelized the new world incorporated these traditions going so far as to learn their language, before many of them were arrested and killed by the native peoples. Also, at her beatification as her canonization I’m sure we will see several displays of Native American cultural traditions incorporated into the Mass and worship. Also, Blessed Kateri chose not to marry following the examples of early women saints such as Lucy, Agnes, and Agatha who were martyred because they had given their hearts to Jesus and refused marriage. You also claim that the Church has a dubious history regarding women and then quote Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Paul II. The Church for centuries now has disavowed what Thomas said regarding women as he was basing it on a flawed view of the human person judging from biology and cultural mores that were around at the time. John Paul’s view of women as either mothers or virgins was a view that simply wanted to refocus on the beauty of motherhood or virginity. He did not think that they should be “barefoot and pregnant” and this is evidenced by the number of women both he and Pope Benedict appointed to high level theological positions at the Vatican. Additionally, in your own Albany diocese the Chancellor(the second in charge after the bishop) is a woman. This is true in other dioceses as well. This is not the time nor the forum to discuss the reasons for an all-male clergy, but suffice it to say that the allegation that women are seen as subhuman or non-entities in the Church is false. Nevertheless, you are correct that in Church history that are examples of women being seen as subservient and the recent comment comparing women’s ordination to rape is deplorable. However, Pope Benedict and John Paul before him went to great lengths to ask forgiveness from God and humanity for the past sins of the Church, including those against women. Finally, while you are correct that the disease the young boy had is usually not fatal, the reason why this is considered a miracle is that he was not responding to the antibiotics and the parents were told that he would die. When the people in the parish prayed for him they mentioned that the child was half Native American not to compare or somehow lump all Native Americans together but just as a personal interest that this child was a Native American like Blessed Kateri.Kevin, please don’t see this as an attack on your blog or you. Also, I’m not saying that the Catholic Church is beyond criticism, but when it is misleading I feel the need to address it. 

    • Anonymous says:

      My response: 

      Points taken.
      I would first say that I think it is legitimate, though the church has since disavowed the statements of Thomas Aquinas, to include them when discussing the troubling history of subjugation associated with the church. My point was not that this belief is still strongly maintained, but that there are still definite remnants of it that remain in the church’s beliefs and structures.

      And again, I understand fully the identification they make with Kateri, but I still think like in my response to Ed that it speaks at best to a collective subjugation that has occurred as a result of European dominance, exertion of influence, and outright eradication of peoples (which certainly is not the sole provision of the Catholic Church). I do thank you, though, for sharing your thoughts. They have truly given me a lot to think about.

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