Kateri Tekakwitha, (Tekakwitha, her Mohawk given name, meaning one who bumps into things) was born in a Mohawk village near Auriesville, New York in 1656. Her father was a Mohawk chief and her mother a Christian Algonquin who had been captured and then adopted by the Mohawks.
Kateri’s life story is well-documented by Jesuit missionaries who knew her personally and is a microcosm of the best and the worst that European colonization visited upon the indigenous peoples. The Europeans brought a special blend of trade goods, religion, war and epidemic disease. At age 4, Kateri Tekakwitha lost her entire family to a smallpox epidemic and was herself scarred, partially blinded and weakened by that disease. Her people’s village was burned to the ground by a French army when she was 10 years old. To end that fighting, the Mohawks agreed to allow Jesuit missionaries into their territory.
Earlier, Kateri had been adopted by her uncle, a Mohawk chief who particularly hated the “Black Robes”, the Jesuits, because he felt they wanted the Mohawk to give up their traditions and move into Catholic villages. He forbade Kateri from talking to the Jesuits. But from her aunt, she learned how to process and make clothing from animal pelts, weave mats, baskets and boxes and to plant, tend and harvest crops — all typical chores for young Mohawk women.
In 1669, the Mohawks were attacked by another tribe who wanted to take over the fur trade. Kateri worked alongside the Jesuit missionaries to tend to the sick and wounded. The Jesuits made a strong impression on her. Afterwards she declared to her aunt that she would never marry and at age 19 did refuse to marry a Mohawk brave. Thereafter, her uncle treated her as a slave. In 1674 she began secretly taking instruction from a priest and was baptized in 1676, taking the name Kateri (Catherine). Because of this, she endured six months of starvation, ridicule and accusations of witchcraft. Upon the advice of a priest, she escaped to a Jesuit settlement, Kahnawake, near Montreal. Upon her arrival she was warmly welcomed by other Native American converts. There she met Marie Therese, a convert her own age. They became fast friends. She also met Claude Chauchetiere, a Jesuit who became her spiritual advisor and chief biographer.
Kateri had taken a private vow never to marry and was especially devoted to the Passion of Jesus. She and some of the other women converts wanted to form a religious community, but were denied by the Church, for the reason that it was thought Native Americans were too “undisciplined” for the religious life. Fr. Claude, however, instructed the converts in the religious practices of the day, including fasting, bodily mortification and asceticism. Kateri and Marie Therese led their peers in enthusiastically taking up these new practices and penances to further the conversion of their people. But Kateri sometimes went to extremes and Fr. Claude counselled her against doing herself harm. However, the extreme punishments she had put upon herself had weakened her health and contributed to her death on August 17, 1680 at age 24. Her community of friends and Fr. Claude surrounded her deathbed and attested: minutes after she died her smallpox scars disappeared and her face became radiant. This was interpreted as a sign of sainthood and a chapel was built over her burial site. Fr. Claude published her story and pilgrims began to arrive. Some reported miraculous healings and her followers grew over time. She was canonized a saint in 2012. Her feast day is July 14.
Today Kateri’s legacy is controversial. The Church sees her as a beacon of religion’s power to transform lives, also as the saint for ecology and the environment. Many Native Americans look at her sainthood as a long overdue affirmation of their commitment to the faith. On the other hand, some community members view Kateri as a victim of colonialism and the effort to destroy their culture and traditions. This is especially reinforced by the recent protests over the past forced removal to, and abuse of, Native American children in religious schools. Regardless of interpretation, Kateri’s life demonstrates the way life changed for Native American women after the arrival of European colonists.