Saturday, 20 October 2012

First Native American saint to be canonised

This weekend, Kateri Tekakwitha, "Lily of the Mohawks" will be the first Native American to be canonised by the Catholic Church. Kateri was born in 1656, in the midst of power struggles between the English, Dutch and French (as well as between Native American tribes) all demanding territory and denomination over the other. Millions of Native Americans were decimated from smallpox and other European diseases - Kateri's parents and brother died from smallpox, and Kateri herself was left physically scarred. "Tekakwitha" is a Mohawk word that translates to "the one who walks groping her way."

The Mohawks blamed the Jesuits for this decimation from smallpox, and they massacred several priests in Kateri's village (three were later canonised.) However, shortly after Kateri was born, the French signed a peace treaty with the Mohawks, and one clause stated that Jesuits could work with the tribe.

On Easter Day pin 1676, Kateri was baptised, and the site is now a shrine visited by hundreds of people every year. Many tribes fused Christianity with their native culture in order to survive in this changing world, but Kateri's decision was not popular with the Mohawks. Her uncle was outraged at her baptism, particularly after she spurned the man he had chosen for her husband. Kateri travelled to a Jesuit village in Montreal, and devoted herself to Christianity, often torturing herself by walking barefoot on ice and hot coals, lying on a bed of thorns, and self-flagellation. Academics think she was influenced by the harsh rituals Mohawk men would undertake before a battle, but even contemporary Jesuits thought she was taking it too far.

Kateri died when she was 24, and ever since, Catholics have prayed to her and many have been convinced she has performed miracles. Immediately after she died, the scars from smallpox disappeared, and the Jesuits claimed they saw visions of her. As late as 2006, it was claimed that a small boy was healed in the US after touching a piece of Kateri's wrist bone. Others have apparently been cured of burns and even kidney disease.

However, some Mohawks today find it hard to identify with a chaste, self-flaggellating convert to Catholicism. She bore no children, and she can be interpreted as a symbol of the struggles between Europeans and the Mohawks...

Regardless, relics, including bits of cloth which have touched the bones of Kateri, are apparently selling fast.

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