Saint Kateri


November 1, 2012 by LeVoyageur

Kateri Entranced. Portrait of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha by artist Kakwirakeron Ross Montour, 2012. © Kakwirakeron Ross Montour. Used with permission of the artist. Not for duplication.

When Kateri Tekakwitha was beatified in 1980, the Catholic Church presented the world with the woman who would become the first Native American saint. The ‘Lily of the Mohawks’ stood at the intersection of so many things that seemed to make a difference to me then – someone who lived in the same time and place as my French Canadian ancestors, who ultimately had the same religion, whose story was uniquely American and uniquely Catholic. She was an ideal young Indian maiden, whose suffering in life was tertiary to her conversion and chastity. She was an image to be both in awe of and proud of.

My understanding of history then was a bit … naive. At 14 years old, what little Native American and French Canadian history I had been taught was not complex. There were winners and losers, saints and sinners. My study of family genealogy was still at a beginner’s level and the lives of my ancestors were only vaguely imagined.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha prayer card, origin unknown.

The images of Kateri that were promulgated then fit in well with this naiveté. They reflected an idyllic scene, very much in keeping with the long-held utopian vision that official French and Catholic hierarchies had in mind for the peoples of New France. She was, in a way, the success story of both institutions. She was the embodiment of history who confirmed the correctness of both the European and Catholic systems that came to dominate.

As my genealogical studies have deepened over the years, I found that the only way they could be truly satisfying would be to place my ancestors in their contexts through understanding the events they were part of. I needed to read history to really understand anything about my family’s experiences. So, In the past several months I have undertaken to read and learn about the history of New France, the land of my ancestors came to (or were resident in as the French arrived, as the case was for some few.)

This reencounter with the deeper history of my own people in North America has led me to a much fuller appreciation of the reality that they would have faced. It has led me to reconsider just what it must have meant to be a native encountering an immigrant; a 2nd or 3rd generation French Canadian encountering a royal official sent from Paris; a convert to Catholicism in the wake of the massive cultural displacement brought on by disease and warfare; a young man rowing 2000 miles from home into an unknown wilderness; a young woman sent by the king as a fille du roi.

For much of my life, I largely bought into the utopian telling of history. It was not out of malice and to be fair, the majority of my own forebears had largely been reduced to cartoonish stereotypes in my imagination, just as the Amerindians of history were conceived of as either victim or threat. Simple history. It is what most people do, even if we are able to face the facts when confronted with them. Slipping back into well-worn narratives is comforting, like old shoes (as long as you don’t have to walk too far in them.)

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, prayercard.

So that might explain why the images I remember of Kateri Tekakwitha from the 1980s fit well into the narrative of a civilized, Frenchified/Anglicized North America. They were images of a young woman who had found fulfillment in her new life as a Christian. She was the perfect representation of what the devout Parisians had hoped for when they funded missionary projects in the wilds of New France.

But there is something entirely disatisfactory with such images. It is true to some extent that the power of saints lay in the images of them on paintings, windows, and prayer cards. Such images at their best might vaguely represent the story of the person pictured.

St. Anne, The Holy Virgin Mary, and Child Jesus

So it is with St. Anne, the mother of Mary who would come to be revered by First Nations, Métis, and French Canadians alike. A grandmother figure, she is often pictured with either the Virgin Mary or with both Mary and Jesus.

The common image of St. Kateri Tekakwitha however does not tell such a story. Or rather, it tells a story that belies the historical context in which she lived. It tells a story told in the palaces of Rome, rather than experienced in the villages of Wendake/Huronia, Tadoussac, or Quebec.

Recently however, I have seen an image of (now) St. Kateri that re-imagines her in a way that reflects the complexity of early colonial American and Canadian history. The website kayeriakweks, recently featured a portrait of St. Kateri by Mohawk artist Kakwirakeron Ross Montour of Kanhawake, Quebec. His Kateri, which I have featured at the top of this post, has more in common with the only known contemporaneous portrait of Tekakwitha than with any other I have seen of her (the painting by missionary Father Chauchetière, below.)

Only known portrait from life of Catherine Tekakwitha, circa 1690, by Father Chauchetière.

Rather than the utopian vision of St. Kateri, Montour’s image is both dark and beautiful. It is, in his own words, based on the ‘other’ Kateri – not the one venerated and mythologized, but the one who was sister, daughter, kinswoman. Montour’s Kateri is the young woman whose life was transformed as she walked through the cauldron of her times.

Her world was not an experience of mere loss. She experienced the obliteration of her family, her culture. To me, Montour’s image speaks much more lucidly to her saintliness than the ‘official’ images. He powerfully conveys the sense that she was a woman whose holiness was found in the fact that she could carry on at all, let alone find the strength to create meaning in the darkness and be a leader among her people.

Montour’s reimaging of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, whom he considers a kinswoman, has reinforced for me much of what I have found in my reading of the history of the colonial era. So much of what we learn is filtered for us, reduced to simple images, reflecting more of what we want history to have been, rather than conveying how events actually happened.

It is not necessary to choose either idealization or mourning for the past. The better, and perhaps more rewarding, path is to commit to understanding its complexity, something that Kakwirakeron Ross Montour has achieved in his portrait of a woman from his clan, St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

For more information on Kakwirakeron Ross Montour, please see his website Kakwirakeron R Montour Fine Art and the excellent piece on his broader work at kayeriakweks. His contact information can be provided upon request.

22 thoughts on “Saint Kateri

  1. LaVagabonde says:

    Don’t they have a shrine to her at the Cross in the Woods in Indian River?

    • James LaForest says:

      Yes, they do! I have not been there in a while but maybe next time I’ll check it out again. We used to stop there on our way to Petoskey when we were kids (twice a year!)

      • LaVagabonde says:

        I was in Indian River for a couple of hours this last visit, but didn’t make it to the Cross in the Woods. I wonder if they still have that nun doll museum, too. I’ve heard it’s changed a lot, become more touristy.

  2. Annual pilgrimages to Auriesville Shine in autumn created many imaginary images of Kateri for me as a child. I always wondered as a child – Didn’t she survive smallpox? Why were there no images showing her “pox marked”. I concluded such an interpretation would not be very popular in any rendering – traditional western religious or indigenous. So my most treasured image of Kateri still resides in my imagination and will always show the scars of smallpox.

    • James LaForest says:

      That’s a great image, especially for a young person to come up with. Thank you for sharing it. I think Kateri figured more in the lives of northern/northeast Americans, especially of my generation coming of age in the 1970s/80s. Thank you for stopping by!

  3. La Chouette says:

    I was on a plane going from Rome to Amsterdam a few days after she became a saint; it was filled with the members of several Native tribes, including Ojibwa from Minnesota. Thought it was somewhat ironic that they would come to celebrate her sainthood, given their ancestors and she would have been enemies. Mentioned that to one of the women who was leaving the plane with us, and she was surprised that white people 1.) knew who Kateri was, and 2.) knew that her people sided with the French against the Iroquois during Kateri’s lifetime.

    • James LaForest says:

      That’s a really interesting experience. It must come to be par for the course to expect that people outside your community will not know anything real about your history or culture, especially when you’ve been subject to the level of marginalization that Native Americans have. On the other hand, it’s a pretty big deal! Not like she hasn’t been in the news ; ). And if you’re even marginally tuned into Catholic news you’d surely have heard about it. I think the canonization event was a really joyful event for Native Americans/First Nations. It’s pretty cool that you got to share in part of that, even if it was in passing.

    • FAGravy…My painting of Kateri includes pockmarks although I chose not to make of her face a grotesque mask. I did wish the at least some evidence of the disease which left her orphaned and nearly blind to be in evidence. Though you may not notice it in this file, at this resolution. She is scarred. Best to you.

    • Kateri’s mother was an Algonquin and would have spoken virtually the same language as the Ojibway. In point of fact, Kahnawake, where Kateri Tekakwitha lived out her final days, was the central fire of a confederacy known as the Seven Nations. Among the seven nations were Algonquin nations, notably the Algonquin, Abenaki and Migma.

      • James LaForest says:

        That’s interesting – I hadn’t realized the languages of the the Great Lakes were so closely related to the others throughout the northern part of NA. I just checked out the wikipedia page for Algonquin languages – so extensive. My ancestors would likely have spoken Miami-Illinois among others. Thanks for the input.

      • Peggy L says:

        You are quite wrong. St Kateri’s mother was Mohawk as well as her father. I don’t know where you got your information from, but unless you’re ready to supply any to confirm your words, then you should make a retraction here and now.

  4. Kakwirakeron R Montour says:

    You’re welcome James.

    • kakwirakeron says:

      Peggy L. With respect, Kateri’s mother was in fact a Catholic Algonquin who was at first a captive of the Mohawk but later was adopted and married a Mohawk. According to custom, once she was adopted her former life would not be called to mind and she would be regarded as being part of the Mohawk nation.

  5. kakwirakeron says:

    Sekon James. I’m just wondering if I could call on you to change the link to ‘my website’. As you may know my website is now as follows. Niawen kowa James:

  6. Peggy L says:

    Oh, and how do I know? My grandfather was Mohawk.

  7. kakwirakeron says:

    Once again to Peggy L, Kateri’s mother was an Algonquin as I have stated. The mere fact that both of my parents were of the Mohawk people of Kahnawake, has no bearing on that fact. Denigrating the author of this blog has no bearing on that fact either. I have to tell you that I never cared if she was ever named a saint by the Catholic church. I regard her as a kinswoman …as a human being who walked upon the ground I walk on today. I cannot understand why you would be so hostile to the fact of her totally native heritage, whether one part was Mohawk and the other Algonquin. Kateri’s mother was born amongst her Algonquin people but died of small pox among the nation and clan family she was adopted into. Toske.

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