November 1, 2012 by The Editor
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.