Drawing on insights from intercultural and decolonial theology, Jean-François Roussel deconstructs the story of the Mohawk saint.
On Oct. 21, 2012, just as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was highlighting the Catholic Church’s dark legacy for Indigenous peoples, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, making her the first-ever North American Indigenous saint.
“Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture,” the Pop declared.
“In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are. Saint Kateri, Protectress of Canada and the first native American saint, we entrust to you the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America!”
The Catholic Church has long held this young 17th century Mohawk woman up as a model. But why? In his new book, Kateri Tekahkwitha: traverser le miroir colonial, Jean-François Roussel, a professor at Université de Montréal’s Institute of Religious Studies, revisits the troubling story from a postcolonial point of view.
A model of peace and reconciliation in troubled times
Tekakwitha has traditionally been seen as a bridge between the Christian faith and Indigenous cultures. Born in 1656 to a Catholic Algonquin mother and a non-Christian Mohawk father, she was – and still is – praised by the Catholic Church as a model of peace and unity between peoples.
“Catherine had a good Christian Algonquin mother who was captured by the Iroquois at Trois-Rivières during their long-running wars with the Hurons,” the Jesuit missionary and biographer Claude Chauchetière wrote in 1695. “Hence, the fortunes of this poor captive Algonquin woman would thereafter be forever bound to those of the Iroquois.”
The story goes that Tekakwitha lost her mother and brother to a smallpox epidemic. She survived but was left with facial scars and impaired eyesight, the latter no doubt inspiring her surname Tekakwitha, which means roughly “she who gropes her way.” Hagiographies have portrayed her as an orphan who was adopted by a cruel uncle and two aunts.
In 1666, French soldiers burned down Tekakwitha’s village. It was later rebuilt and eventually the Mohawks and the French made peace. Missionaries arrived to convert the villagers, a task that proved difficult because of opposition from their chief, Tekakwitha’s uncle, according to the Jesuit accounts. After Tekakwitha was baptized in 1676, the villagers turned against her. She was persecuted for her religious beliefs and practices, including her vow of chastity, and forced to flee to the St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, south of Montreal.
The Jesuits extolled this marginal figure for her piety and obedience, calling her a “lily among the thorns.” Following her death at the age of 24, she came to be venerated by settlers and some Catholic Iroquois as a figure with healing powers, and her cult spread across a number of parishes.
Dissecting the colonial narrative
This story typifies the myth of benevolent colonialism. To confront the religious narrative constructed around Tekakwitha, Roussel delved deep into hagiographies and missionary archives, as well as historical, Indigenous, anthropological and theological research.
“Hagiographies work in the service of spiritual conquest, which is itself an instrument of imperial conquest,” noted Roussel. “So they are written to reach a wide audience and to win people over.”
We have no first-hand accounts from Tekakwitha herself because she didn’t know how to write and didn’t speak French. Her story comes to us primarily from two Jesuit priests who knew her at the Kahnawake mission, Chauchetière and Pierre Cholenec.
Tekakwitha is depicted as a marginalized person. “One of the reasons was that smallpox had left her partially blind and disfigured. So there are all these stories about how she was isolated and rejected,” said Roussel. “But we forget that this was an epidemic and Tekakwitha was just one of many people suffering from long-term after-effects. This narrative obscures the wide impact of the disease, which was introduced by European colonists.”
In fact, Tekakwitha was probably well-integrated into her community. “Sources teach us that Tekakwitha was known for her skills as an artisan,” Mohawk historian Darren Bonaparte has pointed out. “She made everything: baskets from bark, drum sticks from corn fibers, canoes, straps for carrying loads, even wampum beads and belts.” To learn intricate beading and embroidery techniques, she would have had to work closely with community elders, and she must have been particularly highly regarded to be entrusted with the making of wampum belts, which were hallowed objects used for consecrating political alliances.
The fairy-tale-like account of Tekakwitha as a poor orphan raised by a cruel uncle is another narrative construct. It is inaccurate to talk about orphans among the 17th century Iroquois because their kinship structure was different from that of their colonizers. “Children were closer to their maternal uncles and aunts than to their biological father,” noted Roussel. “Maternal uncles played the role of father to their nieces and nephews.”
As for the uncle character, “he is portrayed in hagiographies as an authoritarian and impulsive tyrant, while in actual fact it was clan mothers who presided over the home,” Roussel explained.
In short, Jesuit accounts tend to depict Tekakwitha as a Frenchwoman of the 17th century.
A colonial narrative re-enacted in residential schools
The Catholic Church honours Tekakwitha as a saint for breaking with her family and Mohawk traditions. Roussel shows how this colonial narrative, which paints the uprooting of Indigenous children in a very positive light, comes to tragic fruition centuries later in Canada’s residential schools. One has only to read the chilling account of a survivor in the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report:
"I just absolutely hated my own parents. Not because I thought they abandoned me; I hated their brown faces. I hated them because they were Indians …. So I, I looked at my dad and I challenged him and … I said, “From now on we speak only English in this house’ … And you know when we, when, in a traditional home where I was raised, the first thing that we all were always taught was to respect your elders and never to, you know, to challenge them."*
Of course we cannot know if Tekakwitha had similar feelings about her family. We can only read the story about her written by missionaries as a celebration of her glorious conversion to Catholicism. But we cannot help but be struck by the resurrection of this story at her canonization in 2012, just when the Commission was concluding that “true reconciliation can take place only through a reshaping of a shared, national, collective memory: our understanding of who we are and what has come before.”
Kateri Tekahkwitha. Traverser le miroir colonial. Jean-François Roussel. PUM, 2022. 232 pp.