So last week I did something a little different and took a small road trip to Fonda and Auriesville. There are several shrines out there honoring Saint Kateri Tekakwitha I’ve been wondering about for some time.
First some background on Kateri Tekakwitha:
She was a Native American woman of part Mohawk and part Algonquin decent. She lived from 1656-1680. Her mother was baptized Catholic but died of smallpox when Tekakwitha was only four. Smallpox also took her father, and wrecked her eyesight. (Tekakwitha means, ‘reaches out with hands’ and was given to describe her way of walking tentatively with hands out.) After her parents died, Tekakwitha went to live with her aunt and uncle. They were opposed to Catholics, but put up with priests living in the village because of a treaty at the time which ordered them to do so. Tekakwitha eventually went to the priests to ask for baptism against the wishes of her aunt and uncle. She was given the saint name Catherine- Kateri in her tongue. After her public acceptance of Catholicism, Kateri found her village a difficult place to stay, so she moved to a more Catholic-friendly settlement in Canada. She was apparently very pious, often fasting and hurting herself as means of penance. At one point she kept thorns in her sleeping mat. She devoted her life to Jesus and remained a virgin until her death, refusing marriage.
She died rather young and seems to have simply wasted away. I guess it’s not that surprising with all the painful things she did to herself. Even the priests note that her frequent penances seemed to be harming her health. After her death, it’s said her skin miraculously transformed and her smallpox scars faded away. Kateri Tekakwitha has recently been officially upgraded from ‘blessed’ to ‘saint’.
Kateri is honored by the Auriesville shrine and has her own shrine in Fonda. We visited both on a ridiculously hot day in which our car had no air conditioning. Both shrines had a museum with some Native American historical stuff. Because Natives lived here so long and were so diverse, it’s hard to get an idea what they were like from a quick walk-through of several rooms. I am bad with European history, but America before Europeans is all one big mish-mash to me. Because I live in NY I remember hearing about the groups that make up the Iroquois and the fact that their enemies were called the Algonquins. Kateri was part Mohawk (Iroquois) and part Algonquin. Her mother was an Iroquois captive of the Algonquins and may have had very little choice about the marriage. It’s really interesting to imagine all the elements at work in Kateri’s world. Cultures are mixed together in her and different traditions. How did she make sense of it all? Why did she come to choose Catholicism? How do Native Americans feel about her sainthood? I got very few answers from my actual visit to the two shrines. Most of the stories about Kateri were very ‘fairy tale’ sounding, similar to the legends we have of Saint Valentine or Saint Patrick. Some of them were probably whitewashed for general consumption. And speaking of whitewashing, one version of the events after Kateri died explains that her skin turned “so beautiful and so white”. I realize the color white is symbolic in religious literature, but idolizing whiteness especially as a direct reference to skin color becomes really problematic. I’m really not sure how I feel about Kateri. This one definitely deserves more research and maybe a return trip to the shrines/museums.