A few days ago, a thoughtful and committed reader sent in a link to this story with a note that said:
I’m not sure how I feel about this story. It’s a complex one as the headline states as it involves both traditional Native American beliefs and Catholicism. I am glad that both voices were heard in the story. Maybe because it’s so complex, but I keep turning it over in my mind and wondering if it was told in the best way or not. I’m just not sure.
The next day, another one of our thoughtful readers wrote:
I don’t know what to think about this piece. I wish they had interviewed someone who was a little more orthodox and not a syncretist.
The story in question comes from the New York Times. It’s a natural regional story for that paper as explained in the lede:
FONDA, N.Y. — The last time the Vatican canonized saints from along this stretch of the Mohawk River, it was 1930, and more than 35,000 Catholic pilgrims came to mark the occasion. The Jesuits here constructed a coliseum-size church to hold the crowds, and placed wooden statues of the new saints at the peaks of its stockadelike altar.
Those saints, three of them, were French Jesuits, tortured and murdered in the 17th century by the Mohawk Indians they were seeking to convert, according to the church. But in a twist of history, this October the Vatican will canonize a fourth saint from the Mohawk Valley: Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman born in 1656, a decade after the missionaries were killed in her village.
This time around, the reaction is more complex, particularly among American Indians. Some are proud, because Kateri was a Mohawk. Some doubt the truthfulness of her story as told by the church. Some hope the canonization will ease tensions between Catholic and traditional American Indians. And some are euphoric that the church is about to name its first American Indian saint, even if they wish it had happened sooner.
The story is actually better than the lede would suggest. The details that make it into the paper are interesting and capture the complex emotions surrounding Kateri’s canonization.
I also noodled on this story for a few days, somewhat unsure what to think. I really like it. The multi-media that accompanies the story online makes it even better. And yet, I’m a bit confused as to why the articles focuses so very much on Mohawk reaction to the Roman Catholic Church’s canonization of a Catholic woman who was Mohawk.
It’s a great aspect to the story, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for an article on the canonization of a Catholic to focus more on the importance of the woman and her faith to her church. I’m curious, though, what you all think.
We hear from a Syracus Mohawk who, we’re told, offered a prayer to Kateri as well as to the water, wind and sun at a powwow held at her shrine. He says that once you become familiar with Kateri, you become very attached to her. Here’s the story, according to the article:
According to the Jesuits who documented her life, Kateri was born in what is now Auriesville, N.Y., on the southern bank of the Mohawk River, about 40 miles west of Albany. When she was 4, a smallpox epidemic killed her Algonquin Christian mother and Mohawk-warrior father. The disease also badly scarred her face and impaired her eyesight, earning her the name Tekakwitha, which means, “she who bumps into things.” At age 10, after war destroyed her birth village, she moved with her uncle’s family to a long house on the other side of the river.
In contact with missionaries as a teenager, she decided to become a Catholic, despite opposition from her clan and an impending arranged marriage. After she was baptized at age 20, she fled to a Catholic Indian settlement in what is now Canada. There, she worked with the sick, took a vow of perpetual virginity, and began practicing self-mortification, which included praying for hours outdoors, on her knees, during the winter. She became ill, and died at 24.
It was a simple life, marked by devotion. But after her death, Jesuits and others said they saw miraculous signs. The pockmarks on her body disappeared, they said. Prayers seeking her assistance were followed by healing.
It is certainly well explained here why Catholics are taken with her. But I wanted to know more — particularly given the focus of the piece on the Mohawk community — what her life meant to Mohawks.
We’re told that some American Indians doubt the Jesuit account of her life and that her spirituality was mostly “of the real old faith.” Another Mohawk says he doesn’t look at it like she gave up her native beliefs so much as added to them. But we’re not told what those old beliefs are or why they’re revered by modern Mohawks.
We then learn about two different shrines that honor her. One is in a church named for the martyrs that has, we’re told, an “altar to Kateri.” I’m more familiar with hearing about the altars of various saints or figures, not to them. Another shrine is across the river, focused on devotion to Kateri. It was opened by Franciscans. That shrine includes American Indian symbols of importance — cedar, tobacco, sage and sweet grass. Masses include Mohawk language and drums.
With the focus on the Mohawk, I hoped to find out more basic details about non-Catholic Mohawks. So, for instance, we’re told that there are an estimated 680,000 American Indian Catholics. Kateri’s canonization will be important to them as well as their non-American Indian brethren in the church. But how many “conflicted” people are there?
I think it’s potentially fine to focus on the conflicted, but I wanted to know more about their number.
I found this January report from AFP, which quoted some of the same people as this Times piece. It also emphasizes those Mohawks who aren’t fans of Catholicism:
Tom Porter, who lives a short drive down the road from the Kateri Shrine, believes Kateri unwittingly contributed to the destruction of her people. “She was used,” he said in a rare interview.
Unlike many modern Mohawks who have either converted or are not interested in any religion, Porter works actively to restore the old beliefs. He lives with family and a handful of followers on a farm where they grow their own crops, raise cattle and use work horses to plow the earth. A longtime Mohawk acting chief, Porter is immersed in the spiritual ways of his forefathers. Inviting a reporter to join a huge family meal in the compound’s main house, Porter, whose native name is Sakokwenionkwas, or “He Who Wins”, said the moon, the sun and thunder are more important to the Iroquois than saints or popes. “Christianity is not a shoe that will ever fit. Not for my feet, or my heart, or my soul,” he said. A humorous man, Porter carries echoes in his face of the proud, eagle-like features seen in old pictures of tribesmen. But he could not conceal his bitterness. To him, there is no difference between the spread of Christianity and the cruel policies, including forced assimilation in grim 20th-century government boarding schools, that were used to subjugate Native Americans.
He adds that he thinks she was forced to convert. This wasn’t quite the tone of the Times article. Again, though, it would have been nice to know more about those “old beliefs” as well as, perhaps, why media coverage of the canonization of a Christian woman is focusing so much on people outside of the Catholic church. Mentioning is one thing. The focus is another. Particularly without an understanding of how large or influential the Mohawk community and activists opposed to the church’s canonization are.
But what do you think? Isn’t it still an interesting and well-told story?