With canonization near, where is media focus?

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?

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    It was interesting and well-told, but again, the primary question for me is, “Why the focus?” It’s obvious why they spoke with Mohawks since Kateri was Mohawk.

    But then again, maybe it’s not the reporter’s fault. Maybe what bothers me is that Kateri’s upcoming canonization shows that, by and large, Christians failed, for all kinds of reasons, to effectively evangelize the native peoples of the continent. It also smarts because the current leadership of the Diocese of Albany, Bishop Howard Hubbard, puts up with the syncretism that’s on display in the article.

    I happen to know a woman who has been a leader on the Kateri beatification and canonization process. She’s a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe in Wisconsin and sits on the board of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, founded by Cardinal Raymond Burke. Perhaps the Times could have gone beyond the Mohawks and contacted those Native Americans who were instrumental in promoting her cause to find out their connection to her and the Church. Committed Catholics who are also Native Americans would have been an interesting angle to take.

  • Dan Andriacco

    I’d like to know why some people doubt the story of Kateri’s life as given by the Jesuits. Is their doubt based on some fact not shared with us or do they just not want to believe it? Similarly what evidence is there that she was forced to convert?

  • Julia

    This is similar to the negative attitude of some Jews against the canonization of St. Edith Stein, also known as the Carmelite Sr. Teresa Benedicta. Edith was a secular Jew, an academic atheist, who converted to Catholicism in the 1930s. At first she lived in Speyer, Germany, but was then sent with her biological sister, also a Carmelite convert, to live in the Netherlands where it was assumed to be safer for them. After some anti-Nazi proclamations by the Catholic bishops, the Nazi’s retaliated by sending the two Carmelite sisters to their death in Auschwitz camps.

    Some Jews think/feel that the Stein sisters were still Jews and not really Catholics – similar to the attitude being presented in this article. It’s the idea that you don’t lose your original identity when converting. I’m surprised the reporter didn’t see the similarities.


  • Julia

    Link to Wiki piece on Edith Stein for some balance.
    The previous link was to the statement from the Anti-defamation League.


  • sari

    Julia, the Halakhah distinguishes between those who are Jewish due to religious practice and those who are children of Israel, that is, direct descendents of Israel/Jacob through their mothers. A Jew who converts to and later leaves another belief system, say Catholicism, does not have to go through the conversion process required of a non-Jew. A person who self-identifies as a Jew and practices the religion may or not be a Jew. Parentage is very important.

    I won’t go into Edith Stein here, except to say that the ADL accurately presents the Jewish perspective, independent of denomination, towards her canonization.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    The issue with including claims from people like Porter is that they present what we in Wikipedia-land call “reliable source” problems. His statements have the ring of supposition rather than documentation. I can see mentioning the resentment, but presenting Porter as an expert would be uncalled for; I also am left to question how representative he is. Of course if you want further context about native Americans and religion we have the fact that the only counties where Episcopalians are a plurality encompass large native American populations.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    I read it, and as a doc who worked with various tribes (in the IHS) I thought it was quite good.

    The story failed to mention that her mother was Algonquin and a Christian, and that might be why she might have chosen to move back to live with her mother’s people in Canada. They did a good job at showing how Catholicism builds on the beliefs of people and “baptizes” their customs.

    My only suggestion is that they might have asked Archbishop Chaput, a card carrying member of the Potawanamie tribe, about her place among AmerIndian Catholics today.

    As for those who say the church made up much of her story: This book has some of the details missing in the “approved” version. Facing East from Indian Country. But I wouldn’t expect a reporter to go so deeply into history.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    My son-in-law is a Penobscot Indian (their reservation is centered on Old Town, Maine.)
    He is the comptroller of a giant paper and timber company and now lives with his family outside of Atlanta, Georgia where the company has its headquarters.
    My daughter and he named one of their children Kateri.
    My son-in-law doesn’t have much use for these radical anti-assimilationist activists. He frequently makes comments about how those Indian activists ought to be grateful that they aren’t all still running around nearly naked, covered in bear grease to keep warm. And his family hates the activist-media created name “Native-American.” They are proud to be American Indian. Besides, they state, EVERYONE born here is “Native American.”
    Probably the worst experience their kids had in school because of their mixed race heritage had to do with affirmative action. To figure out the school system’s racial population the students were given a form to fill out on which to designate their race. There was no box to check-off if you were of mixed heritage. The kids were also told they could not check off two -or more- boxes to accurately record their heritage. My grandchildren were told: Choose–your father’s “Native American” or your mother’s “White.”
    What a horrendous, evil thing for government agents to demand a child do–choose one parent over the other. I had the same thing happen in the high school I was teaching in at the time. Only in our system we were told to secretly race label the kids and guess which category clearly mixed race kids should be put under (again no mixed race category). Going forward all children had “stars of David” next to their names in all government documents. All to get federal affirmative action type funds
    A number of us teachers refused to do this “liberal racism” but they just had guidance counselors come to our classes and race categorize the kids on their permanent records. I don’t ever remember any of this anti-American crap making the mainstream liberal news media.

  • Maureen

    Bl. Kateri Tekawitha’s not “a Mohawk”. She was half-Mohawk, half-Algonquian, thanks to her mother having been a war captive.

    (As you can see from the Algonquin-ness of her name, Tekakwitha. There are very similar Shawnee, Lenape, etc. names from the Algonquin language family.)

  • Julia


    I wasn’t stating that I agreed or disagreed with the objections to canonizing Edith Stein. It’s particularly of interest to me because of my Jewish relatives.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    Having heard Tom Porter, his version of “the old beliefs” includes a moral law revealed by a singular “Creator”. I can not say whether this is closer to what his ancestors actually believed than current neo-paganism is to anything my Drevermann ancestors (who never stopped bragging about being the LAST family in GERmany to embrace Christianity) would have recognized.

    Tom Porter is most interesting when he talks about himself. That is not meant as criticism. In the midst of one of his addresses, he turned to saying “People have the stereotype of the drunken Indian. The reason it is a stereotype is because it is true. And I’ll tell you WHY it is true….” Beginning an account of the ethnocentrism he suffered from in the white man’s school. It is true, we can’t feel what it is like.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    No special comment to make, but here is a little piece of a very early source about Kateri’s conversion, written by one of the Jesuits who knew her at the Canada mission, Fr. Claude Chauchetière. There used to be an English version of this online, but only some pages of it are now archived. I did the translation fresh.