"A Lily Among Thorns – The Mohawk Repatriation of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha,” according to Mohawk author Darren Bonaparte, “Is not your grandmother’s Káteri. I take a much more critical look at the Jesuit writings than any biographer has ever done before and try to flesh out the real Mohawk woman behind the romanticized icon.
“In the three centuries since she lived, there have been more than 200 books written about Káteri Tekahkwí:tha, ranging in format from children’s coloring books to full-length novels. They have been published around the world and in 20 different languages.”
Considering that most of the other books don’t take into account the expansive history of the Mohawk people before the appearance of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha or the presentation of both sides of the story, Bonaparte’s version is arguably the best.
His Mohawk heritage is not influential to the story – not in way of superiority to the Jesuits, but as someone who shares the subject’s ancestry and truly cares about portraying the story in an accurate light.
Bonaparte brings up an interesting point about a young woman that proclaimed a vow of celibacy. “It is a peculiar irony that the most famous of all the Mohawks – arguably the most well-known nation of the Rotinonhsón:ni (Iroquois) Confederacy – is a 17th century woman who, by her vow of celibacy, isn’t an ancestor to any of us.”
In lieu of any irony, Bonaparte has written a book rich in Mohawk history that is tragic and enlightening. As a reader, you feel the overwhelming loss suffered by the Mohawk as their villages are burned to the ground by the French. You are also witness to the affects of smallpox and influences of Jesuit missionaries.
Perhaps one of the best aspects of the book is Bonaparte’s ability to work outside the box. In the midst of historic accounts about the Mohawks, the life of Káteri or Jesuits, he steps to the forefront and speaks directly to the reader, which is refreshing. He offers a reprieve of sorts because 17th century living and history is not always easy to swallow.
Specifically, the author dedicates the first eight chapters to Mohawk history. By the time the reader arrives at the ninth, Bonaparte comes to the reader’s aid. “By now the reader has noticed that we are already several chapters into this book and our subject has not yet made an appearance. There’s a perfectly good reason for this. Most biographies of Káteri Tekahkwí:tha begin by painting a quaint picture of a child of nature waiting for the Jesuits to show up. They rarely address the historical and cultural background of the story. … The authors of these books are basically telling the story of a religious awakening. … From my perspective, you simply can’t tell this story properly without an extensive background, because the background is the story.”
When Bonaparte describes Káteri’s life, the reader may question her decision to take on the extreme penance behaviors of the Jesuits in order to be closer to Christ.
Few would question that the worst members of society are those who give no thought to others who may be harmed in the pursuit of their exploits. But is it truly closer to Christ to whip yourself bloody, stand in the wintery cold, burn yourself on the feet with hot coals or sleep on a bed of thorns?
It is worth noting that these behaviors, in addition to living a life of prayer and taking a vow of celibacy, have paved the way for Káteri’s possible sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Mohawks did not document her life by pen and paper as did the Jesuit missionaries. But Bonaparte does an exceptional job of presenting her life in a non-biased way, taking into account the biased writings of the missionaries who lauded Káteri’s Christian life and denounced the savage ways of non-
“I have no doubt that Káteri Tekahkwí:tha had a powerful spirit,” Bonaparte said. “My criticism of the Jesuits does not diminish her power in any way. They’ve always had the last word on her story, since they were the ones who wrote it for so long, but we owe it to Káteri and her companions to be a bit more critical of what they wrote.
“In the end, people will come away from this knowing Káteri Tekahkwí:tha better than they ever have before. Regardless of your feelings about the church or the longhouse, you will see a flesh-and-blood Mohawk woman emerge from the mists of time, and she will proceed to make herself right at home.”
“A Lily Among Thorns” is an excellent book, well worth reading.