From Nova Scotia to British Columbia, and from Mohawk communities in the Northeast to the Yakama in Washington state, First Nations citizens and American Indians streamed to the Vatican in Rome this week to witness the canonization of one of their own.
Sunday October 21 is the day that Kateri Tekakwitha, Mohawk and Algonquin, is being granted sainthood. Though Tekakwitha’s canonization has highlighted ambivalence toward the church throughout Turtle Island, this recognition of Catholicism and Native devotion resonated among Indians and brought a few thousand of North America’s Indigenous Peoples to Rome to see for themselves the culmination of 300 years of prayers. Nearly 2,000 of them are Mohawks from both sides of the U.S.–Canadian border.
“I'm already emotional about it, just talking about being in the presence of the Pope, and [hearing him] say in his own words that Kateri is canonized, is the greatest thrill,” Grace Esquega, director of the aboriginal-focused Kitchitwa Kateri Church in Thunder Bay, Ontario, told CBC News last week. She added that she had carefully chosen her regalia and was carrying an eagle feather to the Vatican.
“Kateri’s canonization is a very significant event, not only for the Mohawk faithful, but for Native people throughout North America...and beyond," said Kahnawake Grand Chief Delisle Jr. in a statement. "We know that there will be millions of people sharing in the celebrations of this day. The fact that a quiet and unassuming woman of peace who died so long ago will be acknowledged and remembered at this level is something we can all be proud of.”
In Chicago, a group has journeyed to Rome from the Kateri Center, a Catholic organization that focuses on the American Indian community in that city, the ABC News station WLS TV reported. Among that group is guitarist and 2011 Native American Music Awards Artist of the Year Gabriel Ayala, of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, according to the Arizona Star.
Then there is 92-year-old Lydia Johnson, from Wapato, Washington, Umatilla-Yakama, who told the Yakima Herald-Republic that she prays to Tekakwitha daily and is one of 29 American Indians from her area attending the ceremony in Rome.
For those who cannot be there in person, Salt and Light TV was broadcasting the ceremony live starting at 3:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
Kateri Tekakwitha lived and died 300 years ago. A devout smallpox survivor, the Mohawk woman passed on to the spirit world at age 24 but is credited with numerous healing miracles, both during her life and afterward. She qualified for sainthood after a Lummi boy, Jake Finkbonner, was miraculously healed in 2006 from necrotizing faciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria, that was on the verge of claiming his life when family and friends appealed to Tekakwitha by praying with Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Mohawk Catholic nun who intervened on their behalf. Mitchell is part of the Presidential delegation representing the White House at the ceremony, which will be conducted by Pope Benedict XVI.
That was the clincher for the Vatican, which announced in February 2012 that she would be canonized. Tekakwitha had been declared venerable in 1943 by the Catholic Church and beatified in 1980 by Pope John Paul II, but needed one more miracle to be elevated to actual sainthood. After much study, the church decided Jake’s cure was it.
During her lifetime, Tekakwitha was ostracized for her Catholic faith and her devotion to God. She left her village in what is today upstate New York and traveling to the Francis-Xavier Catholic mission in Sault-Saint-Louis, Quebec, receiving her First Holy Communion there in 1677.
Ceremonies are being held at both Tekakwitha’s birthplace, in Ossernenon, New York (today Auriesville), and her burial ground in Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada. Both countries, though technically created after Tekakwitha’s 1680 death, have claimed her as their own. She really “belongs” to both, but her canonization has stirred up mixed feelings as well as devotion in Native communities on both sides of the 49th Parallel—not least of all because the Catholic Church was one of the institutions responsible for the residential schools era.
During more than 150 years, aboriginal children were ripped away from their families and put into boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture and were instead indoctrinated into the Christian-European way of thinking. Many suffered abuse, and the more than 80,000 former students surviving today are subject to a myriad of ills related to intergenerational trauma. The story is similar in the United States.
Nevertheless, residential school survivors are among the First Nations citizens who are in Rome to witness for themselves this confluence of ceremony that validates both faith and indigenous culture.
"It's part of our healing process as a community, and we need to heal to go farther in life," Catherine Innis, one of several members of the Indian Brook First Nation in Nova Scotia going to Rome, told CBC News. "My father went to residential school so I know the hardships of many families that had to go through that."
Patricia Pictou, herself a residential school survivor, told CBC News that Tekakwitha helped her survive some of her darkest hours. Pictou was excited about going to the Vatican to witness the veneration of the person she credits with saving her.
And from coast to coast to coast in Canada, Tekakwitha’s canonization was noted by aboriginal leadership.
“This is an emotional occasion for all Catholics around the world, especially in the Indigenous community, as a sister of ours is bestowed with the highest honor given by the Catholic Church,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a statement. “Kateri Tekakwitha devoted her life to helping the poor and the sick. She is an inspiration for so many of our people who have gone through difficult times, including many who are still living with the trauma of residential schools. Many First Nation citizens have traveled to Rome to celebrate this momentous event and honor the Blessed Kateri, also known as the ‘Lily of the Mohawks.’ ”